By Nicole Hennessy
Unable to afford a downtown Lakewood location for his restaurant, Barroco Grill, Juan Vergara rented an old house on the eastern stretch of Madison, the main stretch of a neighborhood known as Birdtown.
He figured he might be able to spark more businesses moving into this quiet part of town, full of empty storefronts. And it seems he was right.
A year later, the nearby Mahall’s 20 Lanes, under new ownership, underwent renovations, making it a popular spot for more than just Lakewood residents to spend their nights and weekends.
With musicians playing almost every night of the week, and crowds stuffing themselves into the building, it has managed to increase the area’s traffic.
Since then, several new restaurants and shops have opened in the area.
It is a historic neighborhood with multiple schools and churches, as well as access to public transportation and a branch of the Lakewood Public Library – and Vergara is surprised that not a lot of business owners and investors have explored the area yet.
“The place has a lot of potential,” he said.
Like Vergara, Gina DeSantis had never considered Birdtown as a possible location for her pottery studio.
It was a friend who turned her on to the Screw Factory, a fully functioning industrial complex that houses art studios. A maze of production and empty space, more than 50 artists work within the building, functioning quietly and with little attention, aside from a twice yearly open house and the Taste of Lakewood event, which takes place each summer.
DeSantis has been working there for over five years now, teaching pottery workshops and mastering functional pieces like cups and bowls.
Part of what she describes as “the largest concentration of artists in Lakewood,” she not only works in Birdtown, but about a year after moving into her new studio, she began renting a house just a block away from her studio, as well.
“I love the neighborhood,” she said.
A small pocket of homes sitting alongside churches, built to sustain the Union Carbide Co.’s employees back in the early 1900s, Birdtown is an unassuming neighborhood with potential to be great once again.
And while DeSantis says she’d like to see more nightlife in the area, she’s hesitant to see the area become trendy like Tremont, Ohio City or Gordon Square, partly because she associates trendy neighborhoods with having an expiration date. Still, she said, “I’d love to see more things going on at night,” she said. “It’s very quiet.”
Also wishing to see more life and traffic in the area, Vergara battled the city for a bit on capacity and street-parking issues until he was eventually able to convince them that more cars lining the streets actually make people want to be a part of what’s going on there. It draws people in and gives the impression that Birdtown is somewhere great to spend a night out.
With the success of Barroco, which opened in March 2011, Vergara has since gone on to open a second location on West 4th Street downtown, which is currently undergoing a new streetscaping plan that will allow for wider sidewalks, conducive to patio space. In addition, he and a friend collaborated on an east-end Lakewood restaurant located on Detroit, called Helvetica.
All of the restaurants have different menus, but focus on Latin American dishes.
The most popular Barroco menu item, an arepa, was even voted the best sandwich in Ohio by Food Network.
Westshore residents looking to go out to dinner might head downtown or to Ohio City. They might even venture over to the East Side. But, more likely, they’ll end up at Crocker Park or one of Rocky River’s restaurants.
In areas like those mentioned, around Cleveland, well-branded and managed restaurants, shops and organizations feed off of each other, creating interesting areas that people want to be a part of.
And that’s what Birdtown could be, providing an interesting neighborhood worth exploring to residents within the Westshore area.
This, DeSantis said, is an ideal situation, though she’d like to see varied businesses, not just restaurants.
She added, separating her neighborhood again with those she views as “trendy,” “We have a different vibe, I think,” she said of Birdtown, comparing the Screw Factory to the nearby 78th Street studios, which has an open house once a month.
“We’re a little grittier,” she added. “But we’re OK with that.”
It is up to business owners to decide the character of the area. Yes, Birdtown is in need of a little investment, something that needs to be addressed by the city; but it is also an opportunity to create an area using the ideas and talents of those who work and live there.
Councilwoman Mary Louise Madigan said that pending the availability of state and/or federal resources, she and the city would like to create and implement a community-driven development plan including streetscaping and seeking out businesses to move into the neighborhood.
“Lakewood is a good working and middle-class city,” she said. And she’d like to see Birdtown stay true to its middle-class roots.
And while businesses and traffic are great, she believes this is achieved firstly though simple things like a focus on families.
“Be an active, involved part of the neighborhood,” she advised residents. “Be a good neighbor; watch out for one another.”
While strategically planned shopping centers and suburban-style strip malls still find success in suburban areas, neighborhoods like Birdtown feed off of history and character and aim to embellish those things.
There is something to be said about authenticity.
All the time customers, excited to see an energetic business in their neighborhood, thank Vergara for chosing Birdtown.
Sitting in his downtown restaurant, having just driven back and forth from Lakewood to attend to a small emergency, Vergara said Birdtown is like a little gem waiting to be discovered.
The constant sound of construction outside, though muffled by thick windows, seeped in as he continued. “It could be the next big thing.”