CLEVELAND — It took a while before downtown residents and business owners realized that May 30, 2020 would end with burned cars, broken windows, and stores emptied of their merchandise. The day started with peaceful protests after George Floyd had been murdered in Minneapolis a few days before. People who attended that gathering told News 5 the property damage began later.
A full year later, the broken glass is cleaned up, window panes are replaced, and some new shops have already moved into the spaces vacated by the businesses that just couldn’t hold on.
“Being a black man, watching everything that was going on, watching what was happening in the country was difficult,” said Zanzibar Soul Fusion owner Johnny Hutton. “Being a business owner in Downtown Cleveland, and watching the chaos that’s happening down here, one of our windows was broken, it was painful to see.”
The damage likely would have been worse if not for Hutton and some of the restaurant staff standing out in front of the building because diners were still eating inside while windows were being broken up and down the street.
“That’s one of the parts that saddens me, that it sometimes takes the noise to make everyone, regardless of which side you’re on, to actually look up the issue,” said Hutton.
Still, Hutton says he has hope that the often-challenging conversations Americans have been having about social justice and race can help the nation heal and grow.
“I’m an optimistic person,” said Hutton. “I think that if we have enough people speaking and being proactive, constantly working on these things, there are solutions to every problem. We just have to work on them together.
Around the corner, Jeremiah Perkins is even more positive as he hands out fliers for UJerk, the Caribbean food restaurant he co-owns with Jon Manning.
“Best Caribbean food in Cleveland, don’t take my word for it,” Perkins chirps at pedestrians as they walk by.
Some take a flier, others decline, only a few completely ignore him, and some people stop and chat. When one passerby is wearing a shirt from Howard University, Perkins’ alma mater, it sparks a conversation about their college days.
UJerk was supposed to open in April of 2020. COVID pushed that date back to the spring. When rioters broke into the still-unopened UJerk space, they stole a few items, and forced the opening back another few weeks.
“As long as there’s no life lost, these areal things that we fixed back up again,” said Manning.
Despite the setbacks, Manning says leaving downtown wasn’t an option because being a successful, minority-owned business was too important.
“It creates more inspiration in the community,” said Manning, talking about the business which lists four black people, two men and two women, as Partners. “We try to make sure we operate with excellence, the way we provide great customer service.”
In the 5th Street Arcades, Gary Cohen’s Colonial Coin and Stamp store had at least seven people inside during the riots, stealing whatever they could grab. They destroyed the shops cases and Cohen says he still isn’t open to the public again because he’s waiting for replacements.
Still, leaving the spot where his business has been located since 1921 isn’t a possibility.
“The people that work here, it’s like a community,” said Cohen. “Really no other spot I would want to consider being in.”
The perspective is different at GV Artwork.
“Our whole campaign that we started was ‘Cleve-Land That I Love,” said GV Artwork owner George Vlosich.
But, after damage to the downtown store and stolen merchandise, Vlosich says the company won’t return to the spot it used mostly as a pop-up store during special events. Instead, the plan is to open up a fourth store, all of them, ironically, outside Cleveland city limits.
“Downtown, we tried it out and it went well enough for us, but there were a lot of other headaches that went along with being downtown,” said Vlosich.
Geiger’s also left downtown, deciding not to reopen after closing its Euclid Ave store the day after the riots.
“The COVID pandemic has caused a decline for retailers everywhere,” said Chas Geiger, Geiger’s president, “and we’re no exception. The closing of downtown offices, lack of sporting and other large-crowd events, the shuttering of Playhouse Square, restaurant downturn and severely reduced hotel occupancy have left us with minimal foot traffic, something essential to a retailer of our size.”
The Downtown Cleveland Alliance (DCA) points out that more than a year later, downtown offices are starting to be occupied again, and the NFL Draft proved to everyone that outdoor events can return.
After the riots, DCA Interim President and CEO Michael Deemer says the city and downtown community took many steps to address some of the underlying problems that led to the hurt, anger, and frustration following George Floyd’s murder.
Those steps included declaring racism a public health emergency, the “Voices of CLE” public art installations, and planning the first Juneteenth Celebration in Cleveland history with Ingenuity Cleveland and Karamu House. They also pulled together more than a million dollars in grant money that has helped 80 downtown businesses recover from the riot.
Deemer says that helps create a downtown environment that will attract new people and making sure the empty storefronts don’t stay empty for too long.
“If a small business does close, how quickly are we able to fill that space and bring somebody else in and the answer continues to be: very quickly,” said Deemer.
Hutton says in empty storefronts, he sees an opportunity for another entrepreneur to try something new, and that he often hears about potential plans for now-empty spaces.
"I think that there's enough happening downtown and there are enough people interested in making downtown happen that if you could weather the storm, you'll be fine," said Hutton.
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