By Nicole Hennessy
On the edge of the Westshore lies Lakewood’s Birdtown neighborhood, named for its bird-related street names like Thrush, and Plover. The neighborhood, long overdue for reinvestment, welcomed its first Habitat for Humanity house, completed in March.
The area has a reputation for higher rates of crime and more dilapidated properties than the rest of the city, but was shown through a house-by-house assessment of Lakewood’s aging properties, conducted by the city last spring, to be an area where the homes are no worse-off than elsewhere in the city, where 100-year-old roofs and peeling paint are being remedied.
On Dowd Avenue, where the demolished Lakewood Day Nursery used to sit, is the Habitat home, only the second ever built outside the city of Cleveland.
Recently added to the National Registry of Historic Places, Birdtown’s history goes all the way back to 1894, when the nearby National Carbon Co. decided to build a neighborhood to house its workers. For small down payments, 424 small lots were made available, the cheapest located on Plover, where a train still runs right behind the houses.
Most families constructed the homes by hand, with the help of family and friends, which was the custom of the newly immigrated Eastern Europeans.
Though neighborhoods like Birdtown have been abandoned by business and investment for quite some time, it is areas like these, throughout post-industrial cities like Cleveland, Buffalo and Detroit, that are finally being recognized as valuable assets worth preserving.
Located within Birdtown is the Screw Factory, a functioning factory that also houses art studios. Though the artists operate in a quieter fashion than the similar, nearby, 78th Street Studios, this is something that can really connect a community and draw newcomers.
In just a few short years of reaching out to the surrounding community, neighborhood anchors like 78th Street have helped turn the area in which it’s located, Gordon Square, into a local hot spot for dining, entertainment, galleries and shopping.
With a “less is more” trend in development, neighborhoods like Birdtown, with some investment, can thrive on history and authenticity, something younger Northeast Ohio individuals and families are choosing over the suburban environments in which they grew up.
With institutions such as the Screw Factory and nearby businesses – like the recently remodeled 1950s bowling alley Mahall’s 20 Lanes, which now hosts concerts seven nights per week – there is the potential to draw young families and home buyers to the area.
Bikeability and walkability – something Lakewood as a whole strives for – also attracts potential residents or visitors. And as downtown Cleveland fights back against what many see as an overabundance of surface parking lots, and more and more commuters chose public transit in lieu of cars, the West 117th RTA station, which is within walking distance, is also an asset.
Already, new shops and restaurants have been opening on Lakewood’s east end, one of which is the newly opened Helvetica.
Named after the printing font, the Latin-inspired restaurant, located across the street from Virginia Marti College of Art and Design, strives to attract designers and artists.
Of course, as far as Birdtown restaurants are concerned, there are also old favorites like the Thai Kitchen to rely on.
Meanwhile, the city of Lakewood has been busy developing the so-called downtown section of Detroit Avenue in a manner many fear is too commercial, and not in keeping with the city’s history or character; and it plans to do the same on Madison Avenue, as well as on 177th Street.
Assuming these areas will eventually reflect the sort of development taking place on Detroit, which is better than no development at all, but in direct conflict with what other local areas have proven works – independent, well-branded and -managed shops and restaurants that strive to be a part of the community rather than just entities within it – this may be Birdtown’s chance to rebrand itself. That is, before the fast food and chain convenience stores take up residency in abandoned storefronts or plazas.
With the Habitat home, a large community garden located across from the Screw Factory and independent business owners, the identity of the neighborhood is still in the hands of its residents and potential local investors.
The presence of Habitat alone can make whole communities and areas see a neighborhood in a new light, and find value in preserving them.
While the direction of Lakewood will likely ensure that it continues in a suburban fashion of development, Birdtown has all the ingredients to make it an authentic, unique neighborhood.