Jim Brennan’s Colony, and the community that fosters Cleveland sports fandom: While We’re Waiting

photo4

It’s been almost two years since I posted at WFNY regularly, but when Jacob asked if I could fill in for him on WWW a couple days ago, I said “yes” without really thinking about it. And, well, maybe I should have thought a bit more about my ability to authoritatively write about Cleveland sports, and share items I find insightful about Cleveland sports. The years I’ve spent away from home continue to grow, while adding a wife and kid have shrunk the time once dedicated to staying on top of things from afar. The enthusiasm still exists, but I’ve never felt less informed or up-to-speed on Cleveland sports and more disconnected from where I grew up and spent most of my life. Then something happened this week and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about home.

Most WFNY readers are probably aware of the news, or at least the headline, that Jim Brennan, the owner of a bar and restaurant on the near Eastside in Cleveland Heights was murdered during a robbery attempt at his Colony on Monday afternoon. Since I received a series of text messages from friends alerting me to the developing story, I’ve constantly run Twitter searches, visited all the local Cleveland TV news sites, and refreshed Cleveland.com for updates, reaction, and reflection on this tragedy. I gobbled up all things Johnny Manziel on Draft night, bought the shirt for my kid, and monitored all manner of reactions to the draft pick. But nothing has me thinking of home, reflecting on home, and engaged on what’s happened at home more than this devastating loss. Like most familiar with Mr. Brennan and the Colony, I can’t believe it’s happened.

I have had more meals at the Colony than any other place except for the home where I grew up. I know I am not unique in this regard. I learned to play pop-a-shot there some 25 years ago as a second- or third-grader, and go in and visit every time I am back in Cleveland (3-5 times/year) now. I suspect many can chart the same history. We overserved ourselves chicken fingers as kids, and Christmas Ales as adults.

When the news came out Monday, my Twitter timeline and Facebook feed were populated with people saying they “grew up in that place” or were “raised there,” and I kept seeing the neon script “Colony” sign show up as the profile photo for folks on Facebook. Everyone knew Mr. Brennan in one way or another, whether it was personally outside of or before the Colony or just through interaction at the bar. There were an estimated 1,200 people who showed up for a vigil on Tuesday night. A t-shirt design spread around as a way to benefit all the affected Cedar-Lee merchants, and a crowdfunding effort was quickly started to help cover the staff while the restaurant is closed (it sailed well past the halfway mark and was closing in on its goal on just the first day — Update: just over 24 hours in, it’s at 650 donors and $11k past its goal).

This was obviously a shocking, sudden loss — we lost someone who meant so much to so many at a place that means so much to so many more. There were countless kids who went there for dinner after CYO games and ended up going for beers there regularly, or even food with their own kids, years later. I saw the head basketball coach at Shaker, the rival high school of Heights (down the street from Colony), tweet that he would go there after every Shaker home game. A wide-ranging and diverse crowd from across the eastside made and make it their default spot, but whether you wanted to or not, you’d always run into or know someone there when you walked through. I’m sure they exist but I’ve never been able to find something like it in various places in more than a decade away from Cleveland. The places I’d go to around me now in suburban DC are many of the same ones popping up in the several “shopping villages” back home, and usually if it’s not a chain, it’s the latest trend in a regular cycle of turnover. Places like the Colony persist in fewer numbers, and are almost impossible to start and cultivate anew now.

This is a Cleveland sports blog, and it’s silly to try and somehow shoehorn sports into this tragedy. But I will say that Jim Brennan’s Colony (and all the time spent there) is exactly the kind of place that makes us so fiercely proud of where we come from, and the most often way we wear that pride on our sleeve is through our sports teams. After spending years away, I’ve not seen a city or fanbase, for better or worse, wear their pride on their sleeves more than Cleveland — when we go away to college, or are relocated, or move away, we’re quick to let everyone know where we came from, and who we’re rooting for in an often too overwhelming way. In reality, the sports teams are secondary to and a part of the larger community. The pride in the community comes first, and the expression is so often through sports. And there’s no better community than the one that the Colony, led by Jim Brennan, has created. There are equals, I’m sure — you have your place in your part of town. But none are better, and none that has been such a part of so many peoples’ lives.

So when a Cleveland sports team does win a championship, thousands will go out to celebrate, thousands of Cleveland expats will return home, and the places they’ll gravitate to are the ones they know best and have most been a part of their history in that community. That may be on Lee Road in Cleveland Heights, Detroit Road in Lakewood, East 185th, somewhere in Columbus or wherever it is where you’re from that made you a Cleveland sports fan. For me, it’s the Colony, and I’m just sad the man mostly responsible for it won’t be there.

(Photo: Marvin Fong, The Plain Dealer)

  • https://twitter.com/Steve_Not_Chad Steve_Not_Chad

    Great job.

  • boomhauertjs

    Wow! As a lifelong Westsider, I had little knowledge about The Colony, but this really opened my eyes. Thanks for enlightening me and allowing me to grasp the impact of this tragedy.

  • AJ

    We overserved ourselves chicken fingers as kids, and Christmas Ales as adults.

    ==

    Really hit the nail on the head there. The Colony was one of those places you’d go to after a little league game as a kid and, as you’d get older, go to for a couple of beers with friends. Lots of places like that in Cleveland Heights but the Colony was always standard for that. I was born and raised in Cleveland Heights and while my visits back are infrequent, stories like this make me miss my hometown and all the people and places I grew up with.

  • saggy

    I played baseball for The Colony. Many a pitcher of beer at that place. Sadness.

  • Harv 21

    nailed it, AJ

  • Pau Pau

    hear hear, RIP Jim. echo everything you said, a wonderful tribute to someone who gave meaning to the word community. still shocked and saddened

  • Heights Resident

    You and I described our Colony experiences almost identically. This is a place where as a child we went for family dinners out, enjoying the food (for me it was the mozzarella sticks), while after college I came back as an adult and shared many a beer with old friends. The Colony never really changed, however we evolved and grew older, and no matter our age its always had something for us. A real Cleveland Heights institution, and most of that is because of JB’s hard work. His legacy will live on in the community.

  • Chris Lachman Jr.

    Outstanding job Brendan… Like you said, I probably had more meals at The Colony then anywhere other than home. What happened was a kick in the gut.

  • Tim Brennan

    Thank you.

  • Ezzie Goldish

    I was at The BottleHouse that same night, driving right by the scene outside of The Colony. It says something when the bartender at BottleHouse commented that with what happened it was a very difficult day for everyone on the street – everyone knew him and liked him, and it shakes you up to have something like that happen in your neighborhood. Great post.