I used to love to listen to my dad’s stories about what he fondly called “the old neighborhood.” Those were the days; when he was a boy and when neighborhoods were all about being neighborly. Everyone knew each other, took pride in their neighborhood and felt like they belonged. They worked hard, supported each other and were willing to sacrifice to achieve their dreams.
My grandparents were Italian immigrants who came to the United States in the early 1900s in search of a better life. They settled in the Near West Side of Cleveland, near West 67th and Detroit, in the area now known as Gordon Square. It was one of four areas in Greater Cleveland where large numbers of Italian immigrants settled to find a job, buy a house, and raise a family.
As a child, I spent a lot of time in the old neighborhood visiting my grandfather. From riding through the Baltic tunnel as my dad honked the horn, picking tomatoes in my grandfather’s garden, and always asking “What time is it?” as we drove by the clock tower at the Cudell Center. And then there were the annual trips to Edgewater Park for the Fourth of July fireworks and to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel’s annual festival.
The church, which was originally located at 7200 Detroit Road where the Craciun Berry Funeral Home is now, served as the cornerstone of the community for many years. My dad, who was one of the original altar boys, often told us the story of how he and the other boys would go every Saturday with Father Vincent to collect bricks to build the new church which still stands on the corner of West 70th and Detroit.
My brother, sister and I looked forward to the annual Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Festival every July and the Sunday procession through the streets, which continues even today. My dad seemed to know everyone at the festival and afterwards, of course, had many more stories to tell. The annual festival which began in 1926, one year after my father was born, was canceled in 2020 for the first time in more than ninety years, due to the pandemic.
In his elder years, I would occasionally take my dad down to the old neighborhood. He would take such pride in pointing out where he and my mother had their wedding reception in 1946, on the second floor of the building on West 67th and Detroit where the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland is now located. He also always showed me one more time the house where he grew up on West 67th or where Isabella Brother’s Bakery used to be on West 69th.
As residents started to migrate to the suburbs, it was sad to watch the old neighborhood deteriorate. Though the building of the Gordon Square Arts District has brought new life to the area, it has also changed it. While much has been gained, much has been lost. Due to gentrification, the influx of businesses and less affordable housing, it became difficult for many longtime residents to remain in the area.
I often wonder what my dad would think of “the old neighborhood” now. How amazed he would be at the redevelopment, the increase in housing values and the influx of young couples and families. What would he think of the high-priced condos at Battery Park, the same area where he used to play baseball down by the railroad tracks? And the reopening of the Capitol Theatre where, as a child, it cost him twenty-five cents to go to a matinee.
Still today, signs of the once proud and prospering Italian neighborhood remain. You don’t have to look far to find telephone poles, benches, and fire hydrants still painted red, white, and green or streets named after priests who once served at the church. Each time I visit Gordon Square, I can still hear my dad’s voice and his stories about a different place in different time. It many ways, for me, it will always be “the old neighborhood.”
Jo Donofrio is a freelance writer, editor and marketing professional. Her work has been published in various outlets including Cleveland Magazine, The Plain Dealer, Guideposts, Old Brooklyn News, MD News, and many more. In addition to her writing, Jo teaches an “Effective Writing for Business” workshop at Cleveland State University and is an Adjunct Instructor in the MBA program at Southern New Hampshire University.
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