Ohio City, Detroit Shoreway and Tremont are established Cleveland neighborhoods pulsating with creative energy—from art galleries, commercial retail spaces to breweries and restaurants. One local entrepreneur is hoping to add one of the city's oldest and historic neighborhoods to the list of places rebounding from financial woes in the city—Slavic Village.
At one of only two intersections that maintain pre-World War I buildings on all of its corners, a local entrepreneur is redeveloping a neighborhood once ravished by the foreclosure crisis and continually forgotten by outside investors and developers jumping on the bandwagon of urban, rustbelt renewal.
Image: View of E. 55th and Broadway from second floor of Inca Tea
"It’s such a risk. I think about if I was younger like 20 years old and didn’t have a chance to see the growth swing in other neighborhoods, I wouldn’t have realized what this [neighborhood] could potentially be," said Ryan Florio, founder and owner of Inca Tea. "Tremont, Gordon Square, Ohio City, 10-15 years ago, none of those places were built up like they are now."
It's this bold, unapologetic vision of Slavic Village that gave Florio the momentum to buy seven buildings in June that stood vacant for decades—one of which will be the new home for his Inca Tea Cafe. The neighborhood is located just 4 miles east of downtown, off Interstate 77 North—making it a central location for business owners like Florio to reach as many Northeast Ohioans as possible.
"The downtown area here on East 55th and Broadway is so underdeveloped. The buildings are beautiful, the architecture is great and the traffic is unreal here. It's the nucleus of what truly Slavic Village is here."
Inca Tea's first brick and mortar location at 5601 Broadway Avenue is located in a building dating back to 1885, formerly the Columbia Savings Bank. The layers of history are as deeply rooted in the neighborhood as the layers of paint on the walls and flooring peeled away from decades of purpose— a renovation that Florio has come to consider a labor of love.
"I can walk into a building and see the luster it has to offer," Florio said. "When I walked into this building when I first bought it, believe me when I tell you, it looked nothing like this. The ceiling was all full of holes. From tearing up the layers and layers of flooring underneath to get down to the natural concrete, which is by far the best-looking floor this building could have as opposed to carpeting. It was a nightmare ."
Image from Cleveland Western Reserve Historical Society of E. 55th and Broadway Avenue circa 1929
After establishing a cafe location inside Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, Florio wanted to expand his business with a storefront property. Inside his cafe, Florio will use old metal bank doors and steel beams as tables—rust belt gems that will reflect the neighborhood's industrial footprint.
Florio speaks of skepticism among a younger generation who have only witnessed neighborhoods like Ohio City and Tremont as they are now, and not in their transformative years.
"You really think Slavic Village will take that turn?" Florio's younger employees tell him on an occasional basis.
His response? "Slavic Village is the last untapped neighborhood in Cleveland, I see."
Entrepreneurs are eyeing up storefront properties in the highly sought-after neighborhoods with a certain repertoire known to residents and visitors. But in Slavic Village, the potential hidden under the exposed brick and historic architectural aesthetic has been plagued by a lack of investors and a negative public perception.
Chris Alvarado, executive director of the Slavic Village Development, said there it's been challenging over the years recruiting businesses to make Slavic Village their home. Alvarado said factors such as the public's perception of the neighborhood's safety, the housing crisis and the popularity of west side neighborhoods contributed to a slower growth in the neighborhood.
"This is an east side neighborhood so investment hasn't come to the area aside from University Circle. The history of redlining has discouraged investment in what are now primarily African American neighborhoods," Alvarado said.
Florio said he's been meeting with investors coming in from places as far as Brooklyn that are following the buzz around Cleveland in the hopes to make their mark on the city's revival.
“A lot of them don’t know what they are getting themselves into. They do want that quick return on their investment and they don’t see the five, seven or 10-year plan,” Florio said.
Florio is no stranger to restoring dilapidated, vacant buildings and repurposing them to fit his needs. Prior to opening his cafe, he took a building on Union Avenue that was formerly a substation for a local utility company and reconstructed it as his new storage warehouse for Inca Tea.
Image: Outside of Inca Tea Warehouse on Union Avenue
One part of the renovation process that's frustrating for Florio and his team are the constant delays that have affected his projected opening date due to what he calls red tape by city inspectors.
"For months, I've been waiting for my occupancy permit and the general permit for this building. It's painful. I would love to get the drywall done and other things but can't," he said.
Looking past the slow starts to opening the cafe, Florio's enthusiasm surpasses any barriers he's met along the way.
"Once I started developing the property and spending time in the neighborhood, I knew something needed to be done in order to change this area around. I wanted to be that pioneer guy who took that chance," Florio said.