The Isle of Cuba

Cleveland's West Side Czech Neighborhood in its Early Years

In 1895, Hugo Chotek, a Czech-American journalist who lived in Cleveland, wrote a history of the city's early Bohemian (Czech) community. To learn about the origins of the community's west side settlement, south of the Walworth Run, he interviewed surviving pioneer settlers, including 73-year old Maria Novak, who had come to the west side--then Brooklyn Township, as a young woman in 1853. Maria painted a bleak picture of the social life there, far away from the much larger Bohemian settlement that had developed on the east side, near Broadway Avenue. "Our social life was dire with little if anything in the way of entertainment," she told Choteck.

Perhaps the years had clouded Maria's memory or perhaps she was referring only to those very first years of the west side settlement, which, according to the United States census, numbered only 13 families in 1860, but then grew to more than 100 families by 1870. What is certain, however, is that once the Cleveland newspapers around 1867 began reporting on the settlement, which they referred to as the "Isle of Cuba," no one in Cleveland imagined it as a place lacking in entertainment.

For the last three decades of the nineteenth century, Cleveland newspapers routinely reported on the wild Bohemians of the Isle of Cuba who danced to harmonica music in the saloons and dance halls scattered about their west side neighborhood, occasionally drank too much beer, and sometimes engaged in knife fights with predictably unhappy endings. (Author's note: Given the centrality of saloons in the early days of the community, I selected the original location of one of the saloons--Link's, on what today would be the northeast corner of Clark Avenue and West 47th Street, as the site of this story.)

In 1882, the Cleveland Leader wrote that this neighborhood was called "Isle of Cuba" because of the periodic overflows of the Walworth Run and its tributaries which flooded the area and left the high grounds in a shape that some thought looked like the Caribbean island. But most Clevelanders, given what they had been reading in the local papers, probably thought it was because the neighborhood was isolated from the rest of the city and was populated by Slavic immigrants with strange customs, who more than occasionally engaged in rowdy behavior.

Also contributing to this view of the neighborhood in this period were reports by the local newspapers, especially the Cleveland Leader, of the long running battle between church officials and the lay parishioners of St. Procop Roman Catholic Church on Burton (West 41st) Street, on the eastern edge of the Isle of Cuba. The Leader characterized this battle, which lasted from the mid-1870s until the late 1880s, as one between a dictatorial Slavish church and an open-minded lay population. It called upon Cleveland's Protestant ministers to conduct "missionary work" among the west side Bohemians. From time to time thereafter, the paper commented on the spiritual progress that these ministers were making in that community.

As the nineteenth century was winding down, the news stories about rowdy Bohemian adults on the Isle of Cuba gradually were replaced with stories about rowdy juvenile gangs. During the Spanish-American War, one neighborhood gang called the "Cubans" regularly conducted battles against a gang on the other side of the Walworth Run aptly named the "Spaniards." A few years later, when the British were fighting the Boers in South Africa, these same boys--or their younger brothers, renewed their battles under the gang names of the "Britons" and the "Boers."

Over the decades, the neighborhood name "Isle of Cuba" morphed into "Island of Cuba," then to "Little Cuba," and then to the "Cuba District" or just simply "Cuba." And finally, at least according to Cleveland newspaper accounts, the name became passé in the late 1920s. By then, the west side Bohemians, along with the Germans, Slovaks, Irish, Italians and other ethnic groups living in the area, had created a mature neighborhood with retails shops up and down Clark Avenue, industrial businesses throughout the neighborhood, and durable neighborhood institutions, including, in addition to St. Procop's Church and other Christian denominational churches, Ceska Sin Sokol Hall, and Mravenec Building and Loan Association, later known as People's Savings and Loan Association. No longer was it considered to be a place isolated from the rest of Cleveland.

Images

A West Side Czech Parade

A West Side Czech Parade

On May 8, 1938 members of the local Knights of St. Wenceslaus and Knights of St. Joseph marched down West 41st Street near St. Procop Roman Catholic Church, celebrating the fiftieth anniversaries of their organizations. By 1938, the Isle of Cuba had become a mature ethnic community. Image courtesy of Cleveland Public Library, Photograph collection View File Details Page

Cuba's Saloon Life

Cuba's Saloon Life

On July 15, 1868, the Cleveland Leader reported on the stabbing of William Frazier by Fred Adoin at Anthony Link's Saloon. Link's was located at 38 Ash Street, which today would be the northeast corner of Clark Avenue and West 47th Street. Link, a German immigrant who was also a neighborhood grocer, owned just one of the many saloons on the Isle of Cuba. Image courtesy of Cleveland Public Library, newspaper archives. View File Details Page

Bohemia

Bohemia

From the seventeenth century until the early twentieth century, Bohemia, which was populated mostly by ethnic Czechs, was part of the Habsburg Austrian Empire. Following the Revolutions of 1848, Bohemians began to leave the Austrian Empire in large numbers, many coming to the United States. The first significant numbers of these Bohemian immigrants came to Cleveland in 1852. On the map above, Bohemia is the light-blue colored territory. View File Details Page

Bishop Koudelka

Bishop Koudelka

Father Joseph Koudelka, a Bohemian immigrant, was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in Cleveland in 1875. His first assignment was pastor of St. Procop Roman Catholic Church which was located on West 41st Street near Newark Avenue. He spent seven difficult years at this parish. In 1879 he was arrested on a charge of criminal libel for speaking out against violence that had been perpetrated at a dance hall on the Isle of Cuba. He persevered and in 1911 become Cleveland's first auxiliary bishop. The photo above is from circa 1915. Image courtesy of the Slovak Institute, Cleveland, Ohio. View File Details Page

More Trouble at St. Prokop

More Trouble at St. Prokop

Despite Father Koudelka's departure in 1882, Cleveland Bishop Gilmour continued to have trouble with the church's rebellious parishioners. In February 1884, he closed the church and excommunicated the rebels. One year later, according to the January 12, 1885 Leader article above, the "war" still raged. Church rebels continued to challenge the decisions of the bishop for the remainder of the decade. Image courtesy of Cleveland Public Library, Newspaper archives . View File Details Page

Map of "Cuba"

Map of "Cuba"

The Isle of Cuba comprised a large portion of Cleveland's Ward 12 in 1874. Ward 12 had been created from two sections of Brooklyn Township, located south of Walworth Run, which had been annexed to Cleveland, respectively, in 1867 and 1872. "Cuba" was the part of the ward located west (left) of Burton (West 41st) Street, denoted by a black vertical line in the center of the map. Image courtesy of Cleveland Public Library, Digital Map collection. View File Details Page

The Gangs of Cuba

The Gangs of Cuba

While the Bohemian community matured into a more stable ethnic neighborhood by the end of the nineteenth century, it was still plagued by juvenile gangs which roamed the Walworth Run, a natural border between "Cuba" and neighborhoods to the north. During the Spanish-American War, as this March 8, 1898 Cleveland PD article illustrates, the teen gangs took identities mimicking the war's combatants. Image courtesy of Cleveland Public Library, Newspaper archives View File Details Page

Still a Tough Place in 1901

Still a Tough Place in 1901

As the above article from the December 29, 1901, Cleveland Leader suggests, the Isle of Cuba was still a tough place to live or work in at the turn of the twentieth century. The Cleveland police department assigned two of its most physically intimidating officers (including Officer Metzermacher shown above) to walk the beat in this neighborhood. Image courtesy of Cleveland Public Library, Newspaper archives View File Details Page

A new Center for the Community

A new Center for the Community

In the early years of the Isle of Cuba, neighborhood saloons and dance halls often served as the "centers" of the Bohemian community. That gradually changed and, in 1907, the community purchased Hungaria Hall on Clark Avenue, near West 44th Street, and converted into Bohemian Hall, and later to Ceska Sin Hall and Sokol. It quickly became the community's new center. The above photo was taken in 1957. Image courtesy of Cleveland Public Library, Photograph Collection View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Jim Dubelko, “The Isle of Cuba,” Cleveland Historical, accessed April 24, 2017, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/646.
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