Slavic Village

Tour curated by: CSU Center for Public History + Digital Humanities

In the late 19th and early 20th century, much of Cleveland’s booming Polish population settled just a few miles from downtown to establish an ethnic enclave. Roughly situated on a ridge between the low-lying, rapidly industrializing “flats” of the Cuyahoga River and Kingsbury Run in the vicinity of Fleet and Broadway Avenues, the area came to be known as Warszawa or Little Warsaw and was one of the largest Polish communities in the country. The adjoining area, called Karlin, became home to many Czech immigrants. These communities owed their immigrant-led transformation to the rise of industry. The period between 1900 and 1930 saw an influx of heavy industry in the vicinity of Warszawa and Karlin: Republic Steel, Otis Steel, and Corrigan-McKinney Steel built sprawling mills in the Flats to either side of Clark Avenue, while companies like Standard Oil, Canfield Oil, Kaynee, Grabler Manufacturing, Cleveland Worsted Mills, Empire Plow, Cleveland Frog and Crossing Company, and others erected still more plants within walking distance of the thousands of closely packed houses along Warszawa’s and Karlin’s streets. Over the years, this area also became home to Cleveland’s oldest amusement park and one of the largest Polish American-led financial institutions in the country.

After World War II, Warszawa and Karlin, like many of Cleveland’s older neighborhoods, experienced a downswing brought on by suburbanization and deindustrialization. By the 1970s, the decline of factory jobs was steep and severe. Many immigrants and especially children of immigrants were joining the exodus to the suburbs or following jobs relocating to the Sunbelt states. Parma, Garfield Heights, and other suburbs siphoned Polish- and Czech-Americans from the “old neighborhood.” Ethnic churches, businesses, and community events followed the migration. In response, in 1977 Ted Sliwinski, a Polish-American attorney, spearheaded a campaign to recast several blocks of Fleet Avenue in the nostalgic Polish Hylander style. He even coined a new name for the neighborhood—Slavic Village—which mimicked other ethnocentric enclaves like Columbus’s German Village that were essential focal points of efforts to revitalize inner cities. However, unlike Hungarian-dominated Buckeye or Italian-specific Little Italy, Sliwinski’s neighborhood included large contingents of multiple ethnicities, mainly Polish and Czech, but also Slovak and assorted others. Slavic Village as a new place identity catalyzed considerable revitalization and Slavic-themed community events, but the name is not fully embraced by many remaining ethnic residents who identify more closely with a specific nationality. While the area is no longer dominated by the Polish and Czech populations, more than a few traces of ethnic identification and their cultural legacy remain.

With research support from the Charles M. and Helen M. Brown Memorial Foundation, Slavic Village Development Foundation, and Third Federal Foundation.

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