Lenten Fish Frydays and Polka Dances: Creating Community in Working-Class Cleveland

This week I joined about 40 Clevelanders for Belt Magazine’s industrial tour of Cleveland. It was my first time visiting this part of the city, and we were lucky to have Dr. John J. Grabowski, a Cleveland native and professor of history at Case Western Reserve University, as our guide.

I enjoyed learning about Cleveland’s industrial heritage and talking with fellow tour-goers afterward about some of the changes the city is undergoing, but the building where we met before and after the tour, the Slovenian National Home (a.k.a. “the Nash”) on E. 80th Street in Slavic Village, fascinated me the most. In this post, I’ll incorporate some of what I learned on the tour itself into a discussion of the Slovenian National Home as a social and cultural center for working-class Clevelanders.

The Nash

The familiar smell and the decor of the Nash immediately reminded of various church and social events (including a regular bowling game) that I went to with my paternal grandma when I was a kid. This branch of the Slovenian National Home in Cleveland–one of 8 such “homes” around the city–was built in 1919 and served as the social and cultural heart of the South Slavic community. The building is BIG, and houses a gorgeous ballroom with a stage (see photo below–the molding is beautiful), a meeting room, and another large area for eating (Lenten fish fries!), dancing (complete with disco balls), and perhaps for bingo or other games. Downstairs there is a bar and lounge–with an old phone booth, a jukebox, and only a men’s restroom (ladies, your restroom, complete with an anteroom where you can actually sit and have a rest, is just outside the bar), and bowling lanes that were installed in 1949. It appears that the last major updates to furnishings, fixtures, and carpets were made in the 1970s.

The Slovenian National Home in Cleveland's Slavic Village
The Slovenian National Home in Cleveland’s Slavic Village

The building has served many social functions over the years, hosting birthday and first communion parties, wedding receptions, community (polka) dances, concerts, plays, singing societies, political organizational meetings, and religious functions (Susel, 1998). The walls upstairs are covered with photographs of members who have been honored at the “Slovenes of the Year Awards” for their good works in the community.

“Slovenian” has historically referred to people from South Slavic ethnic groups, speaking South Slavic languages and living in what is today Slovenia, Austria, Hungary, Croatia, and Italy. There were three major waves of Slovenian immigration to Cleveland: 1890-1914, 1919-24, and 1949-60  (Susel, 1998). Many immigrants to the US had been impoverished farmers back home and came to Cleveland to work in its steel mills and in the garment industries. The first immigrants were young, single men, but then entire families came over and communities began to form. To protect and advance their political, religious, and economic interests, Slovenian community leaders formed various national fraternal and social organizations in the late 1890s. Eventually, from around 1915 and into the 1920s, each neighborhood in Cleveland developed its own “National Home” that became the cultural core of the Slovenian community. The area now known as Slavic Village was also home to communities of Czech and Polish immigrants, which formed the Village’s largest ethnic sub-neighborhoods, and Dr. Grabowski mentions that it was by no means only Slovenes who enjoyed and spent time in the Slovenian National Homes.

People from Slavic Village began to relocate to the suburbs in the postwar period as industry and manufacturing in Cleveland declined. Preservation and neighborhood groups emerged in the late 70s, trying to protect Slavic Village from the effects of decline and encourage more people with Central/Eastern European heritage to move to or stay in the neighborhood. It was in the 70s that the neighborhood was renamed “Slavic Village” in an attempt to encourage growth–before that, it was known variously as Broadway, Newburgh, and/or Warszawa.*


The current owner of the Nash, attorney Anthony Trzaska, spent a lot of time there while growing up in Slavic Village; his parents and grandparents both had their wedding receptions there, and he celebrated his first communion there. But the neighborhood is changing; younger generations are moving out of Slavic Village or they no longer identify with their Slovenian heritage, and the Nash fell on hard times as membership dwindled and the old building needed constant maintenance. Trzaska purchased the Nash, which he describes as “a family member,” when he found out the organization was selling the building, and he is in the process of making the property more relevant and sustainable. To try to introduce younger generations to the wonders of the Nash, he’s kept staples like the Fish Frydays and polka dances, but has added open bowling nights and more extensive and regular use of the bar and lounge area. To be a full member, you must be Slovenian (I think), but you can get a social membership to the Nash that allows you to use the facilities there, like the bowling alley, and get discounts on drinks and events/activities (a one-year social membership to the Nash was included as part of the industrial heritage tour).

 Social Clubs and Community

Though I didn’t have firsthand experience of them growing up, I had heard of societies like “National Homes” and other types of ethnic and social clubs that had sprung up in industrial communities and cities. The only historical ethnic society I was personally familiar with was Italian Hall in the historical copper mining town of Calumet, Michigan. The Hall was the home of the Societa Mutua Beneficenza Italiana (i.e. “the Italian Mutual Benefit Society;” the related and still active Italian Mutual Benefit Association was founded in 1914). Built in 1908, Italian Hall was smaller than the Nash, but also served as a gathering place and cultural center for Italian immigrants to the area. It’s infamous for the 1913 Massacre/Disaster. Non-Italian members of the community also made regular use of the Hall; on the night of the 1913 Disaster, people from many different ethnic backgrounds were gathered there for a Christmas Eve celebration. The building was torn down in the 1980s after years of vacancy, but its archway still stands as a memorial to victims of the disaster.

Other buildings around Calumet indicate the ethnic origins of the region’s immigrants, like the Norwegian Methodist Church, the Croatian Co-operative, the Finnish National Lutheran Church, and the Swedish Methodist Church. However, most of the other community institutions I’m familiar with in industrial towns and cities were created by companies as a form of paternalism–schools, public libraries, public bathhouses, sports teams,  and bands (see Hoagland, 2010)–and instead of supporting separate ethnic communities, managers and company owners tried to meld different ethnic groups to build loyal, company-based communities of workers. It is true that the mining companies in the Keweenaw funded churches for different religions and ethnic groups (as evidenced above), but in general, with big mining companies like Calumet & Hecla and Quincy, the goal was to create communities and loyalties based on one’s employer and not one’s ethnic group.

The bar and lounge area in the Nash, with a mural painted in the 1960s
The bar and lounge area in the Nash, with a mural painted in the 1960s

Thinking about the Nash, I’m also reminded of the proliferation of fraternal and social clubs that emerged from the late 19th century/early 20th century: the Loyal Order of Moose (1888), the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks (1868), the Fraternal Order of Eagles (1898), the Lions Club (1917), Rotary International (1905), the American Legion (1919), and the Masonic Lodge (the Freemasons were around earlier and are a workers guild that later turned into a social organization). Some of these organizations began as private clubs that formed to circumvent laws regulating the operating hours of taverns (i.e. to have access to alcohol), but then later expanded to become community service organizations that raise money for and champion various social causes. As mentioned above, membership was restricted to men in the earlier days, but nearly all of these groups have long had “women’s auxiliary” components, or they just include women as full members. Women also formed their own clubs and organizations around the turn of the century on, though they’re not as well known, and many of them were location-based, focusing on specific community needs.

I’ve seen the Art Deco shells of defunct or declining Moose and Elks clubs in the small towns and cities I’ve lived in (including Bloomington, Indiana, where an old Moose Lodge was recently turned into a martini bar), but I also know posts that are still active, though not hugely popular. The town closest to where I grew up had a Moose Lodge where they held regular pancake breakfasts and fish fries to benefit various community initiatives. I didn’t care much for fish as a kid, but I loved the pancake breakfasts because I got to eat out with my family (there were 6 of us and we lived in a rural area, so we didn’t eat out a lot when I was growing up), and I knew I’d see some of my friends from school there, too. We didn’t go often, but I liked sitting down with everyone, sharing a table, and eating pancakes together. The Moose Lodge in this town continues to have various fundraisers and social events–including pancake breakfasts, fish fries, poker and bingo nights, an annual fishing derby, and an annual pasty sale. The community also has and makes good use of an American Legion, which is still a popular venue for wedding receptions.

Sometimes one’s social “club” was the neighborhood bar or pub. On the industry tour, Dr. Grabowski pointed out an old neighborhood bar, the Elconga Club, where his mother and her friends used to congregate regularly for drinks after his father died. It was a form of social support and relief for her. Throughout the tour, we saw myriad small bars, clubs, restaurants, diners, and other businesses that had been shuttered by Cleveland’s declining population and by the removal of businesses from residential districts. Dr. Grabowski said that there used to be a neighborhood place or a handful of them–bars, restaurants, a store–that served as gathering places where people would frequent to catch up on community news, talk politics, celebrate together, and shoot the breeze. Cleveland experienced the same removal to the suburbs from the 50s on that other big American cities went through at the time, as the freeway system grew and business and residents moved beyond city limits.

As I mentioned above, religious institutions also function as community “homes” for members of a congregation (and one’s religion can be a reflection of her ethnic heritage). My grandma’s bowling league that I mentioned above, made up of ladies from her church, afforded her some time for socializing and recreating (and the ladies always gave my sister and I powdered sugar donut holes to snack on, so we were cool). When my father passed away unexpectedly in 2009, members of the Methodist church that his parents have attended for decades, people I either had never met or hadn’t seen since I was very young, came together and made a big meal for everyone after the memorial service. I remember being very grateful that my grandparents (and by extension we, my immediate family) had this network of people who were willing to make us a hot meal and sit down and eat with us on one of the hardest days of our lives.

Photos from the
Photos from the “Slovenes of the Year” ceremonies

Conclusions: Imprints of a Community

All of these neighborhood institutions served similar roles as extended families for people who had been displaced from their own extended families and social networks, whether by moving to a new country or by migrating from rural areas and small towns into a densely-packed cities, as many Americans did after the Civil War. Members witnessed supported, and celebrate with each other through the immigration/migration processes and the adjustments they entail, births, weddings, illnesses, deaths, graduations, job losses, and religious rites of passage. Like residential homes, the structural locations of these organizations almost always include a space for coming together, a space for preparing food and eating together, and a space (or multiple spaces) for having fun and enjoying one another’s company, whether it was through playing poker or dancing to some good polka music.

I am unabashedly nostalgic about the Nash and places like it–I never had access to anything like that growing up, mainly because I think social attitudes about the importance of belonging to a community, or multiple communities, had changed by the time I was born (the latter half of the 80s). Institutions like the Nash and the communities that had formed around them had gone through various transitions by that time, including war (WWII specifically), periods of economic decline, job loss, and deindustrialization, urban renewal and urban sprawl, the creation of freeway systems, and migration out of cities and into the suburbs.

What does the future look like for places like the Nash? The current owner seems to be doing a great job of keeping its community ties intact while also inviting younger generations to come and learn about/enjoy the space. Some older neighborhood organizations and bars in larger cities are seeing a resurgence in popularity; younger people are looking for “authentic” and unique places to visit in the city, and developers can often help these buildings (if not the communities that formed them) transition into a new phase of life. In this case, no one is being displaced by the Nash, and the structure is not being demolished or even drastically changed. Still, a lot of people would still call this a form of or precursor to “gentrification,” as the older, poorer parts of a city become “cool” again to the influx of young people moving back into cities like Cleveland and Detroit, changing the dynamic of neighborhoods even if  they don’t displace residents. But what are the other options for places like this that were created by and for communities that have dwindled over the years or that simply no longer exist? 

The reaction to the decline and loss of  communities expressed in many arguments against gentrification and redevelopment isn’t always nostalgia for a bygone era or imagined “better days.”  I think that the sadness and regret people are expressing are part of a genuine reaction to the pain and trauma that empty, ailing neighborhood clubs, “homes,” and pubs represent. These buildings are imprints of a community that’s either not there or not as vibrant as it once was.

After a talk I attended in Detroit’s Lafayette Park on Friday, given by sociologist, urban planner, and activist Harriet Saperstein, who has lived in Detroit and in Lafayette Park since 1963, some younger members of the audience were asking her how they can revive the sense of community that she’d described during her talk. Saperstein had shared with us her history and talked about the life that she and her family built in Lafayette Park when they moved there from New York. She first lived in the Lafayette East Cooperative, a high-rise that originally had 28 residential floors, each with 12 units. She described the sense of friendship and community she felt there: neighbors taking care of one another and offering to pick things up from the store (the Park had its own shopping center), kids flying in and out of open apartment doors (no need to schedule playdates), annual Easter egg hunts, 4-5 family potlucks that doubled community meetings, and the school that residents had worked hard to establish.

Saperstein sees that type of community–where residents are invested in each other’s welfare because they recognize that it directly impacts their own–as slowly fading. People are moving into the Park for the cachet, she says, not really understanding what it means to live in a co-op and to have the responsibility that comes with being part of a community where residents govern what happens to and within the neighborhood. The young woman sitting next to me, a newcomer to the neighborhood, told Saperstein that people her age, in their 20s and 30s, weren’t really interested in learning about the development’s history or becoming part of a community like this, in this part of town. Saperstein and other members of the audience traced this attitude back to the postwar era of urban renewal and the displacement and division of communities that resulted from slum clearance, white flight, the closure of factories, and the construction of freeways through many of the city’s historic neighborhoods, including the predominantly black residential neighborhood of Black Bottom and its business/entertainment district, Paradise Valley, which were cleared in the 50s and 60s to make way for new developments (in fact, that land would lie vacant for many years before becoming Lafayette Park and the Chrysler Freeway).

In Detroit in particular, but in other big cities, as well, the trauma of those historical, cyclical processes–of communities being uprooted to make way for new development–still influences the way people today interact with one another and how they approach the idea of being part of a community or neighborhood. It impacted generations of young people who for various reasons didn’t grow up with a large community networks, and who may want those connections now, but don’t know where to start. Perhaps (re)introducing people to historic cultural institutions like the Nash and Lafayette Park and talking about what they have represented to different people over the years can give younger generations a sense of what it means to be part of a community, and can help them rebuild and re-form historical cultural institutions that can serve their present-day needs.

Willies Bar in Cleveland, a defunct neighborhood joint
Willies Bar in Cleveland, a defunct neighborhood joint

*I know that Slavic village was called something else before the 70s, but am not exactly sure what…”Broadway” is my best guess based on the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, which I cite below and which I drew on for the section about Slovenian immigration to Cleveland. I am not sure 100% (Clevelanders, feel free to correct me!), but I think that Broadway, Newburgh, and Warszawa are all distinct neighborhoods or historic districts today.


  1. Detroit Historical Society, “Black Bottom Neighborhood.” Encyclopedia of Detroit. http://detroithistorical.org/learn/encyclopedia-of-detroit/black-bottom-neighborhood
  2. Hoagland, Alison K., Mine Towns: Buildings for Workers In Michigan’s Copper Country. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
  3. Susel, Rudolph M. “Slovenes.” The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. Cleveland, OH: Case Western Reserve University, May 13, 1998. Western Reserve Historical Society. http://ech.case.edu/cgi/article.pl?id=S16.
  4. Trattner, Douglas. “Long Live The Nash: How One Young Professional Plans to Save a Beloved Neighborhood Asset.” Cleveland Scene. February 26, 2014. Accessed July 25, 2015. http://www.clevescene.com/scene-and-heard/archives/2014/02/26/long-live-the-nash-how-one-young-professional-plans-to-save-a-beloved-neighborhood-asset.

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