Jeff Verespej, former executive director of the Old Brooklyn Community Development Corporation, gives us a tour of neighborhood treasures in this guest blog.
If you were born in Old Brooklyn like I was, or visiting for the first time, the highlight reel is well known. The Cleveland Metroparks Zoo is the No. 1 tourism destination for families in Northeast Ohio. Long-time businesses such as Honey Hut (you can now order a POTUS special of chocolate-chocolate chip in a waffle cone thanks to President Biden’s visit), Jack Frost, and Dina’s have been joined by cultural treasures including Irie Jamaican Kitchen, b.a. Sweeties, El Rinconcito Chapin and Sabor Miami.
After beating the path of the neighborhood for these past seven years, I prefer to take you to the special treasures that may need a bit more nudging, but are local gems to be found nowhere else.
- 85 years ago, Jesse Owens completed the greatest Olympic feat of all time by winning four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics. Like all gold medalists that year, he was gifted a small English Oak sapling for each win. Of the more than 130 given out globally, a handful remain. From his four, only one – planted behind James Ford Rhodes High School at 5100 Biddulph Rd., where he trained in high school – remains. The tree is at the end of its natural life, and Old Brooklyn Community Development Corporation (OBCDC) has partnered with others to graft and replant the tree in new locations to preserve it for generations to come. The first graft was planted at Rockefeller Lagoon on Arbor Day 2021.
- At the intersection of South Hills Drive and Landchester Road is a charming traffic island, complete with landscaping, pavers, benches, lighting, and a Little Free Library. Not a legacy of great city planning, this infrastructure was built by nearby residents who raised the money for neighborhood beautification and cohesion. Now it is home to clean-ups, socials, and informal gatherings year-round within walking distance of some of Old Brooklyn’s most attractive homes as well as the Ben Franklin Garden – the largest community garden in Cuyahoga County.
- OBCDC uses the tag “A Great Place to Grow” for the neighborhood as a positive statement of aspiration but also a nod to its history as the greenhouse capital of the world earlier in the 20th century. Only a few active greenhouses remain from that era; the largest is hidden off Spring Road at the Old Brooklyn Greenhouse at 4646 West 11th St.
- My favorite feature of Brookside Reservation isn’t the row of Japanese Cherry Trees, the gorgeous ball fields, or the Big Creek rapid run, although all of those are wonderful. It’s the historical baseball field that was home to the largest attendance at a professional baseball game at nearly 110,000 in the early 1900s. Walk through the parking lot towards the zoo, under the Fulton Road Bridge, hang a left under the historic masonry bridge, and find yourself in a natural bowl that at one time held massive ball games of a different era.
- Brooklyn Acres is a cooperatively owned affordable housing development split between Cleveland and Brooklyn. Originally built as 600 housing units necessary for civilians and soldiers of World War II, the federal government sold the property in the mid 1950s to the residents themselves, and a cooperative non-profit was established 65 years ago. Today this housing development stands out for its affordability, community ownership, design, and shared facilities.
If you’ve made it to these sites, you might be open for a bonus excursion. This one can’t be found via your GPS and likely requires a tour guide in the know. As many know, bald eagles have returned to Cleveland and the Cuyahoga River Valley. The nest has been seen by peering across the river from the Towpath Trail near the Canalway Visitor Center. What’s the land on the other side of the river? Old Brooklyn, of course. Should you know how to use cartography skills or ask a good friend who knows, one can find their way through some neglected land to a clear view within appropriate distance of these majestic birds who chose to live in Old Brooklyn, like so many others.