By Ed Staskus
The Chinese started settling in the United States in the 18th century. Wherever whenever there were enough of them, they lived close to hand, building their own neighborhoods, appropriately called Chinatowns. There are more than 50 of them across the United States, including at least 16 in California alone.
There are several of the towns within cities in New York City, the most famous one being in Manhattan. It’s the largest Chinatown in the country, spread out over 40 blocks and home to more than 150,000 Chinese-speaking residents.
Cleveland, Ohio used to have a Chinatown, a colony at Rockwell Ave. near downtown. Immigrants settled in the area starting in the 1920s. After the Communist takeover of the mainland and into the 1960s more than 2,000 lived in the neighborhood. There was a row of Chinese restaurants, among them the Three Sisters, Golden Coin, and Shanghai, as well as two grocery stores between East 21st and East 24th. Storehouses in the district supplied native eateries one end of the city to the other. There was a temple and a meeting hall.
Chinatown went into sharp decline in the early 1970s and a few years later, when I moved into what was becoming Asia Town, there wasn’t much left. Most of the residents moved to the suburbs and by the 1980s there were only two half-empty restaurants holding on, catering mostly to business folk and occasional tourists looking for the city’s historic Chinese quarter.
Asia Town is roughly from East 18th St. to East 40th St. and from St. Clair Ave. to Perkins Ave. It has the highest percentage of Chinese, Koreans, and Vietnamese in Ohio. When I lived on East 34th St. between Payne Avenue and Superior Ave. in the mid to late 70s, there weren’t as many yellow faces yet but they were everywhere. There were dirt poor whites, dirt poor blacks, and a recent influx of college students. It wasn’t as present-day as it would become after the 1990s when Asia Plaza was built at East 30th St. and Payne Ave., when it became a business as well as a residential community.
My roommate Carl Poston was tall, walked with a lanky slouch, and wore a mop of twisty black hair. Everybody called him Erby. He never said why, and I never asked. He liked to read, tearing through the Plain Dealer newspaper every morning, and liked to play chess, like me, but was better than me. He had a bad-ass motorcycle and several bad-ass friends with motorcycles. He worked downtown for the city helping crunch numbers and delivering bad news as Cleveland went under.
In 1978 the city became the first one in the United States to go bust since the Great Depression. After the bankruptcy it became known as the Mistake on the Lake, a nickname nobody in the hometown liked. When Mayor George Voinovich showed up at a Cleveland Indians game against the New York Yankees in the 1980s wearing a t-shirt under his sports coat, the t-shirt said, “New York’s the Big Apple, but Cleveland’s a Plum.” Only the Asians liked the plum thing, since plums represent purity and perseverance to them. Nicknames come and go but when Cleveland later became ‘The Land,’ nobody shook their heads in despair. It was far better than the mistake and the plum.
Our house on East 34th St. was behind another house. There was no backyard or garage. Almost all the houses on the west side of the street were that way. The houses across the street had backyards and most of the houses in the neighborhood had backyards. But there were some houses so tucked away one had to be looking right at them to see them. Our rent was more than reasonable, and my half was even better. The landlord lived in Strongsville. His grandmother lived in Asia Town, like me. In return for checking up on her at the beginning of the week and taking her to Dave’s Grocery at the end of the week, I lived almost rent-free.
Her name was Katya, and she was hundreds of years old. She was five foot four something short and hunchbacked on top of that. She was always in her kitchen when I knocked on the side door, she always croaked “Come in, honey,” and when I went in, she always asked me what I wanted.
She had three cats who I never saw. She kept a pan of water next to the door for them but no food bowls or litter. They were freeloaders, running down grub in the wild. She had a stack of old newspapers in a corner and the linoleum kitchen floor was usually covered with them. It was sketchy walking inside. The unfolded papers piled haphazardly on top of each other slid every which way. I had to walk like a duck to stay upright.
“I keep my kitchen floor clean that way.” she said, peeling back the corner of a newspaper and showing me.
She bought her clothes from third hand stores but bought her shoes new. She was crazy frugal, but she wasn’t crazy. She was built to last, and her feet had to lead the way.
Katya was from Slovenia, from sometime back in the 19th century. Her parents were peasants from a village nobody ever heard of southeast of Ljublijana. They came to Cleveland to work in the steel mills in the 1890s. At first, they lived in Newburgh, but when a community started forming along East 30th St., from Lake Erie south to Superior Ave., they moved, finally landing on East 38th St. She still lived in the small house her parents bequeathed her.
By 1910 there were so many Slovenes in Cleveland that it would have been the third-largest Slovenian city in the world if it was in Slovenia. The immigrants opened enough taverns to drown their New World blues and enough churches to repent their drinking. St Vitus was established in 1893, St. Lawrence in 1901, and St. Mary in 1906. Each had its own school. They published their own newspapers in their mother tongue and formed debating drama and singing clubs.
The singing clubs were stamping grounds, as well. The Lira Singing Society, located in the St. Clair neighborhood, and adamantly Catholic, was opposed by the Zaria Singing Society, sponsored by atheists and socialists. Everybody knew what the arguments were about.
Katya was married long enough to have two sons before her husband was shot by mistake by a policeman outside a Collinwood bank during a botched robbery. He bled to death before an ambulance could reach him. She buried him in Woodlawn Cemetery, never married again, raising her sons by herself. She took in sewing days and worked nights during World War Two. Her oldest son moved to Seattle and she never saw him again. Her younger son moved to the west side and had a family, but they didn’t want to visit her.
“We aren’t going to your crazy grandmother’s house in that terrible neighborhood, and that’s final,” his wife said. What the woman didn’t know was that Katya kept a loaded Colt Pocket Hammerless in her kitchen table drawer. It was a single action blowback .32 caliber handgun.
“Nobody going to shoot me by accident,” she said.
Her eldest grandson loved her and made sure she had what she needed to stay afloat. She had a small pension and some social security, too. She told me she had silver dollars buried in the backyard, but quickly shot me a wily look.
“Forget I say that.”
When Katya’s husband Janez was buried in Woodlawn, it was the oldest cemetery in Cleveland, the first man being inhumed there in 1853. It was the worst cemetery in Cleveland, too. The Depression wrecked its finances. There were sunken graves, toppled headstones, grass never mowed, piles of rotting leaves, and broken tree branches all over the place. That was before the city found out Louise Dewald, who worked in the finance office, had stolen almost half a million in today’s dollars from the coffers as the Depression picked up steam.
After that it got worse.
The cemetery chapel roof and the rest of it collapsed in 1951 and was hauled away. The next year City Council thought about digging up and moving all the bodies somewhere else, but the public outcry was too great. Katya never stopped visiting Janez, no matter what, no matter what it took to get there.
One Friday walking her home from Dave’s Grocery she asked me if I could take her to the Slovenian National Home the next afternoon for a luncheon.
“I don’t have a car anymore, Katya, sorry.” My 1962 Rambler Custom Six, that I had gotten for free, was no more. When I got it, the car was already on its last legs. It was now rusting peacefully away in a junk lot somewhere up on Carnegie Ave.
“Oh,” she said. “Maybe you walk with me there?”
“It’s pretty far,” I said. I didn’t mention taking a bus. She distrusted the metropolitan buses getting to where they were going, ever since the city’s rail tracks had been torn up and the electric cars replaced with diesel transport. She believed half the drivers were addled from the fumes.
The Home was almost thirty blocks away on East 64th St. and St. Clair Ave. At the rate she walked we would have to start as we spoke. After the luncheon we would have to walk the whole night to get back.
“Oh, that too bad. Janez and I dance there all the time before he die.”
“Let me see what I can do.”
I asked my roommate Carl, in return for my washing the dishes, cleaning the house, and mowing our grave-sized plot of grass, if he would take her there and back.
“It’s a deal,” he said.
The next day he schlepped her to the Slovenian Home on his Harley, waiting outside smoking cigarettes and shooting the bull with passersby. She was a big hit with her cronies when they spilled outside after the gabbing and feedbag and saw her climb on the back of the hog, wrap her stumpy arms around Carl’s waist, and glide away.
The Slovenian Home was where my Baltic kinsmen booked their big wedding receptions and celebrations. The Lithuanian Hall on Superior Ave. was too small in the 1960s and the new Community Center in North Collinwood wasn’t built yet. The Home opened in 1924, with two auditoriums, a stage, bar restaurant kitchen, meeting rooms, a gym, and a Slovenian National Library.
The main auditorium was plenty big enough for any get together and the stage was plenty big enough for any band. The bar was big enough for even Lithuanians. Europeans drink more alcohol than anybody else in the world and Lithuanians are number one in Europe. Whenever I accompanied my parents to the Slovenian Home for a reception or gala, it was always a long night. There was a big dinner at big round tables, speeches, chatting it up, dancing, drinking, and as the drinking went on, singing. My father and his friends would booze it up well into one and two in the morning, singing “In the Sea of Palanga” and “The Old Roofs of Vilnius” and “Oh, Don’t Cry, Beloved Mother.”
By then I was snoozing sprawled out in the balcony.
Unlike our no backyard house Katya had a backyard where she grew Brussels sprouts cauliflower broccoli onions potatoes and anything else she could squeeze in. She liked prosciutto and bread for lunch. Sundays she made loads of yota with turnips beans cabbage and potatoes and a slab of meat loaf with hardboiled eggs in the middle. She kept it in the fridge all week, dinner at her beck and call.
That fall I had to tell Katya that once the school quarter at Cleveland State University was over, I was going to have to take the next quarter off. I had found a job with an electrostatic painting outfit that was going to send me on the road, expenses like food and motels paid, for a couple of months. We were going to start in Chicago, swing out to the west coast, end up in Texas, and be back in time for the spring quarter at CSU. It was chance for me to earn good money and save almost all of it.
“I going to miss you,” she said.
We traveled in three-man crews and worked nights, from about 5:30 to about 1 in the morning. We worked in offices, painting office furniture like metal filing cabinets, desks, bookcases, and storage cabinets. The paint was loaded with a low voltage positive charge and the metal items magnetized negative. The finish was like new, no runs, no brush or roller marks, and there was almost no overspray.
When I got back from my two-and-a-half months on the road, I picked up my cat Mr. Moto from my parents, did my laundry, and registered for classes for the spring quarter at CSU. I went to visit Katya that evening, but she wasn’t there anymore. The house was vacant. A “For Sale” sign was posted. I asked one of the neighbors, but he said he didn’t know much, just that a moving truck pulled up one morning and by the end of the day she was gone.
I peeked through the windows. The ground floor rooms were all empty. The only thing left was a stack of old newspapers in a corner of the kitchen.
Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”