Perhaps no souvenir from Cleveland quite captures the city’s underdog pride as the popular T-shirt that reads “Cleveland Against the World” by the artist Glen Infante. It’s a quick two-mile shopping trip west of downtown to get one at his store iLTHY, short for I Love The Hype, one of the lively shops in the arts- and entertainment-friendly Gordon Square Arts District.
Like many good-news stories in Cleveland these days, the growth of Gordon Square owes something to LeBron James. The Cleveland Cavaliers superstar acted as the executive producer on a 2016 CNBC reality TV show called “Cleveland Hustles” in which budding entrepreneurs, each mentored by established business owners, competed to win financial backing and open retail outlets in Gordon Square.
Whether the rebound needed Mr. James’s help is a matter of some debate in the area.
“To create good TV, you have to create a villain. That villain was vacancies,” said Ben Bebenroth, the chef and owner of Spice Kitchen & Bar who has been operating his farm-to-table restaurant in the district since 2012. He characterized growth in the past five years as “explosive,” adding that the last 12 months have been “epic.”
Gordon Square is the commercial heart of a larger neighborhood near Lake Erie known as Detroit Shoreway where, beginning in the mid-19th century, residents could walk to work at Union Carbide and Otis Elevator, among others plants that lined the lakeside railroad tracks. With industrial decline, many former warehouses and factories languished or were demolished.
Now, that vacant land is being filled with new residential construction. The Detroit Shoreway Community Development Organization (DSCDO), a nonprofit community advocacy group that has helped preserve many of the area’s historic buildings since its founding in 1973, reports that about 1,000 new residential condominiums and apartments are under construction here.
If Clevelanders are returning to the neighborhood, the DSCDO and area artistic nonprofits helped forge the magnet. Together they raised $30 million between 2006 and 2014 to fund new streetscaping in Gordon Square, including planting trees, and purchase the Capitol Theater, a 20s-era silent movie house, turning it into a three-screen complex exhibiting a mix of blockbuster and art films with children’s programming on summer mornings.
The campaign helped the Cleveland Public Theater, a champion of new and local plays, turn a Romanian Orthodox church into a rehearsal and classroom space. It also built the Near West Theater, a community theater, contributing to Gordon Square’s reputation as an entertainment district.
When the producers of “Cleveland Hustles” came knocking, Gordon Square was already humming with the new Superelectric Pinball Parlor, home to more than 20 vintage pinball games; a poutine-focused restaurant and beverage shop called Banter; and longtime tenants like Happy Dog, a bar that looks unchanged since the 1940s and is renowned for its myriad hot dog varieties and occasional polka parties.
“The neighborhood was going to be there with or without the show,” said Jonathon Sawyer, the chef and owner of the Greenhouse Tavern and other restaurants in Cleveland who appeared on “Cleveland Hustles” as a mentor to one team of entrepreneurs. “It was going in that direction, is going in that direction and buildings are still affordable.”
As a mentor, Mr. Sawyer was paired with the husband and wife team Phillip and Jackie Wachter, who produce elegant Italian leather bags designed and sewn in the city under the label Fount. The reality show helped them open a storefront with a sleek residential feel now filled with full-grain leather totes, slim clutches and sturdy backpacks.
Not all of the “Cleveland Hustles” winners were commercially successful: The owners of Cleveland-made Old City Soda, a soft drink company, competed and won financial backing to open a cocktail lounge, Old City Libations. The partners closed the bar this fall to focus on their original business.
Since the one-season “Cleveland Hustles” aired, Theater Ninjas, a performing arts company, City Breaks Cleveland, a hip-hop dance studio, and Astoria Café & Market, a Mediterranean restaurant and grocer, have opened in the neighborhood. More businesses have opened this fall including a jewelry store, Océanne Studio & Boutique, and Brewnuts, a restaurant that pairs craft beer and doughnuts. A spate of murals also has gone up, brightening the facades of local buildings.
According to Mr. Bebenroth of Spice Kitchen & Bar, patrons of the arts in the neighborhood have helped support his sustainably focused restaurant, which is supplied with produce from his farm located 20 miles south.
“Aligning with the arts attracts an educated, introspective demographic with disposable income who understand what we’re trying to do,” he said. “And the theater schedule is something we can bet on.”