CLEVELAND - To outsiders, the Polish Constitution Day parade wending its way down Cleveland’s East 65th Street did not seem anything special. Though it was spirited and the participants undeniably put a lot of work into the 130 units, it couldn’t match the city’s much larger St. Patrick’s Day parade, whose 245 units drew half a million people downtown just a month earlier. Nor could it rival the nation’s most famous Constitution Day event, the Chicago parade that would attract 250,000 to Grant Park six days later.
But to Anthony Brancatelli and the other residents of Slavic Village and its Warszawa Historic District, folks who have had to fight so hard in recent years to save their neighborhood, this parade was about as special as it gets. Almost no neighborhood in the country has been hit harder over the last decade than Slavic Village. In 2007, it drew international attention when it suffered more home foreclosures than any other place in the country. Abandoned houses suddenly blighted every street. Crime soared as gangs got emboldened. Churches were shuttered. And, yes, even the Constitution Day parade that had been so much a part of the community for so many decades was taken away from them, moved in 2010 by a skittish Ohio Polish American Congress intent on fleeing to a suburb they viewed as safer.
It was a low point in an already bleak time for one of Cleveland’s oldest and proudest neighborhoods, one built a century ago by the Poles, Bohemians, and Slovenians who came to work in the city’s gritty factories and steel mills and now lived in a multiracial mix of ethnicities.
But, in what has become a symbol of a feisty community’s refusal to die, Slavic Village fought back and staged its own parade despite what was going on in the suburbs. “We didn’t miss a beat,” boasted lawyer and parade chairman Teddy Sliwinski, recalling an emergency meeting of Polish veteran and fraternal groups after the announcement of the move. “We got it back, back to where it belongs,” said Polish-born Eugenia Stolarczyk, whose Polish-language radio show has her known here as “the golden voice of Polonia,” and who was the grand marshal of this year’s parade. In that role, she got a warm reception from the crowds lining Fleet Street and East 65th.
But not as warm as the applause that greeted another marcher—Brancatelli, the Cleveland city councilman who has long been the most vocal champion of the neighborhood and an architect of its comeback, one that carries important messages for other neighborhoods across the country that are struggling with either urban blight or the foreclosure crisis that continues to rage.
That a politician would get the loudest cheers—louder than for the men of the World Apostolate of Fatima who carried the statue of the Virgin Mary, louder than for Don Wright who bills himself as “Ohio’s No. 1Elvis impersonator,” louder even than for the extraordinarily cute little girls in native garb from the Konopnicka Polish School—may seem odd in an era of disdain, disappointment, and deep distrust of politicians and government. But the story of the still-nascent recovery of Slavic Village is a story of a citizenry absorbing a body blow and politicians and government responding effectively and working to get ahead of the crisis.
And Tony Brancatelli is at the center of that story. He grew up in the neighborhood, the grandson of Polish and Italian immigrants, but then watched it change from ethnic to mixed-race and saw both his childhood parish (Transfiguration) and his high school (South High) close. But he stayed throughout the changes, spending 17 years as executive director of the nonprofit Slavic Village Development Corp. before moving to the City Council in 2005. He helped build and rehab hundreds of homes in the first part of his career only to find himself as the champion of demolition, pushing the city to tear down thousands of houses.
“Tony is a hero in this story,” said Jim Rokakis, the former Cuyahoga County treasurer who has been at the councilman’s side throughout the battle and is himself considered a hero to those who have watched the duo fight at City Hall in Cleveland, the Legislature in Columbus, and the Congress in Washington. “Tony’s just out there fighting this fight every day, more than anybody I know. I don’t have that kind of strength or energy,” said Rokakis. “Cleveland was the center of the crisis in Ohio and the area he represents was the epicenter of that crisis. So he represented the area most devastated nationally by the foreclosure crisis.”
Even five years after the worst of the foreclosures, that devastation is impossible to miss. Drive down almost any street off of the main drags of Fleet or Broadway—as Brancatelli does almost every day. Behold empty lot after empty lot where five years ago houses stood. Worse, witness the still-standing but abandoned houses—windows boarded up, innards ripped out by scavengers determined to take any scrap of copper or plumbing, and, over and over again, the aluminum siding torn off as high as vandals could reach. RealtyTrac, which came up with the numbers in 2007 that gave zip code 44105 its unenviable No. 1 ranking, has tracked the damaging statistics: