Thursday, January 9, 2003

Owners hope hip club can revive old neighborhood

Cleveland Croatian hall reborn

By Paul Singer
The Associated Press

CLEVELAND - As night falls, young people in retro blue jeans, bowling shirts and spiked hair line up at the doors of the former Croatian social hall, which is now a hip place to hang out.

Across the street, the lights are out at R & D Sausage Co., which boasts homemade rice-and-blood sausage, but the Croatian home is aglow with neon and the buzz of rock and roll.

Two years ago, Cindy Barber, 51, and Mark Leddy, 42, opened the Beachland Ballroom, a nightclub in the 54-year-old Croatian hall in Collinwood, a working-class neighborhood that has fallen on hard times. Most jobs have disappeared, and the neighborhood's Croatian population moved to the suburbs.

The club has quickly become a fixture of Cleveland's alternative rock scene, featuring national acts, such as Los Lobos and Southern Culture on the Skids, along with local bands, such as the hillbilly rock combo Lords of the Highway. The owners' ultimate goal is that it will be the catalyst for a neighborhood rebirth, but that has proven to be a bigger challenge than running a nightclub.

The ballroom's walls are still decorated with a mural of the old country - Croatian pastures and musicians in traditional costumes. On-stage, tattooed rockers jump around and crash electric guitars.

"They've gone out of their way to do some really creative stuff that nobody else is doing," said Chas Smith, a professor of rock and roll at Cleveland State University.

Beachland has hosted a polka festival, an independent film series, poetry readings, scores of local and regional bands and even an occasional wrestling night.

Gene Schwartz, a bass player who has lived in the area all his life, said he has traveled with blues musician Robert Lockwood Jr. and regularly encounters musicians who know of the Beachland or have played there.

"It's the only place in Cleveland where you can really see all these different kinds of music," he said.

On a recent Saturday, Lockwood played to a full house of about 250 people in the ballroom, while Luther Wright and the Wrongs entertained a small crowd with their own strange mix of country covers of Pink Floyd songs on the tavern stage across the hall.

Later that night, the tavern filled with a raucous crowd dancing along with The Boys From County Hell, a local Pogues tribute band.

Overall, a few hundred people had come to spend the night on a street where most of the city is still afraid to go at night.

"Before the Beachland came in, there wasn't a whole lot happening," said John Boksansky, business district director for the North East Shores Community Development Corp., the neighborhood's non-profit development agency. "At night, there was nothing happening except the graft and corruption that takes place in an ill-lit neighborhood at night."

Ms. Barber and Mr. Leddy say the club has yet to bring more development to the dying ethnic neighborhood.

"We really thought if we could start with our business, things would really kick off," Mr. Leddy said. "But it hasn't happened."

Still, they haven't lost hope.

Mr. Leddy suspects people are turned off by the neighborhood's reputation for crime. Collinwood made headlines in recent years for the death of a teenager in a drive-by shooting and the accidental shooting of a small child by police.

Ms. Barber said she bought the social hall from the dwindling Croatian society, hoping to use it as a neighborhood revival project.

"They were a bunch of older guys who really didn't have the wherewithal to maintain it any more and were very frustrated that they couldn't get anyone younger to take it over.

"I just started to think about what I could do with it that would be good for the neighborhood."

Frustrated with the slow pace of growth, Ms. Barber and Mr. Leddy opened Beachland Salvage last month, a shop just down the block from the club where vendors hawk baby-boomer memorabilia, such as the Shaf! soundtrack and a dozen plastic kitchen wall clocks.

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