Diversified in the News

Cleveland Rocks, Harwin Rolls

I'd like to make a modest prediction: Cleveland, OH will be the next Seattle. If you find this preposterous, it's because you haven't visited Cleveland lately. We have, and we fell in love with the place.

Okay, as an urban paradise Cleveland still falls a little short. However in studying the state of our great old industrial cities, one looks for trends, and the trend for Cleveland definitely points upward. Billing itself as "The City that Works," the official list of assets for this town would be enough. But our list goes more like this:

  • The Great Lakes Brewing Co., a new brewpub that features excellent beers.
  • Lorraine Street - a two mile stretch of intriguing shops that would satisfy anyone's hunger for antiques and ephemera.
  • The 1920's Alcazar Hotel with its Moorish architecture
  • Five diners
  • A guy named Steve Harwin.

Steve served as our host during our much-too-brief stay here, and we doubt that anyone could be more of a champion for this city. Because of his passion for the potential of Cleveland, Steve is bringing diners to the city and restoring them. Originally, he had a little cottage industry of "flipping" diners, or buying used relics and fixing them up a bit for resale. His track record thus far includes a Sterling Streamliner to Minnesota, a Manno/Mountain View to Connecticut, and very, very soon, a Silk City to Boston. "I'm not going to do that anymore. I think," Steve told us. "What I'd rather do is restore and set them up here in this town and retain an interest in the business." Steve sees great potential and growth here. What better way capitalize on it than to become Cleveland's diner-king?

Steve told us about many of his plans while sitting in the booth of his latest restoration project, the future Big Dig Diner that's going to Boston. This diner will be part of a project not unlike that of the Hollywood Diner in Baltimore. To be run by Joe Carpenito of the Log School, it will provide job training for disadvantaged urban kids while building their self esteem. Steve's restoration of this particular diner is nothing short of breathtaking. "I'm not making a dime off of this project," he reports. "In fact, I'm definitely losing money, but I really don't care. 1 want to see it done right." The booths we sat in best exemplify this attitude. Running my hand over the wood. I realized that it couldn't possibly be pine. The satiny smooth texture and the density indicated something better. Much better. "What kind of wood is this, Steve? Birch?" He shook his head, replying, "Cherry."

His reason for using cherry-wood was simple: "It's what Silk City originally used in this diner. I had to match up the old and the new trim, and I could have used something much cheaper, but you know how it is" restoring diners just gets under the skin, and the love for their design takes over. Despite the fact that Cherry probably costs five times more than the next lower grade of hardwood, authenticity and quality become the overriding concerns.

And he speaks from experience. One visit to Ruthie& Moe's Diner in Cleveland clearly illustrates this. In 1993 Steve purchased the Kullman annex to the Birmingham Grill in West Chester, PA. Ruthy & Moe's growing business necessitated some kind of expansion. Steve persuaded owners Ruthie and Moe Helman to purchase the annex, have him restore it, and attach it to their existing 1939 O'Mahony.

Having seen the annex before it was moved to Cleveland and then after it was installed, I can see that Steve not only knows what he's doing, he also understand why it needs to be done. Customers enthusiastically respond to the quality inherent in the design, and especially to its proper restoration. Partly because of the publicity surrounding the annex's installation, and partly because of the fine food the Helmans serve, the lunch crowds became so big that a waiting list developed! Steve tells us they're going to have to open up for dinners. Their business is growing too fast to ignore it." The diner is indeed proving to be one of the most popular restaurants in the city, and partly because it provides an atmosphere in which anyone can feel comfortable. Our visit for breakfast was shared by a good cross-section of the Cleveland community: investment bankers, bus drivers, artists, and mechanics, of all ages, colors, and sexes, made up a scene that couldn't have been more ideal if it were staged for a movie. Ruthie & Moe's embodies the true democratic essence of "diner."

The future for Cleveland holds even more diners. Sitting in storage, besides the Big Dig, is the former Pole Tavern Diner, Walter's Diner (a diner that was originally shipped to Cleveland, but later sold and moved to PA), and the former Short Stop Diner, just shipped in from Belleville, NJ. Working with city planners, Steve's proposals to site his diners are taken seriously. His track record has established his credentials, both to city hall and to the diner world, and Cleveland now sees these places as assets and enhancements to the quality of life of its citizenry.

The problems that still face Cleveland loom large, certainly. Expansive sections of town are still blighted, and the closure of most of the steel mills caused levels of unemployment that are declining, but slowly. A replacement for these major engines of employment has yet to show up on the horizon, but I suspect that it lurks there somewhere. Cleveland has an energy level rarely seen in other cities of its size. A drive around town uncovers a growing number of little boutiques and cafes. It teems with young people, explained by the number of colleges, of course, but it also seems that many are staying on after graduation. Many larger cities like Boston and San Francisco also benefit from this phenomenon, and it lays the groundwork for future prosperity.

Steve Harwin's role in this is relatively small, but not insignificant. We've stated many times before that good diners help make good communities, and though it is a small part of the overall quilt of life in any town, removing it exposes so many frayed ends. Building healthy communities compares closely to building any enterprise; it requires attention to the smallest of details first. Anything, well-nurtured at the smallest level lives to grow strong.