152 Cleveland, OH: Assumptions

[The New Arabica]

I headed for the nearby Coventry neighborhood, home to the area's artsy and counter-culture scenes, where the Arabica Café provides a gathering spot for the local. Or provided. I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw a sign saying it closed just one week before. The concrete risers out front were still littered with skateboarders taking a breather and co-eds reading--at a loss for where else to gather. I shared their sense of displacement.

However, a couple of doors down the used bookstore was still in business. Suzanne, the erstwhile manager, even recognized me as "the guy from Chicago" though I hadn't visited Cleveland in five years. When I mentioned Arabica's demise, she deadpanned, "If you have a good landlord who's committed to the community, things'll work out. But if you get someone who's just lookin' to make a buck, it usually doesn't. Things change," she shrugged, "a city is organic."

[Little Italy's Church: Holy Rosary]

Down the hill from there, Little Italy was celebrating the Feast of the Assumption--Cleveland's largest celebration. The crowd included everyone: yuppies, bikers, families, couples without kids, frat boys, guys just off of work, single women, etc. Food stalls lined the street, including one where a woman flattened calzones with a rolling pin, ignoring a fleck of flour on her nose. Smack in the center of the block of brightly colored awnings adorning soot-darkened brick storefronts stood the old Catholic church, and just off the main street, locals sat on their stoops and shook their heads at the invading masses.
Halfway up the hill, one storefront screen door was propped open, inviting people into the Little Italy Historical Museum. Inside, I found two little old ladies sitting behind a card table, yelling out about the exhibits that the festival-goers had wandered in to see and hawking the pamphlet "A History of Little Italy 1880-1982."

"That woman wasn't looking for you, was she?" one of the two asked me. "She was looking for her husband."

"I'm not married," I said, "but maybe she's looking for me."

We laughed, but then, like a good Sicilian matchmaker, she said, "If she can't find her husband, maybe she should be with you instead. Let me offer to find out."

"I don't want to go making trouble," I explained. "I came actually to ask people who live in Cleveland whether they feel isolated."

"No," she said shortly. (I decided to call her Maria.) "This neighborhood is the one that has the most sense of community. It's got its ups and downs, but we manage to hold our own. We have a lot of geriatric people now. Lately people are coming to invest in real estate for the good old houses. Everybody wants to come here. There's a mystique to this area."

"There's the diversity of the whole city right outside. A few years ago, some of these types would have been run out of the neighborhood. I mean, we don't have any problems down here, you know. For the festival, they like to come down here."

Her sidekick ("Lucia" in my mind) finally chimed in. "Even when there's not the festival, there's a lot of people at the restaurants sitting outside. An event like this," she continued, "is great because people will walk in who normally wouldn't. They feel safe. They normally just come for the restaurants. We started our museum when the neighborhood began to change back in the sixties."

"And we decided," Maria added, "that, if we were going to survive, we were going to have to come together as a group for the group. You know, strength in numbers. That's about twenty-eight years ago. Then we decided, 'Why don't we do a museum?' I was born and raised in this neighborhood. Seventy-two years here. Moved here when I was two years old."

"Wow. From Italy?" I wondered.

"No, Toledo. My parents come from Italy."

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