Walking along Fleet Avenue in Slavic Village, you can see the echoes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the area was bustling with businesses and family life of the Polish immigrants that settled in the area. The architecture of the two-story storefronts and 100-year-old buildings speaks of a bygone era. Signs, now faded, announce the laundromat, the village store, the neighborhood eatery.
Closer in, you see that the buildings that line the avenue are in various states of repair. Window and door frames peeling here, but pristine there. The front porch is sturdy on one house – next to a house where the floor is practically nonexistent. Yards with gardens that Holden Arboretum would covet sit next to empty lots that once held houses and businesses.
But on the block between 53rd and 54th, every structure is occupied. Anchored by the Slavic Village Learning Farm and the infiltration basin – a landscaped area engineered to collect water during heavy rainstorms – there’s a butcher shop, a garden center, a funeral home, a dentist, and an auto parts store. What’s happening here? And what can these business owners offer others wondering if they also might find a place on Fleet Avenue?
A block thrives
Along its full length between Aetna Road and I-77, Fleet Avenue is still home to many residents and businesses. Dotting the avenue, there’s Red Chimney and Vic’s Floral. There are barber shops, tax/accountant offices, printers, and convenience stores. And among these are empty buildings. Daisy’s Ice Cream, for example, after the death of former owner Walter Hyde, stands forlorn waiting for people to once again gather at the picnic tables.
But between East 53rd and 54th, there are no vacancies.
Bert’s and Son opened its doors on the block in 1946. The original shop was located in one room of the building – stocked by Bert Lisicki, who knew major auto parts. People knew Bert to be fair, reliable, and knowledgeable. A good reputation and well-stocked shop kept customers coming. Bert’s son, Jim, took the business over in 1981 and, with the reputation of the store firmly established, customers continue to come. Jim is now contemplating retirement – the store at 5331 Fleet is still open and shelves are still full, but he’s not ordering new parts. He has over 60 years worth of stuff to cull through. While he’s not closing the doors tomorrow, Bert’s and Son is winding down.
Across the street from Bert’s is Fortuna Funeral Home at 5316 Fleet. In 1958, Joseph L. Fortuna opened Fortuna in the building that had housed Holan Funeral Home. For three generations, Fortuna has been led by members of the family. Mary Ann Fortuna Trzaska, recently “retired” funeral director and lifelong resident of Slavic Village, recounts the ways her family’s business has been a source of presence and comfort for the neighborhood. Living upstairs from the business afforded them opportunities for real connections.
“When my dad would do funerals, they would invite the people upstairs,” she said. “My mother would make homemade bakery and coffee. Our kitchen table was where people would gather … So growing up, we knew nothing but people.” That sense of home, comfort, and presence continues to guide and inform the service the Fortuna family still offers the neighborhood.
Next to Fortuna at 5324 Fleet is the new kid on the block, Saucisson, a local butcher shop. They’ve been in the building on Fleet Avenue for five-and-a-half years, although they started in 2013 doing farmers markets and pop-up events on both the west and east sides of town. Their customer base was well established by the time they opened the doors.
Melissa Khoury, owner and head butcher, says she and her former business partner Penny Barend fell in love with the neighborhood and are excited about being a part of what is happening in Slavic Village.
“Every neighborhood,” she said, “deserves a business that takes care of their property and looks nice and is welcoming, but they also deserve investment.” In fact, that has become her leading argument when people wonder why she’s in Slavic Village. “Why not?” she said. “You should come over here. Don’t bash what you don’t know.”
Saucisson, the business, and Saucisson, the people within the building’s walls, care about the neighborhood. You’ll find them out in front shoveling the sidewalk and sweeping away the leaves. They engage people walking by. And then entering, you’re greeted with genuine warmth and welcome.
These three businesses, together with a dentist office and hydroponic store, anchor the 53rd-54th block of Fleet Avenue. A variety of businesses, to be sure, and what they hold in common is a dedication and commitment to the neighborhood. It’s about the people who live here and those who come to check it out.
What’s behind the success?
Chris Alvarado, executive director of the nonprofit organization Slavic Village Development (SVD), indicates this block is by design – it’s filled with legacy businesses, ones that have been around for decades, together with new businesses. SVD is interested in identifying nodes where there is already activity and moving out. One block east are two vacant lots that are being pitched by SVD for development.
Fleet Avenue has been the focus of substantial investment in the last decade – the streetscape cost $8.5 million and included full street reconstruction, landscaping, storm sewer work, sidewalks, signage, and street furniture. Since the streetscape overhaul, close to $1.5 million has been invested in rehab projects to vacant and underused buildings, says Marilyn Mosinki, business development officer for SVD.
A challenge for Fleet Avenue, according to Alvarado, is what other main streets experience – keeping retail establishments when so many businesses are now online. One solution? Populate buildings with businesses that you can’t replicate online – like an indoor garden center where expertise is important, or an artisan butcher shop where you have face to face conversations with the people cutting the meat.
Beyond the 53rd-54th block, some Fleet Rd. businesses like Seven Roses deli and Fleet Bikes have closed due to retirements, says Alvarado, but other new businesses have joined the street. He points to Andreoli Restoration, an artisan and custom fabrication shop at 5401 Fleet, and Boss K9, a dog training business at 5606 Fleet. Overall, SVD keeps an eye on the vacancy rate, and it is conducting its first formal occupancy survey. Results of that survey will be available in the first half of 2023, says Alvarado.
In thinking about Fleet Avenue as a place for locals or a destination, Alvarado says it has to be a bit of both. “Any good neighborhood begins with having the services, the businesses that service the neighborhood,” he said. “If you have a neighborhood that is just focused on the visitor experience, it atrophies.”
Sharon Core participated in The Land’s community journalism program.