The Downtowner - Episode 09: The Rise and Fall and Rise of The Flats

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Thanks for checking out "The Downtowner," about Cleveland's newest, oldest neighborhood.  This episode launches our next season.  We'll have several other episodes every other Thursday.  If you missed our first season, have no fear.  Check out all of our episodes on our show page.   

Downtown Cleveland is trendy.  Are Clevelanders ready for this? That's what we explore in our podcast about the rise in interest in living Downtown, and what the city will need to do to sustain this growth. 

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What makes a neighborhood succeed?  What makes it fail?  The East Bank of the Flats in Cleveland offers some clues.  

It rose to national prominence as a trendy bar and nightclub scene in the late 1980s and 1990s.  "When Monday Night Football came to Cleveland, they would always get that aerial shot of the Flats, to show how great the Flats were," remembers Joe Mastro, who says he helped manage the kitchen at Shooters on the West Bank in the late 80s.  

D'Poo's, at 1144 Old River Road in the Flats.  [Cleveland Public Library]

The popular restaurant and bar D'Poo's, at 1144 Old River Road in the Flats, in 1987.  [Cleveland Public Library]

Restaurants and bars lined Old River Road on the East Bank.  Fagan's and D'Poo's were popular spots.  RumRunners and Club Coconuts were my co-host George Hahn's favs.  Pirate's Cove, located in an old warehouse, hosted acts like Pere Ubu and the Dead Boys. The Cove left a lasting impression on local reggae band leader Carlos Jones, who remembers playing there forty years ago. 

RumRunners, on the Flats East Bank, circa 1988.  "I can smell it," George said when he saw this.  [Cleveland Public Library]

"It was dark and it was grungy and the floor was sticky and it was just, sweat was just soaked into the walls," he said.  

The Flats were a hit for Cleveland and for the owners who had establishments there.  National chains like Max & Erma's and Dave's Last Resort bellied up to the bar to get a share of the action. 

What once was a strip of bars and nightclubs has been turned into a mixed use neighborhood.  Here, the Flats East Bank apartments at the northernmost end of Old River Road. [George Hahn / ideastream]

What once was a strip of bars and nightclubs has been turned into a mixed use neighborhood.  Here, the Flats East Bank apartments at the northernmost end of Old River Road. [George Hahn / ideastream]

That action, though, started to include public drunkeness, disorderly conduct, fights and drownings.  In 2000, three people died in alcohol-related drownings in a five-week span.  Let's remember them here: Michael E. Dubrovich, 19, on July 21; Paul Kirchner, 20, on Aug. 6; Andrea Kacludis, 25, on Aug. 19.  It shook up city officials, who launched a crackdown on code violations and put in place new safety requirements, like life preservers and ladders along the party decks lining the river.

Our first guest, Joe Cimperman, the former councilman for Ward 3, which includes the Flats, helped get those safety measures adopted.  Cimperman is a natural storyteller and has great stories of what the Flats were like and how the East Bank's popularity sank after those deaths.  He says it was a "perfect storm" caused by the new rules, the city's new vigilance and the rapid economic downturn that happened after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.  

"It was this moment in time where [sic] Cleveland had to realize that this area was changing and that people had really tried to extract as much value out of it, for what they could, without making the amenities which would have made it a lot more beautiful," he told us.

The Flats' redevelopment still has plenty of drinking and eating establishments.  Here, looking southwest on Old River Road, is Margaritaville and Punch Bowl Social.  [George Hahn / ideastream]

The Flats' redevelopment still has plenty of drinking and eating establishments.  Here, looking southwest on Old River Road, is Margaritaville and Punch Bowl Social.  [George Hahn / ideastream]

We talk about those amenities, too, with the man now re-making the East Bank, Scott Wolstein of the Wolstein Group.  He and his mom, Iris, are the lead developers of Flats East Bank, a multi-phase, multi-million dollar effort that has brought back the bars and restaurants (Beerhead Bar and Brewery, Coastal Taco, FWD Day + Night, Alley Cat Oyster Bar, Punch Bowl Social) while adding apartments and the Aloft Hotel.   Phase 3, which Wolstein hopes to start in earnest this year, will continue to turn the place into a neighborhood, with the addition of more apartments, office space and a movie theater.

One look at some of the photos of the Flats of yesteryear (courtesy of our friends at Cleveland Public Library) and images from today show a complete transformation. 

The view down Old River Road, circa 1988.  In the foreground, partially obscured by a telephone pole, is the small sign for the nightclub Pirates Cove.  "Sweat was just soaked into the walls," remembers one musician who called us to reminisce. [Cleveland Public Library.]

Little is left of the 19th and early 20th Century buildings that whisper of the Flats' former role in Cleveland's shipping and manufacturing industries.  New, modern structures have risen in their place, including the Aloft Hotel and steel and glass tower for Ernst &Young.  There's an order and tidiness to the Flats now. 

The Ernst & Young tower, finished in 2013, was one of the first projects built in the Flats East Bank redevelopment project. [George Hahn / ideastream]

The Ernst & Young tower, finished in 2013, was one of the first projects built in the Flats East Bank redevelopment project. [George Hahn / ideastream]

Joe Cimperman loves the improvements.  "I will make the argument today that it is infintely better today than it ever was when I was 18 years old," he tells us in this episode.  

But others long for more grittier times. 

"I'm happy that stuff is going on," mused musician Carlos Jones, "but it kinda seems to me like it's gone so upscale that it's not for everyone.  Not everyone has access to it.  It's not really a place where I feel like hanging out."

Before Flats East Bank developer Scott Wolstein added this esplanade, the only way to access the river was through the bars and restaurants lining it. [George Hahn / ideastream]

Before Flats East Bank developer Scott Wolstein added this esplanade, he said the only way to access the river was through the bars and restaurants lining it. [George Hahn / ideastream]

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