By John J. Grabowski, Ph.D.
Slavic Village is one of the neighborhood names in Cleveland that gives a hint of the city’s diversity. However, the name is a creation of the late 1970s when the area along Fleet Avenue was rebranded in order to create a new, more marketable identity. At that time Little Italy was well on the way toward its evolution from an insular ethnic enclave into a tourist attraction. In 1977 Teddy and Donna Sliwinski and Kaszimier Wieclaw formed Neighborhood Ventures Incorporated to transform the commercial stretch along Fleet into a more recognizable entity. Wieclaw designed distinctive Polish Hylander style facades for many of the commercial buildings to provide a more uniform and identifiably “ethnic” look. A Harvest Festival (now the Village Feast) was initiated to attract people from outside the area.
The renaming seemed to make sense – the area had been populated by “Slavic” peoples since the late nineteenth century. Poles concentrated along the eastern part of the street centered on E. 65th and Czechs on the western end near E. 49th. But the rebranding, then and now, raises a number of questions. Who is empowered to name a neighborhood – particularly one that had existing names with origins that stemmed from the community itself? The Czech’s called their area “Karlin” after a district in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. That was natural given that the city’s main Czech neighborhood, just to the north at E. 55th and Broadway was called “Praha” The Poles called their area “Warszawa” after the largest city in Poland. That fit too, given that Warszawa was the largest Polish neighborhood in Cleveland. There was pushback on the renaming. One person living on Fleet Avenue had a large banner on the porch reading something like “Waszawa” not Slavic Village”.
Now over four decades later, “Slavic Village” has become “the” name of the area – and, indeed, the area has expanded around North and South Broadway. What was once “Krakowa to the south on the border with Cuyahoga Heights is now part of the village and so is Praha. Jackowa sits on the border with the Garden Valley neighborhood but it is often considered part of Slavic Village given its Polish roots.
Yet, this process of choosing and changing names opens other interesting questions. In addition to the authority to choose a new name there is the question as to “whose” history the name might reflect. Should it be the “current” resident community, the recent past residents or a deeper historical past. There were Irish and Welsh in Slavic Village before the Czechs and Poles arrived, and before them, native Americans – did they have names for area that we no longer know? A century from now, will “Slavic Village” and “Little Italy” still resonate as place names with the residents of Cleveland?