Bars, Drunks & Videotape

Tremont residents worry that their neighborhood is becoming The Flats, Part II.

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Angel Cuevas demonstrates the perils of life in Tremont. - Walter  Novak
Angel Cuevas demonstrates the perils of life in Tremont.
It was 1 a.m., and Tom Leneghan wanted to talk.

Leneghan, who co-owns one Tremont bar and has plans for a second, was yelling outside Angel Cuevas's Professor Street home on December 14. Apparently, he was irate because Cuevas told the Free Times that new bars were devouring Tremont's residential parking. "I'm tired of you talking about my bars," Cuevas says Leneghan bellowed, banging on the door.

Cuevas told the bar owner to come back when he was sober, and Leneghan briefly retreated. Then he returned with a brick and tried to hurl it through a window, Cuevas says. Leneghan missed, but his angry kicks broke Cuevas's doorjamb. When Cleveland police arrived minutes later, Leneghan was yelling at Cuevas to come out and fight, according to their report.

Police believe Leneghan is also responsible for an earlier incident that night. Sixteen-year-old Gilbert Medina and his mother, Zulma Laboy, told police that Leneghan attacked their Thurman Avenue house, screaming obscenities, smashing windows, and yelling that their car was in his lot. "I was a little scared," Medina says. "He kept saying we had to get the car out of his lot, and we said we would, but he kept saying bad words and hitting the door."

Leneghan was charged with two counts of criminal damaging/endangering and one count of aggravated disorderly conduct. He pleaded not guilty.

It may seem a small case of one man and too much liquor. For Tremont, however, it's another episode in the escalating clash between old and new, blue-collar and white, resident and tourist. The upscale suburbanites who come to the neighborhood for its old-world allure and swanky new night spots have brought an influx of cash, along with less desirable commodities like traffic and noise. Some residents relish Tremont's popularity. Others believe the neighborhood is becoming the next Flats -- a great place to visit, but a bad place to live.

Leneghan's plans have put him front and center. He is seeking approval from the city zoning board to open a wine bar in a duplex he's renovating on Literary Road, a narrow street packed with a mix of shabby old homes and their freshly rehabilitated neighbors. The block is quintessential Tremont, old and new: One corner is anchored by the hipster hangout Mojo; directly across sits a decidedly less hip Polish veterans' hall.

The plans have inflamed some older residents, who note that the block is the most congested in the neighborhood -- and already has four establishments selling liquor. Even community mainstays like Merrick House and Tremont Residential Services say the neighborhood has enough bars and are lobbying against it.

And while Leneghan downplays December 14 as "an isolated incident" and "an argument between neighbors," Cuevas says Leneghan's tirade exemplifies why the neighbors are steaming. "I told him, 'You're a bar owner in Tremont. It's bad enough to worry about what the patrons are doing when they're drunk -- now we have to worry about you, too.'"

Leneghan insists he is devoted to improving Tremont. He points to the Treehouse, a stylish pub that counts Regis Philbin among its fans, and the homes he's renovated. Leneghan has been credited with bringing new life to one of Cleveland's oldest neighborhoods -- credit he is pleased to accept. "Have I been in fights before? Yes. But I will fight for the growth of Tremont."

The new bar's opponents see things differently. They complain about parking, but their bigger problem is the area's influx of drunken yuppies. Twenty-year resident Sharon Holtkamp distributed fliers, courtesy of the ad hoc Tremont Tavern Neighbors Coalition, satirizing the conflict with a ditty called "The Tremont Days of Christmas." In her version, "four calling birds" becomes "forty Ford Explorers." "A partridge in a pear tree" becomes "a drunk peeing on my pear tree."

"It upsets me that so many people feel so helpless about it," Holtkamp says. "They're prisoners of drunken, disrespectful behavior, and they just don't know what to do."

Dentist Heinz Mikota settled on Literary Road 13 years ago. In that time, Mikota has been turning a battered century-old home into a showplace. The living room and kitchen are mostly done, he says, proudly displaying hardwood floors and built-in bookshelves.

But Mikota was already fed up with drunks and loud music when he learned of Leneghan's plan for the duplex next door. Now he's fuming. "You see that window?" he asks, gesturing from a second-floor window at the building being renovated below. "If he opens that bar -- I have a telephoto lens and a video camera, and I'll put that out there, and every single action I'll videotape, and I'll call the police. Every single one, I'll call them."

Leneghan insists there will be nothing to call about. "I'm willing to work on anything to make my neighbors happy." He hopes to create a glitzy atmosphere that will beckon patrons from Lola and Mojo for after-dinner martinis. The dress code will be strict; the desired demographic is age 30 and up. There won't be a patio, he pledges, and the customers won't be drunks.

The plan has some supporters. A community meeting December 20 drew 30-some residents, about half in favor. "I think it's a great idea," says Fred Calatrello, who lives on West Seventh Street. "I'm a little disturbed, because there's a sense that the residents of Tremont are of one mind on these issues, but many of us are supportive."

Councilman Joe Cimperman hasn't made a decision on Leneghan's request. The zoning board is scheduled to rule on the matter January 7, and while Cimperman has no vote, a councilman's views can carry weight.

But while Cimperman is officially undecided, he is clearly annoyed by opponents' shriller arguments. He calls Holtkamp's flier "nasty" and "childish," noting that Tremont's land-use plan calls for a mix of commercial and residential in the new bar's location.

And as for Tremont's increasingly heated debate, Cimperman isn't worried. "There is a tension there, but it fits the neighborhood. It's a creative tension."

So long as everyone can refrain from bashing in the neighbors' windows, it's all good.

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