Cultural diversity paints Tremont’s colorful history

Brief history of Tremont written by Chris Marcinko

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Cultural diversity paints Tremont’s colorful history

by Chris Marcinko

Civil War Camps to Condos

From Civil War Camps to condominiums, from arsonists to artists, from steel mills to social workers, Tremont and its immigrants have painted a colorful and diverse history.

In a way, this small neighborhood is a microcosm of Cleveland and the forces that have shaped the country. Settling of the land, the rise of industry, a tidal wave of immigration, conflicting religions, and rising social problems are all reflected in Tremont, which is almost as old as Cleveland itself.

Tremont’s borders are the Cuyahoga River on the east and north, and Clark Avenue, or the Harvard Denison Bridge on the south, depending on who you ask. The western border is not universally agreed upon either, I-71 or Scranton Road.

Tremont initially was part of Brooklyn Township and Ohio City from 1836 – 1854, according to the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. It was officially incorporated into Cleveland in 1867.

Although the name Tremont has been used in advertisements since 1837, the neighborhood was known as University Heights and Lincoln Heights. It received its official name in 1910 with the building of Tremont Elementary School.

In 1850 Cleveland University was founded in the area by a group that included the Reverend Asa Mahan, former president of Oberlin College. William Case, a former mayor of Cleveland , and Samuel Starkweather, then the current mayor. The University only lasted five years but for a time the neighborhood was known as University Heights, and some streets are still named Starkweather, Literary, Professor, and University.

During the Civil War the U.S. General Hospital, a military hospital, was located at W. 5th Street and Franklin in the area. In service from 1862 to 1865, the hospital treated more than 3,000 wounded enlisted and non-commissioned officers of the Union and two confederated prisoners.

Immigrant churches

Lamson Sessions Company was established in 1867 on Scranton Road and was the first of many industrial companies to provide jobs for local immigrants.

Immigrants who settled Tremont included the Irish and Germans in the 1860s, Polish, Russian, and Ukrainians in the 1890s, Greeks in the 1900s, more Ukrainians in the 1950s, and Hispanics in the 1960s.

John Grabowski, of the Western Reserve Historical Society, said in a recent interview that ôthe most important and defining changes for the neighborhood were the increase and decline in industry and the diverse immigration flow.ö Grabowski called the neighborhood ô the most ethnically diverse in the county.ö

The diverse ethnic mix is reflected in the area’s 25 churches, which include Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church, St. Augustine, Pilgrim Congregational, St. Michael, and Sts. Peter and Paul.

Initially, each church usually served one nationality ù St. John Cantius – the Polish, Our Lady of Mercy – Slovaks, St. Michael – Germans and Slovaks. Today some churches in the area still have their masses read not only in English but also in Spanish, Korean, or Polish to serve their congregation.

Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church served German immigrants. Located at 2928 Scranton, the church was built in 1880. Its highest membership was 1420 in 1910, but the church today still has 500 parishioners.

While Immanuel Evangelical was a place of worship and community for German immigrants, St. Augustine served the same purpose for Irish Catholic immigrants. St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church, 2486 W. 14th St., was built in 1894, but was originally Pilgrim Congregational Church. The parish of St. Augustine was formed initially in 1865, but at a different location. St. Augustine parish bought the church in 1896 and is celebrating its centennial at that location.

For a Protestant church to be purchased by a Catholic parish at the time was unheard of,ö said Father Joseph McNulty, pastor of the Church since 1977. ôSince then, both churches have had a close relationship and continue to work well together.

While the parish was Irish, its first pastor was a Frenchman, Father Pierre Gerard-Mogen. At the time pastors were usually the same ethnicity as their congregations, one more example of Tremont’s diversity and tolerance. Father Mogen died of small pox at the turn of the century.

The parish has a history as a center for the Irish and the diocese. During the last century most local Irish immigrants worked on the Cuyahoga River, on the railroad, and at steel mills. In the 1890s about 400 families, predominantly Irish, belonged to St. Augustine.

For more than 30 years, St. Augustine has been a magnet center for the diocese’s less fortunate. In 1964 the church was selected as the diocesan church for the deaf, in 1972 for the blind, and in 1992 for the handicapped and mentally ill.

Community continues to change

McNulty said one of the biggest changes in Tremont was the building of the inter-belt in the 1970s. McNulty, having been with the parish since 1972, said that ômany beautiful houses were destroyed.

While change is a constant, not everyone is willing to accept it, he said. However, most residents of Tremont are very ôopen to new ideas and people.

A small but significant problem is the gangs which gravitate towards W. 6th,ö he said. ôThese kids probably join gangs because older members of their families were in them.

McNulty also said that other problems include ôthe lack of high school diplomas and the abundance of single parents and poverty. Many people face the struggle of moving up and often suffer from despair.

Perhaps the parish’s greatest contribution to this problem and the community is the Hunger Center. Started approximately 30 years ago, the center initially fed 450 to 600 a day. That figure today is closer to a 1,000 served a day towards the end of the month, McNulty said. He added that there is greater demand at the end of the month because government assistance is usually given at the beginning of every month.

Pilgrim Congregational Church, 2592 West 14th St., also is a home for many community activities. It is the location for Arts Renaissance Tremont, which sponsors Sunday concerts that feature music varying from religious and classical to chamber and jazz.

The church also sponsors Theater Labyrinth, a group that produces socially challenging plays,ö according to Reverend Craig Schaub, associate pastor.

After-school programs for children, including scouting, are sponsored by the church. The congregation boasts Cleveland’s oldest Boy Scout Troop. Besides assisting in St. Augustine’s hunger program, the church has classes for parenting, women’s issues, nursing, and also is active in Habitat for humanity. The church also hosts the Tremont Community Forum, which focuses on safety and residential cooperation with the police.

We want to remain a church of and for the community, actively involved in issues, giving voice to those whose voices are on the margins, Schaub said. he went on to say that those marginalized include the poor, the elderly, children, and renters.

Small town atmosphere

Schaub said the Tremont neighborhood was structurally organized to keep residents in touch with downtown and each other. Although right nest door to downtown, Tremont has a small town atmosphere.

The architecture of the churches, Lincoln Park itself and the passion of the people make Tremont a unique, fascinating place, Schaub said, adding that the arrival of artists is a gift to the community.

St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church, located at 3114 Scranton Rd., was originally German but is now predominantly Puerto Rican.

When the church was built in 1892, it was specifically designated as a German only church by the dioceses, according to the pastor, Father Dennis O’Grady. This status remained until 1948.

Father O’Grady himself has a long family involvement with Tremont. having been with the church for 30 years and Pastor since 1980, O’Grady, 63, had a grandmother who was a mid-wife that lived and worked in Tremont.

Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, located at 2280 West 7th St., and built in 1910, was the first Ukrainian church in the Cleveland area. With a preserved liturgical tradition dating back 1,000 years, the church at its height had a membership of a thousand families. With many moving to such suburbs as Lakewood, Parma and Strongsville, church membership has shrunk to 140 families.

According to Father Stephen Zirichny, pastor since 1990, the parish assists the St. Augustine Hunger Center every year, as well as, sending funds for food and medicine back to the Ukraine itself.

This is an older ethnic neighborhood, Zirichny said, but there are new businesses, cafes, and housing and an improving standard of living.

Safety is a concern, but I wouldn’t say it’s a dangerous neighborhood to live in, he said.

Community Organizations

The oldest social welfare institution has a vital connection with religion. Merrick House originated from the Cleveland Catholic charities and the Christ Child Society in 1919.

Currently, Merrick House offers English and citizenship classes, GED tutoring and classes, community development, a meals program, day care, & recreation for juveniles.

The most satisfying part of my job is watching the neighborhood solve its problems and people taking control of their lives, said Gail Long, executive director of Merrick House since 1988.

Merrick House’s budget is more than half financed by the federal and state government but we have already lost much in the way of funding, explained Long, who has been with Merrick House since 1972. Many more contributors were private individuals or organizations such as United Way.

Once we had 90 percent funding from United Way, but this has decreased to 30 percent, said Long.

And this Welfare Reform Bill signed by Clinton is only going to create more problems around here, she said. The lack of welfare benefits, she said, would increase the number of people looking for help at Merrick House, which already is in a position where ôwe are always needing to raise money.

Everyone has the impression that people who need help are lazy and shiftless, she said. That is simply not the case. Many who receive services have jobs, but low paying ones without benefits, she said.

Despite all of this, Long hopes that Merrick House remains an important part of the community.

On the positive side, Long said that Tremont is economically diverse, more integrated, and clearly a place where people want to live. She cited new housing development as examples.

A key part in this revitalization of Tremont has been the Tremont West Development Corporation. Tremont West, originally affiliated with Merrick house, became an independent entity in the early 1970s in the wake of a growing number of arsons committed by landowners seeking insurance money.

The purpose of Tremont West is to improve and maintain the culture and business of Tremont through programs and partnerships with businesses and banks, said Emily Lipovan, executive director of Tremont West since 1993.

Tremont West hosts the annual Tremont Art Walk and has been involved with the Tremont Ridge development and the conversion of Lincoln Park’s bathhouse into condominiums.

Tremont is a mosaic, said Lipovan, who has been with Tremont West since 1991. It has a little bit of everything – churches, ethnic and economic diversity. This is not a sterile environment.

She said that community activism is reflected in the work of 10 block clubs.

Community activism is what the Tremont Opportunity Center is all about. Founded in 1964 as part of the Council For Economic Opportunity, the center received its current name in 1968.

We provide direct social services, said Donna Peters, director since 1989. These include food distribution, assisting people with furniture purchases, youth programs such as science and math clubs, 4-H, and field trips for kids in the summer to such places as the art, health, and natural history museums, Adventure Place, Geauga Lake and others.

The center also has programs for adults, such as computer classes, helping people find jobs, and emergency housing and energy funds.

Altogether the center assists about 250 to 300 families a month. Six work at the center full time, including Peters.

Peters, who has lived or worked in the neighborhood for more than 25 years, said helping someone getting a job or feeding childrenö is the most satisfying aspect of her job.

This summer we had a troubled teen in some of our youth programs, he was anti-social. When the summer programs ended, he was a nice young man. This is a rewarding experience.

Most of their funding comes from Community Services Block Grants from the state and federal government.

For years we have received the exact same amount of funding, which, when inflation is factored in, is actually less and less every year. This new welfare bill means we will have more work ahead of us and not have the funds to match, Peters said.

There is so much propaganda about welfare. Many of the people we help have low-paying benefit-less jobs.

Despite problems, Peters said, the neighborhood itself, is like a small town. I love it here. It feels like home.

Concern about crime

It’s an up-and-coming neighborhood, said Jim Noga, owner of Noga Floral, at 2668 West 14th St.. Noga, 59, business owner for 34 years and a life-long resident of Tremont, has seen many changes in the neighborhood. Residents, old and new are the real strengths of this neighborhood, Noga said. He lives in a century-old building.

He said crime is a problem but I think things have improved in the last few years. Noga said that his business has been broken into a few times and ôsome people might be afraid to go out around here at night, but I’m not, probably because I’ve lived here so long.

He too added grimly that the welfare reform bill just passed might cause trouble because ômore people might resort to crime if they’re hungry.

The crime issue also concerns Councilman Gary Paulenske, who represents most of Tremont in Ward 13. With the housing projects so close to the freeway the result is drive-through take-out drug shops.

More police enforcement would be nice, but the Second Police District has done a tremendous job with what it has, Paulenske said. He added that education was needed in addition to enforcement because even if we had 1,700 police in the area, we would still have a drug problem.

On the positive side, Paulenske said that Tremont is unique, a melting pot, independent, unlike any neighborhood because every kind of ethnicity and economic level is represented, as well as stunning architecture.

People here are outspoken, he said. They are willing to organize, petition, rally, or show up at council meetings or courts on any subject that affects them, from noxious fumes, and unruly neighbors, to crime. This can be a double-edge sword for a politician. You love to see people involved, but invariably, you, as the elected official, get blamed for everything.

New arrivals

The most recent and most rapidly-growing group of residents in Tremont is the artistic community. This includes painters, sculptors, graphic and interior designers, jewelers, poets, musicians and dancers. The artists total about 100, according to Christine Uveges, co-owner of Contrapposto Art Gallery and Econo Studios.

This influx of artists did not occur overnight though. Uveges said that the artists first settled in Tremont about 10 to 12 years ago, and have steadily increased ever since. They mostly hailed from the Flats and Coventry.

Why Tremont? Because of the close proximity to the Flats and downtown. Tremont has an artistic atmosphere, a creative buzz in the air. We’re getting a reputation as a good, creative place to be. This has a snow ball effect. Property values at the time were also inexpensive, Uveges said.

Uveges, who predominantly renovates the interiors of churches, said that Tremont reminds her of the Buckeye neighborhood she grew up in.

Everyone knows everyone here, and everybody watches out for everybody, she said.

The Future

I’m very hopeful about the future, said Father Joseph McNulty. If people continue to work together, we can overcome the twin problems of poverty and crime.

Right now the neighborhood is in flux, said Donna Peters of the Tremont Opportunity Center. New housing is being developed, and middle to high income residents have moved in, but we still have poor people in the neighborhood. She predicts that the neighborhood will eventually become mostly middle class.

It’ll probably take 50 years for them to reach their development goal, said Jim Noga. More broadly though, Noga believes that Tremont’s future could go one way or the other. If the building owners, old and new, fix up the homes and not become slum-lords we could have a real renaissance. If it goes the other way, the situation could go down further.

Within 20 years the development projects could be very promising, but we have a long way to go, said Councilman Paulenske. “What we need in the next five years is more stores and renovation for streets like W. 14th Street and Professor Avenue. This area needs more businesses, small ones such as laundromats and bakeries and larger ones like grocery stores,” he said.

“We should have the ambition to become Cleveland’s Greenwich Village,” Paulenske said. “There is no reason why Tremont cannot become a Mecca for the eclectic.”

Reverend Schaub, of Pilgrim Congregational Church, also is optimistic about the future. “My hope is for a balance, a respect for diversity, and a collaboration for the community from businesses and residents.”

Tremont has a long glorious history of diversity and community involvement. If its future is anything like its past, Tremont will continue to be a diverse, interesting place to live.


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