Then & Now: The Flats
Revival of a Cleveland hotspot
By Kelsey O'Donnell
We're not calling it a comeback; we’re calling it a revival. Because in Cleveland, we know a thing or two about second chances. And if you haven't made it to The Flats in the past year or two, you've got to see what's happening.
But it takes an understanding of the area's past to appreciate its present and look to the future.
Located on the banks of the Cuyahoga River, the Flats are aptly named for their low-lying topography. Around 1796, early settlers landed in the Flats before taking to higher ground—what is now Downtown—to survive the humid summers and harsh winters. Lorenzo Carter was Cleveland’s first permanent settler, and a replica of his 1797 log cabin can still be seen on the East Bank of the river near Center Street Bridge.
Cleveland grew to be a world shipping power thanks to the development of the Ohio and Erie Canal in the 1820s. The canal brought trade from the Ohio River, and soon the Flats became an epicenter for shipping companies, warehouses and dive bars for factory workers and sailors alike.
In 1892, new industry took to the Flats. With the development of streetcars in the city, the need for the electricity to power them became apparent. Marcus Hanna saw this need as an opportunity. Hanna commissioned the building of a new powerhouse to generate power for the Woodland & West Side Street Railway Co., his own electric street line. Thus, the Powerhouse on the West Bank of the Cuyahoga was built. Just three years later, the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company, Hanna’s rival, responded with their own streetcar powerhouse on the East Bank of the Flats. The two streetcar lines battled it out for more than 20 years before they both closed their doors after the invention of the automobile.
The Flats bounced back after the Powerhouse closed by becoming a bustling entertainment district. Bars, night clubs and restaurants were popping up. Places like The Cove, Harbor Inn, the Flat Iron Café and D’Poos drew crowds to the banks of the Cuyahoga every weekend. Chain restaurants and locally owned bars were thriving on both sides of the river.
The hustle and bustle in the Flats came to a screeching halt in the early 2000s because three drowning deaths occurred in one month and health and safety inspections began to crack down. Neon signs were replaced with boarded up windows overnight. The once-popular weekend destination became desolate and dangerous. For 10 years, the Flats was completely neglected.
The Flats are on their way to being back and better than ever. The revival kicked off in 2012 with the opening of the Cleveland Aquarium in the old Powerhouse building. From there it was onward and upward. By 2013, three upscale restaurants opened their doors for business with nine more joining them in 2015. Restaurants, bars and night clubs are making their way back to the Flats. Thanks to a co-project of Fairmount Properties and the Wolstein Group, the East Bank got a total face lift. Punch Bowl Social, Alley Cat Oyster Bar and FWD Day + Night Club top the list of Flats newcomers, while oldies like the Flat Iron Café and Harbor Inn are still dishing up our favorites.
The Flats are still home to steel and oil industries. Though many of the steel mills shut down when the Flats were neglected, some still operate. ArcelorMittal is a prominent force in the Cleveland steel industry. John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil once called the banks of the Cuyahoga home, but now the Marathon Petroleum Corporation controls the majority of the oil industry on the river.