Journey North to South through the Near West Side on Fulton Road
by Greg Kocsan
(Plain Press, June 2020) Editor’s Note: The Plain Press will be celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2021. In a run up to that date we are publishing historical features that focus on the neighborhoods in our circulation area. The first batch of features looks at “streets.” This one focuses on Fulton Road. Fulton stretches from Ohio City through the Clark Metro area and Brooklyn Centre neighborhoods to Old Brooklyn. Readers are welcome to suggest other institutions and topics, or to offer contributions along the way to our anniversary.
Fulton Road begins its long trek south at Franklin Circle, once the intersection of seven streets, then meanders through several turns while passing through a rich variety of neighborhoods and history.
That history includes a Jewish cemetery; one of the original Carnegie libraries; a manufacturer of cellophane bags and cigar pouches; pre-prohibition brewers modern day entries; the Lyceum Theatre; the Buechler-Jaeger Sausage Company; and a bunch of churches and schools. And it does this while passing over or under freeways and railroad lines before crossing the Big Creek and arriving at the old Brookside Park and Old Brooklyn.
If you visited Franklin Circle in its early years, you might have been there to purchase fresh tomatoes, corn on the cob, or perhaps a pumpkin. Twenty years later, you might be sitting on a bench taking a rest underneath the shade of a tree in what the locals called Modoc Park. Twenty years after that, if you were on Franklin Circle, you just might have been one of the richest people in Cleveland. Today, the street is home to such landmarks as Lutheran Hospital, the former Masonic Temple, and the Franklin Circle Christian Church, although, in the eyes of a few, the parklike atmosphere can still be found there.
Franklin Circle has been around as long as Ohio City itself has been around, having been surveyed in the same year as the city’s founding in 1836. Designed by Josiah Barber, the area did not serve an official purpose in the 18 years that followed. It did not even have an official name, also being called such names as Franklin Place and Franklin Square.
Lots of change has come to Fulton in recent years. Just south of Franklin Circle is Momocho’s, a small, fairly new, and, as it likes to call itself, hip Mexican restaurant. In the thirteen years it has been open, its owner and main chef, Eric, has seen an incredible transformation in nearby establishments and the neighborhood along Fulton.
“I almost don’t even recognize the place anymore,” he said. “New places are going up like crazy, restaurants and breweries. People are buying old houses for renovation and resale…it has grown exponentially in the last five years or so, but the seeds were planted eight to ten years ago.”
Just down Fulton to Bridge Avenue, across from St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, is the Ohio City Carnegie branch of the Cleveland Public Library. Although updated and restored throughout the years, the building has retained its original character. The library opened in 1910 and was designed by Edward Tilton, who also designed four buildings for the U.S. Immigration Station on Ellis Island in New York. The architecture is described as modified Renaissance with elements of classical style. The building was completely remodeled in 1979.
After crossing Lorain Avenue and continuing a few blocks south, Fulton Road passes by a Jewish Cemetery on its western edge, directly across from what was once the Dobeckmun Co., one-time manufacturer of cellophane bags and cigar pouches. This is the point at which Fulton crosses over the RTA and railroad tracks, as well as Train Avenue, a storied street filled with potholes that local stories say remain to discourage anxious commuters avoiding freeway traffic but looking for a fast route without patrol cars to get downtown. Train Avenue prior to World War II was called Walworth, a name that’s still retained for a small stretch of street west of W. 53rd Street. John Walworth was an early settler and government official, arriving here about 1800. Walworth Run was a creek that over the years was merged with the sewer and paved over for use as a street.
Crossing the rapid tracks, Fulton arrives at a spot that brings together Cleveland’s brewing history and the current brewing culture. On the east side of Fulton is the site of the Isaacv Leisy Brewing Company, across the street from one of the Leisy buildings, is the new home to a brewhouse that supplies the Platform Beer Company on Lorain Avenue with canned and kegged beer. For a time, the same building housed the Cleveland Fruit Juice Co.
This stretch of Fulton Road between Lorain Avenue and Clark Avenue is also home to La Boricana Foods and Caribe Bake Shop. Boricana Foods sells imported foods from all over the Caribbean, Central and South America and Africa. Owner Enrique Muniz Junior says his family opened the grocery in 1994.
Caribe Bake Shop in recent years built a new building just to the rear of its previous home on Fulton between Erin and Seymour. The bakery dates back the 1960s when it was first opened by Francisco “Pancho” Morales. The business is now owned by the Burgos family.
As you cross Clark Avenue, you will see the Lin Omni Center, housed in a former industrial building restored by Jason Lin in 2002. One of the original tenants was Merrick House which offered senior and youth programs from the building until 2011. The building still offers a range of services to the community including programs of MetroWest Community Development Organization, Murtis Taylor Clark Metro programs, and Councilwoman Jasmin Santana’s Ward Office.
St. Rocco’s Church lies just south of the Lin Omni Center. The church has been around since 1952, although the Parish was officially recognized by the Diocese of Cleveland 30 years earlier in 1922. Eight years before then, it was informally established to serve the spiritual needs of the then-predominately Italian neighborhood. St. Rocco’s parish still celebrates many of its Italian traditions.
Like many churches, the building was self-funded by the parishioners, but St. Rocco’s boasts a claim not many other churches can say. It was also built by the parishioners. They laid down the brick and mortar. They installed the electricity and running water. They crafted the marble altar. They carved the crucifix. Three immigrants from southern Italy stand out, their names Michael Girardi, Gaetano Farrugia, and Gennaro Di Pasquale. Known affectionately as the Three Musketeers, the three elderly men were specifically recognized for their contributions to the construction.
Across from the church is the celebrated Johnny’s Bar, an Italian restaurant with a city-wide reputation for excellent Italian food. Built on the site of what had been a grocery store, this section of the street was a largely rural area in the 19th century, consisting of many lakes, farms, and fruit trees. The restaurant was established in 1925 as Louise’s Gardens, named for its founder, Louise Santosuosso. Today, her grandson, Bo, and his brother, Joe, are the current owners.
It seems as though whenever a celebrity passes through Cleveland, they go to Johnny’s. “Oh God, there have been so many famous people here. Ricky keeps a list of them all, and it has names like Andy Williams on it,” Bo said. Ricky wasn’t available for comment, but Bo added a few names of his own to the list, which includes athletes, politicians, singers, and actors. Travis Hafner was a regular at Johnny’s, as was former Indians owner Dick Jacobs. Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Julius Erving, and Bill Russell have been here, too. Former Texas governor Rick Perry stopped by when the Republican National Convention met in Cleveland. Bo also mentioned music icons John Oates and actors such as Hal Holbrook.
Bo has seen a lot of things change over the years. Many iconic places from his childhood are gone now. Bozak’s dairy sold fresh milk straight from the farm and processed on site, and until it closed around 30 years ago, it was promoted as the best milk you could ever drink. Mussara’s was one of the first major grocery stores on the street. And many children would visit Kovar’s corner after school. “You could get a pop and play pinball for hours,” Bo reminisced.
The demographics of the street have changed as well. There was once a time when those who lived in this area of Fulton were almost entirely Italian. “It’s mixed now, a lot of Latinos live here now, especially from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic,” Bo observed. There are also many African American residents, although many Italian Americans still live on the street today.
As you continue down Fulton Road you pass a long-time neighborhood business, Joe De’s Pizzeria at Fulton and Sackett. You soon come to the Family Ministry Center housed in one of the buildings of the former Blessed Sacrament Parish.
Moving south, past the former Blessed Sacrament Church at Bush and Fulton, was the Lyceum Theatre. This neighborhood theatre opened in the 1930’s and closed in 1978. During the 1970’s the theatre showed porn. The Lyceum Theatre, later demolished, is now the site of the Fulton Branch of the Cleveland Public Library.
Once again, Fulton crosses another freeway, Interstate 71. One business along Fulton, before the freeway came through, was the Buechler-Jaeger Sausage Company. A number of years ago, Brookside Meats was located just two blocks further south along Fulton.
As we continue Fulton’s trek south from Franklin Circle, we cross Denison and arrive at the former Brookside Park and cross Big Creek as the street moves into Old Brooklyn where if you continue straight south the road briefly becomes a Fulton Parkway before losing its name at Memphis. If you go around the bend west on Park Drive, you will once again come to Fulton Road. This stretch of Fulton includes Estabrook Recreation Center, Dollar Bank, Drug Mart, Save-A-Lot and many other retail and service establishments. Fulton then crosses Memphis and continues its southward journey. It passes through a primarily residential neighborhood of a later vintage and finally terminates at its intersection with Pearl Road.