Constructing Culture

By John J. Grabowski, Ph.D.

Before AsiaTown, Cleveland, like many other major American cities had its Chinatown.   Situated on and around Rockwell Avenue between East 21st and East 24th it was the second location for a community that had originally located on St. Clair, in the area just behind Old Stone Church.   With Chinese immigration severely restricted by an act passed in 1882, it was a small community.  Only about 800 Chinese were in the city in the 1930s.   For those who visited the restaurants along the south side of Rockwell, the area was “Chinese” – signified not only by cuisine but by the colors, lettering, and symbols that adorned the buildings, most particularly that of the On Leong Tong at 2150 Rockwell.  Today that structural symbolism carries over into AsiaTown.   One sees it at the shopping mall on the northwest corner of Payne and East 30th street and in the signage along Payne Avenue.  Design elements on the Asian Evergreen Apartments at Payne and E. 39th echo the name of the building.


These examples bring up the broader question as to how our city’s architecture reflects the diverse cultures that make up greater Cleveland.    For the most part, our buildings, including our homes, business blocks, and churches, reflect common American or European styles.   That certainly is the case on Rockwell because behind the signs and adornments, the structures reflect the era in which they were built.   But there are exceptions and they can be found largely in religious structures.


Many Christian denominations, most particularly Roman Catholic had churches created by and for particular ethnic groups – Italians, Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, and many others.   Yet, the architectural style of these buildings usually reflected common European architectural idioms.   What differentiates them are the languages used on their cornerstones and often on the stained glass windows and on the labels of statues within the buildings.   Within the Jewish community, language and symbol were cultural signifiers in structures of a variety of styles.   A prominent one for major congregations was Byzantine – most apparent in the domes on Temple Tifereth Israel (the Maltz Center for the Performing Arts) in University Circle, in the Euclid Avenue Temple (later Liberty Hill Baptist Church) and on the Cleveland Jewish Center – Anshe Emeth (now Cory Methodist Church) in Glenville.


It is, however, within the Eastern Orthodox Christian community that the exterior of the building often indicates a difference.   St. Theodosius Orthodox Cathedral (opened in 1912) has become a major symbol of our community’s diversity and one of the “must sees” in the Tremont Neighborhood.  Its multiple domes set it apart.  Yet, it is not alone – when many Orthodox Churches moved from the city the architectural style transferred to the new building they built in the suburbs.


These structures and the neighborhoods in which they were built are the consequences of the large scale European immigration that changed the demographics of the city in the years before the 1920s when immigration was restricted by the Quota Acts of 1921 and 1924.  Some would say that over that time Cleveland transformed from a New England city to an “Ellis Island” city.   But saying that neglects those who came to Cleveland from elsewhere in the United States – African Americans from the South, Appalachian migrants, and those from rural areas and small towns.   Migration and suburbanization would transform the population of old neighborhoods and old structures, both churches and businesses, were adapted to those changes.


That is essentially what AsiaTown has done along Payne Avenue where older structures have taken on new identities.   That transformation was made possible by the Immigration Act of 1965, which replaced the discriminatory laws that preceded it.   It opened up America and Greater Cleveland to cultures from across the globe seeking opportunity and security.   By the late 1970s the bulk of immigrants no longer came from Europe, but from South Asia, Asia, the Middle East and South America.  Their presence in Greater Cleveland can be seen in the languages in shop windows along Detroit Avenue and along West 25th Street, and in new religious structures that make statements about identity, culture, and belief – the Islamic Center of Cleveland and the Shiva Vishnu Temple, both in Parma, are important examples. But they are not alone.  Today there are over a dozen mosques, four Hindu temples, and three Buddhist temples in Greater Cleveland.  Each adds, both on the inside and outside, to the constructed culture of the community.


The multi-cultural evolution of our community has been astounding, but even more astounding, perhaps, is the manner in which old structures are repurposed and new structures and styles become accepted and considered symbols of a community that has a history of demographic change.  It is not, at times, an easy process for some now – and it wasn’t in the past.   The history of our immigration laws tells that tale.    Yet, the popularity of AsiaTown provides, one hopes, a counter narrative.