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Feb. 27, 2014

Brite Winter highlights new face of Cleveland

By Jordan Gonzalez and Mara Biggs

If any foreigners visited Brite Winter festival on Feb. 15, they would have seen a thriving community in Ohio City, full of food, drinks, art, music and thousands of chipper Clevelanders.

Despite temperatures that flirted with the negatives, the atmosphere wasn’t dampened, and even after the outdoor activities ended, the local bars and restaurants stayed packed until late into the night.

For a city that rebuilds their sports teams almost every year and has gained national attention for multiple serial killers, diabolical abductors and a ravaging heroin problem, the Cleveland of Brite Winter festival was not what the stereotypes portray.

Local entrepreneurs and residents see a different Cleveland – one that doesn’t accept that the only positive part of Cleveland is a museum dedicated to old musicians.

“People that love Cleveland the most are very often folks who were born elsewhere and came here,” said Sam McNulty, Cleveland State University graduate and owner of multiple bars, including Bier Markt, Bar Cento and Market Garden Brewery. “We haven’t done a great job at telling the world what we’re about, we tend to be humble and self-deprecating.”

The new face of Cleveland is one of cheap housing, craft beer, high-spirited night life and thriving festivals, according to the ones that have played a part in its creation.

Recently Cleveland has gained some positive national attention for its craft beer and its nightlife, even getting a nod from Fortune Magazine, who said it has a “63 percent chance” of being a “new Brooklyn” due to Ohio City, Tremont and Gordon Square.

McNulty, who started off with “Café 101” in the basement of Cleveland State’s old student center, has played a major role in making Ohio City’s West 25th Street what it is today, with his string of bars that line the street.

While he said he takes the article as a compliment, he doesn’t think Cleveland will be a new Brooklyn, nor should it be a goal.

“We all know people to try to be like others instead of just being themselves,” McNulty said. “I think Cleveland is great at being a really good Cleveland. Can we be a better Cleveland? Absolutely.”

Thomas Fox, a Cleveland native and Program and Marketing Director for Brite Winter festival, shares McNulty’s hesitation for the idea of Cleveland being a new Brooklyn.

“I like Brooklyn but that headline [in Fortune Magazine] is a little empty to me,” Fox said. “There are good things and bad things about both Cleveland and Brooklyn.”

Fox said both cities share excellent qualities, including creativity, original thought, thriving art communities, hard workers and a “culture built on an ethnic melting pot.”
Then there are some differences. While Brooklyn has more people and a better public transportation system, Cleveland has more space and is much more affordable.

One of the keys to Cleveland’s continued success will be how it spreads its new developments said McNulty. Instead of “spreading development out like peanut butter,” Cleveland needs to focus its development from its core.

“From there we start connecting these nodes and once we hit saturation levels in those areas it’s going to kind of spill out and grow organically,” said McNulty.

But not all are on board with the modern apartments and craft beer.

An older man clad in a superhero costume strode around the festival from the first act through the last act with a red acoustic guitar, occasionally stopping to strum a few chords for curious festival-goers.

The self-proclaimed “Guitar Man” and Ohio City legend, who was later identified by local shop owner Alex Nosse as Eli Fletcher, said,“I’m not part of the organized entertainment. I’m an outlaw.”

Fletcher, who has lived in Ohio City since 1960 and claims to have “toured with everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to the Rolling Stones,” said he believes his neighborhood has changed for the worse.

“This place used to be fine,” said Fletcher. “[Now] it’s a class issue. Now it’s a bunch of alcohol and rich people.”

Many don’t share Fletcher’s thoughts, however.

Alex Nosse, whose Joy Machines Bike Shop hosted one of the music stages, acknowledged the class shift in the community but had a slightly different take on the repercussions of it.

Nosse spent the day amiably greeting festival attendees from behind the counter of his store. Born and raised in Ohio City, he said it’s hard to find an empty storefront in the neighborhood nowadays, unlike when he was growing up. He said Ohio City has become more high-end, and its commodities higher quality.

Although the area is attracting younger, single people, Nosse said Ohio City has always been, and still is, welcoming to families.

Fox pointed out that a lot of the entertainment, especially in a festival like Brite Winter, is family friendly.

“We’ve put together diverse entertainment at Brite Winter. People come with their families, play games and watch the fire twirlers,” Fox said. “We sold out of hot chocolate, we also sold out of beer.”

Nosse, who is involved with several neighborhood civic groups, said it’s a back and forth balance for the community to keep offering high-end products and services without becoming too expensive for long-time residents to afford.

McNulty said he understands where Fletcher is coming from, even though he supports the new face of Cleveland.

A healthy city is ethnically, racially, economically and culturally diverse, he said, with the ultimate goal being a high amount of choice in the smallest amount of area, said McNulty. He doesn’t think Cleveland is there yet, but he believes Cleveland is on the right track.

“Some people think of gentrification as a bad word, and it can be if it gets out of control,” McNulty said, who recently purchased land in Ohio City to build seven townhouses. “But I would say Cleveland has years to go before we start losing this tremendous asset that is our affordability.”

Looking forward, McNulty and Fox both agree there is still much to be done. Although he didn’t single out any politicians, McNulty bemoaned those that seek for tax dollars to be spent on the Cleveland sports teams instead of schools and potholes. Fox criticized former politicians who missed opportunity after opportunity in the past decades.

But for now, they plan on working with the assets that Cleveland already has.

“[Cleveland’s] authenticity speaks for itself,” McNulty said. “We’re not Brooklyn, we’re not trying to be Brooklyn, we’re going to be a really good Cleveland.”