For 92-Year-Old, a Daily 'Roam' Through Cleveland's Past and Present
At 92 years old, Bud Koscinski still loves to roam.
Every morning, around 10 o’clock, he trims up his moustache, combs his white hair to the side, says goodbye to his wife Anna and starts up his car.
Then he’s gone. Not far. Usually, just across the border of Newburgh Heights, the inner-ring suburb where he’s lived since the 1950s, and into the Cleveland neighborhood where he grew up, Slavic Village.
His stated purpose isn’t anything grand.
"Exercise. And I can tell the price of any [products in the] stores around the blocks here," he says with a chuckle.
Central Slavic Village's buildings have changed very little since Koscinski's childhood, though the stores he remembers being in them are mostly gone. [Justin Glanville / ideastream]
But join him on one of his two or three hour expeditions, and it’s apparent how much deeper his thoughts run. He sees things that used to be here but aren’t anymore.
"This was a florist and a bar on the corner," he says, gesturing at an empty lot. "They just knocked those down in the last couple weeks."
He sees things that are here now, but didn’t use to be.
"That was an empty field. Now they got Sav-a-Lot in there," he says, pointing at a shopping center that he says used to a fairground.
And he sees things that seem like they always have been here — and always will be. Like the Polish American Cultural Center, a white-brick building with a panel showing a crowned eagle above the door — Poland's coat of arms. He got married there more than 60 years ago, on a sweltering summer day before the hall had air conditioning.
"All the Polish people had their weddings there," he says.
Old World Tie And Movie Temptations
For Koscinski, driving around the neighborhood every day both opens a window into its past and connects him to its present.
He grew up here in the 1930s and 40s, when the neighborhood was full of immigrants from central and eastern Europe, including his own parents.
Both were of Polish descent; his mother was born on the ship. The ship wasn't close enough to the United States for her to be automatically considered a citizen, he says.
"So she had to become a citizen during [World War II] because she went into a war plant and she had to become a citizen because of that," he recalls.
He grew up on East 72nd Street, near Harvard Avenue. A street of close-packed wood houses with brick front porches — a quiet, close-knit place with lots of families, he says.
A historic photograph shows stores on Fleet Avenue in 1978. [Cleveland Memory Project]
His knees no longer provide enough cushion for long walks, so he drives down the streets of his old neighborhood today. But he still remembers walking them as a kid, back when Slavic Village had five movie theaters, each of them an irresistible temptation.
"At that time they used to have small pictures of the features that are going to come up," he says. "Well, I’d stand there maybe for 10 or 15 minutes and look at them every day."
His sister, who walked to school with him, would beat him to class, raising the eyebrows of the Catholic school administrators.
"The principal says, ‘You and your sister live in the same house?' I says, ‘Well yes.’ She says, ‘Well how come she's always on time for school and you're late?’ I said, ‘Well, Sister, I'm older, I walk slower'."
'No Chef Boyardee'
The joy of driving around with Koscinski is that he’s full of stories like this. Stories of when kids had both more freedom than they do today — they could explore the neighborhood without parents hovering — and less.
In sixth grade, he to sign up for a hobby class. Boys were expected to take woodworking or, if they really wanted to push the boundaries of 1930s gender roles, drawing. But Koscinski signed up for cooking, triggering another call to the principal's office.
"‘You can't sign up for the cooking class'," they told him. "I said, ‘What do you mean? It says here you can sign up for anything. I'm not taking my name off that list.'"
The school thought he'd signed up to try to get dates with girls.
"But I was doing it to to learn cooking, you know," he says. "I didn't want to do woodworking or anything like that. So they talked it over and I entered the cooking class." He cracks one of his wry smiles. "I was no Chef Boyardee, but I was pretty good."
Koscinski, who now lives in Newburgh Heights, is a natural storyteller. [Mary Fecteau / ideastream]
Koscinski says driving past vacant lots or seeing empty buildings doesn’t make him feel discouraged. To him, it’s all progress. The inevitable evolution of any place over time.
One thing he does get grouchy about, though? How ‘ Slavic Village’ has become the catch-all term for the whole area around Broadway Avenue. It’s too bad, he says, because a lot of other great old neighborhood names have fallen by the wayside. Names like Goosetown, the area of East 71st Street where it borders the suburb of Cuyahoga Heights.
"It got that name because when Cuyahoga Heights was first formed, the farmers were raising geese before the land was developed really," he says. "And then they nicknamed this because it was so close."
We also pass places Koscinski or his parents or daughters or grandchildren had jobs over the years: A filling station and repair shop where he worked before getting his longest-term job as a tool and die maker. Or the bakery, demolished now, where his dad spent his days turning out pączki (Polish jelly doughnuts) and loaves of rye bread.
For Koscinski, the neighborhood's changes are inevitable signs of progress. [Justin Glanville / ideastream]
Pastries cost 36 cents a dozen, he says. Neighborhood tempers boiled when the price raised two cents.
"You'd think that he broke their legs," Koscinski says. "I said, ‘Well that was the start of inflation'."
A Good Memory
As a last stop, he pulls into St. Mary’s Cemetery, where his parents are buried, as well as his oldest granddaughter, Megan, an athlete and mother of two who died of cancer at age 31 in 2013. The two were close, and he visits at least once a week.
He speaks quietly as he turns the bracelet he wears in her honor.
"To me, sometimes I feel her presence, I don't know," he says. "It might be just in your mind, you know. You look at something, maybe she sat there and talked. But if it is in the mind it's a good memory."
Two bracelets circle Bud Koscinski's wrist, one for his great-grandchildren and one in memory of his late granddaughter, Megan. [Mary Fecteau / ideastream]
By the time he gets home, it’s only a few hours until dinner.
His wife hardly ever lets him use those cooking skills he learned back in sixth grade, he says. So instead, he spends the afternoon telling her what’s new — and old — in the area they’ve called home for so long.
This story is part of our ongoing collaboration with the Cleveland Public Library to present a "snapshot" of Cleveland and Clevelanders in 2019.
Special thanks to Bridey Clark at the library's Fleet Branch for conducting the initial interview for this story.