Cleveland’s resilient history can be found in its neighborhoods and its people: Phillip Morris

January 6, 2019

Cleveland’s resilient history can be found in its neighborhoods and its people: Phillip Morris

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Browns wide receiver Jarvis Landry is currently my favorite Cleveland personality. When he recently learned that the Baltimore Ravens were formerly the Cleveland Browns, Landry’s reaction was priceless and sincere.

“Damn, that hurts. That hurts,” the young man repeated with a grimace that longtime Browns fans understand only too well. Yes, the defection did hurt. It still does. Landry, who was a toddler in Louisiana when the Browns skipped town in 1995, now has a fuller appreciation of our pain and suffering. He’s one of us. He’s absorbed an important part of Cleveland history.

As Landry is belatedly discovering, this town is full of rich history worth understanding and exploring for newcomers as well as lifers. Not all of the history is painful narratives of financial default or residential and business abandonment. Far more of Cleveland’s history is glorious and a continuing testament to visionaries, strong-willed people and builders. The city’s history is seeded throughout its neighborhoods. You just have to know where to look to find Cleveland’s own salt of the earth.

Sokolowski’s University Inn in Tremont is a good neighborhood place to start. The family-owned restaurant is a gold mine that never fails to satisfy. It has extraordinary food, crowds of friendly people, and world-class owners. The place routinely teems with amateur historians and people well-versed in hometown lore. It anchors a neighborhood rich in restaurants, coffee shops and small retail merchants.

I’ll never forget a time in the mid-1990s when the late Gerald Gordon and I went to Sokolowski’s for lunch, and Jerry spotted Lou Groza dining by himself in the front dining room. I didn’t recognize the celebrated Browns tackle and placekicker, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1974. My mentor did.

“Go introduce yourself to Mr. Groza. He’s a nice guy,” Jerry said, motioning in the direction of the large man.

“Who is Mr. Groza,” I responded.

I was having my own Jarvis Landry moment.

Jerry shot me a surprised look and deadpanned: “Lou ‘The Toe’ Groza. I thought you were a football fan,” he teased.

My friend was right. Groza was every bit as nice and approachable as Jerry said he would be. The Browns legend didn’t seem to mind interrupting his meal for a brief conversation. That’s Sokolowski’s. Full of nice people. Salt of the earth.

The restaurant lost a generous dash of its salt this past week when its house piano player died. That’s the primary reason the place is currently on my mind. Tom Ballog, Sokolowski’s house musician, passed at the age of 73. I didn’t know Ballog more than to greet him and to thank him for songs he would play whenever I occasionally requested. His loss will be felt by many who revere the sense of place and time he helped create in a restaurant that feels more like a community meeting place with deep comfort food.

Finally, my favorite Sokolowski’s stories involve Bernie Sokolowski, one of the three sibling owners of the family restaurant. The day after Sokolowski’s University Inn won a highly prestigious James Beard (American Classics) Award in 2014, Bernie returned from the fancy awards banquet in New York City prepared to bask a bit in the glory of the award. It wasn’t meant to be.

When he reported to work that morning, he was instantly pressed into service to fix a toilet that had gone on the blink. One day, he was standing on top of the restaurant world. The next day he was on his knees fixing a toilet in Tremont.

It doesn’t get any more full Cleveland than that. Salt of the earth.

The city is full of such rich history and amazing people. In this age of Amazon and Uber Eats, you just have to go find them. What better time to start such a local odyssey than a New Year?

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