Sean Watterson, co-owner of the Happy Dog on Detroit Ave., expresses the importance of community spaces in bringing Cleveland together as a whole. Since he was raised on the east side, but owns a business on the west side, he has made it his mission to expose east siders to the west side and to encourage west siders to attend cultural and arts events on the east side. Watterson has traveled the world, but he always knew Cleveland was where he belonged.


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Watterson, Sean (interviewee)


Nemeth, Sarah (interviewer)


Sarah Nemeth [00:00:01] Hi, my name is Sarah Nemeth. I'm here today with Sean Watterson. Today is August 10, 2017. We're at the Detroit Shoreway Community Development offices. This is for the Cleveland Regional Oral History Project. Could you please state your name for the record? Sure.

Sean Watterson [00:00:16] My name? Sean Watterson.

Sarah Nemeth [00:00:18] And where were you born and when?

Sean Watterson [00:00:22] I was born in Cleveland. At University Hospitals. On September 27th, 1969.

Sarah Nemeth [00:00:30] And what side of town did you live on?

Sean Watterson [00:00:33] I grew up in Cleveland Heights.

Sarah Nemeth [00:00:36] Could you describe your neighborhood of Cleveland Heights?

Sean Watterson [00:00:39] Sure. Our first couple of years I was on East Overlook, which is right at the top of Little Italy. Sort of between Little Italy and Coventry, then moved before preschool and kindergarten to Stratford and Coleridge, which is over by Fairfax Elementary – what used to be the YMCA, which I think is now part of the Cleveland Heights Public Library. And then probably about third grade moved over – still in Cleveland Heights – to Chatfield and Clarkson in the Roxboro area. So between Cedar and Fairmont.

Sarah Nemeth [00:01:26] What was that neighborhood demographically?

Sean Watterson [00:01:31] Mostly white. The area around East Overlook, you know, that's... Those were younger folks. It was the first couple of years I was born. So my parents were sort of newlyweds with a with a baby. But then the other two places, very sort of white. Middle class, upper middle class.

Sarah Nemeth [00:02:02] What did you do for fun?

Sean Watterson [00:02:07] We played a lot of kick the can. We were outside a lot, at least during the summer. Lot of kids in both places, in both Fairfax and Roxboro. A lot of families, a lot of kids. So. Riding around on bikes and playing kick the can and capture the flag.

Sarah Nemeth [00:02:31] So you are where you allowed to go... What was your perimeter as a child? Were you allowed to go all the way down the street, over streets?

Sean Watterson [00:02:42] I had a lot of freedom. I mean, I remember actually, you know, I could ride my bike down to Cedar Fairmont, up to Cedar Lee, up to Cedar Center. Kovacs Comics was at Cedar Lee. So I would go there, buy Mad magazines. I would also walk down to the RTA and take the rapid to old Munie stadium and go to Indians games, probably when I was twelve, by myself. So there weren't a lot of... I think it was before panic set in about kids being able to be on their own.

Sarah Nemeth [00:03:25] Was there any – because you're on the East Side – so did you venture, like.... Well, I guess you did, you were all over the place. Was there any... Did anyone ever tell you about any racial tensions that were possibly happening or had that kind of quieted down? Or did they not even tell you because you were a kid?

Sean Watterson [00:03:46] No. I mean, you know, my mom's family is Italian and grew up in Little Italy. So I was aware of the tension that happened sort of before in my lifetime in Little Italy and the school bus getting attacked with busing. So I was aware of that. Roxboro and Fairfax both... well, the neighborhoods I was in were pretty white. I mean, it was... We did have a mix, racially. And, I mean, I got mugged walking down to Cedar Lee – no, Cedar Fairmont. And I got beat up. But that was just... It didn't feel like tension in the sense of I got beat up because I was white or they beat me up because they were black. I was an idiot kid walking far off the beaten path and there was an opportunity there. So, yeah, I mean, I guess I was aware, but it was not something that was sort of day to day. Something that you felt day to day.

Sarah Nemeth [00:05:20] Were there any stores nearby or restaurants or anything that you frequented? Did you go to Little Italy?

Sean Watterson [00:05:28] We went to Little Italy as a family. So Mama Santa's, we would pick up pizza every Friday night. And I would ride my bike up to Cedar Lee to go to Kovacs Comics. There used to be a restaurant called Mauby's that I would go to when I was really young. That got replaced by a McDonald's that I think is now got replaced by Lemongrass Thai place, which I don't know if that's still there. But, you know, I would go down to Cedar Fairmount, because there was a drug store there that had nachos and comic books and slush puppies. And there was a Baskin Robbins where the Luna Bakery is now. And we had a family friend that worked there so you could sneak some ice cream. And then up at Cedar Center, Boucaire's was a ice cream place back in the day. That was kind of a special family outing kind of thing.

Sarah Nemeth [00:06:41] Was it just you and your parents or did you have siblings?

Sean Watterson [00:06:43] I have a younger brother, four years younger. So he and I were both comic book fans. I was more Mad magazine. He was more X-Men. We would go to NightTown a lot. My parents had actually met at NightTown when they were... Or if they didn't meet there, they certainly spent a few of their first dates there back in the late 60s when it had first opened up. And that was sort of a special occasion place for us.

Sarah Nemeth [00:07:12] What was NightTown?

Sean Watterson [00:07:14] NightTown is a bar restaurant in Cedar Fairmont. It's right before you go down the second hill, down to the University Circle. And it's a jazz club in addition to being a bar and restaurant and it's just got a really good vibe and always has, in terms of a community space.

Sarah Nemeth [00:07:41] What does it look like inside? Is it still there?

Sean Watterson [00:07:43] Oh, yeah, it's still there. It just keeps expanding and expanding. The bar itself feels very comfortable and old. The main bar. The stage room, they added, since I was a kid, but it's sort of a big dining room off to the right. After you go through the bar and then I think they've since added a patio in probably the last 10 years or so, something like that. But NightTown was one of the inspirations for Happy Dog, just in terms of the feeling we wanted to create.

Sarah Nemeth [00:08:24] So you wanted to create just a good bar. Comfortable.

Sean Watterson [00:08:30] Really, a community space, just a place where everybody from all parts of the city felt comfortable being around each other from sort of a bunch of different walks of life and a bunch of different times of day. Like Night Town, that was a special family place to go for dinner or for a brunch, but it was also a bar and a jazz club. So the fact that it could be both of those things instead of just one of those things. That was that was sort of an inspiration. It's a place where everybody feels comfortable. Some of the time [laughs].

Sarah Nemeth [00:09:13] Where do you go to high school?

Sean Watterson [00:09:17] I started at University School in sixth grade. Over on the east side. I'd been to Fairfax Elementary and Roxbury Elementary before going to U.S. in middle school. And I went there through high school.

Sarah Nemeth [00:09:32] And then what did you do after high school?

Sean Watterson [00:09:36] I went to Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. I graduated high school in 1987, I graduated college in 1991. And loved going away to school, but came back during the summers and moved back to Cleveland after college.

Sarah Nemeth [00:10:02] Did you have any jobs during your childhood, did you work anywhere?

Sean Watterson [00:10:07] Oh, yeah, I started... I was a dog walker when I was probably nine, ten, eleven, twelve. I was a failed paper boy. I don't think I did that very well or long. I worked as a lifeguard because I was a swimmer. I was on the swim team in high school. I worked in a warehouse at a place called Fasteners for Retail out in Alpha Park, off of Wilson Mills by 271. And. Those were most of the jobs I had in high school. Going into college, I worked out at 84 Lumber out in Concord. My parents had moved out to Concord while I was in college.

Sarah Nemeth [00:11:08] What did you major in in college?

Sean Watterson [00:11:11] I majored in American Studies, which is like not majoring in anything at all. It's American history and literature. So you got to take a lot of interesting classes. I was also a biology major until about two or three weeks into senior year and decided I didn't want to spend senior year in the lab. So I just dropped it back to American Studies.

Sarah Nemeth [00:11:35] So you were double-majoring?

Sean Watterson [00:11:39] That was the intent, but...

Sarah Nemeth [00:11:42] Very ambitious!

Sarah Nemeth [00:11:44] Didn't exactly follow through. I loved taking the biology classes. Just didn't just didn't want to spend all my time in the lab.

Sarah Nemeth [00:11:55] And so you moved back to Cleveland. Where did you live?

Sean Watterson [00:12:00] Well, after college, I spent the summer driving around the country. And ran out of money. And so at the end of the summer, moved back in with my parents and started looking for work. And the first job I got was with a company called Baker and Company. It was a small – actually still is – a small discount brokerage firm. And it was at the time located on Short Vincent. East 6th and Short Vincent. I would say it was on the 11th floor of Moriarty's Pub is the easiest way to identify it for most people.

Sarah Nemeth [00:12:48] And what did you there?

Sean Watterson [00:12:52] What was a brokerage firm. I was a stockbroker. And I did that for about two years. After the first year, the next guy to join the firm was Sean Kilbane, who ended up being the guy that I started the Happy Dog with. When we bought the Happy Dog in 2008. And we spent most nights at Moriarty's playing pinball and drinking beer. And so that was sort of a precursor for us eventually getting out of finance and getting into the bar business and playing a lot of pinball.

Sarah Nemeth [00:13:33] So you stayed there two years. Then did you guys move on together somewhere else?

Sean Watterson [00:13:40] No. Shawn stayed with Baker pretty much his whole career until we did the Happy Dog. I was supposed to hike the Appalachian Trail with a friend of mine who called me the week I had put in my notice to say he'd gotten a new job. So I had to adjust. And I ended up leaving that job anyway, because two of the guys I was living with at the time were also going back to school. One was going to art history grad school at Johns Hopkins and the other was go into business school down in University of Virginia. The guy who was going to art history grad school ended up coming back to Cleveland as the chief curator and deputy director of the Cleveland Museum of Art. His name is Griff Man. He's since gone on to be the medieval curator and head of the Cloisters. So he's the medieval curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the head of the Cloisters. But we were roommates just off of Shaker Square during those first couple of years at Baker. So I left. I did a trip out West. I did something called the National Outdoor Leadership School, where you spend a month in the Wind River range in Wyoming, just living outside, learning about weather and rock climbing and fishing and camping. And yeah, it was great. I ended up staying another month out there. I thought about becoming a trip leader and ultimately decided come back to Cleveland.

Sarah Nemeth [00:15:33] So the Appalachian Trail is really like... I've walked a little bit of it. Not obviously the whole thing. I'd probably be a different person if I did. But what was your inspiration for wanting to? Did you just like the outdoors? Or was there a personal motivation?

Sean Watterson [00:15:50] Yeah. You know, while I was in college and my parents had moved from Cleveland Heights out to Concord, I ended up getting to know a bunch of guys from Lake Catholic and they were big campers. And so those summers and the first couple of years out of college, even though I was working downtown at a brokerage firm and I was living first in Cleveland Heights and then Shaker Heights, we would go to West Virginia or Kentucky almost every weekend, camping and rock climbing and kayaking. And really, I would change out of my suit into my camping gear in the parking garage and then take off and we wouldn't get back until midnight Sunday night. And so we just spent a lot of time outside hiking and camping. And the Appalachian Trail sounded like a big, big challenge and probably would have been fun if we'd pulled it off. But that's why I ended up doing that trip out in Wyoming. So I did end up spending a month outdoors. Wasn't the Appalachian Trail. But.

Sarah Nemeth [00:17:06] No but still, it's still really cool. So how did you decide, oh, I'm going to open up... Do you call it a bar or do you call it a restaurant or a bar and grill?

Sean Watterson [00:17:24] I kind of call it a community space. It's a it's a restaurant, bar, live music venue, neighborhood spot. I actually had multiple stops on the way before I got there. So when I got back to Cleveland after that trip out west, I ended up working with my father, who was a municipal bond trader. So I worked for a few years with him at a place called Cowen and Company, trading municipal bonds. So it's kind of related to what I was doing before. One of the interesting tidbits there is the guy who is managing that office was named Frank Gruttidauria. And Frank was sort of Bernie Madoff before Bernie Madoff. He ended up taking a bunch of his clients' money, printing up fake statements and mailing them out and ultimately may have made off with or just lost 150 million dollars’ worth of his clients' money. He did end up going to jail for it. But so I was working there. We didn't obviously know he was doing that at the time. And while I was there, I decided I wanted to do something different because I'd followed the same path as my dad going to University School, going to Williams College, and then getting into the brokerage business. So I applied to law schools and I ended up getting in and getting a scholarship at Case Western. So I went to Case and focused on securities law because that was my background from the business side of things. But I was also interested in international law. And while I was at Case, I spent a summer in Russia taking international law classes in St. Petersburg, Russia, and doing some traveling down to Moscow. Ultimately, that ended up leading to an internship with the Securities and Exchange Commission in their honors program at the Office of International Affairs at the S.E.C.. By coincidence, there were a couple of Williams college grads. A very small office, but it had lots of Williams people in it. Normally they didn't hire people coming out of law school. So when I was graduating, I figured I'd need to do something different. But I reached out to them and they made an exception and brought me on board right out of law school, which was September 10th, 2001. So the first day on the job, I was filling out forms. The next day, the attacks happened at the World Trade Center and then also at the Pentagon. And so whatever my job was going to be in international affairs sort of very quickly morphed into working on anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism financing. So I ended up working on building information sharing agreements – or arrangements actually technically – with countries where the S.E.C. was looking for information. So a lot of it was concentrated on the Caribbean, working out arrangements with the Cayman Islands, Bermuda and the Bahamas because a lot of securities fraud ended up running through those countries. I also was fortunate in representing the... The Securities Commission had an international forum called the Financial Action Task Force, which sets the international standards for fighting money laundering and terrorism financing. And we revised those standards in 2003, 2004. And once that work was done, then I went up to New York and worked for Citibank with a bunch of ex-regulators and ex-feds, trying to make sure that Citigroup didn't have any... had good controls in place to fight money laundering and terrorism financing. Good policies and procedures, but then also good follow-through. And so that job had me traveling pretty much every month to a different part of the world, monitoring their operations and making recommendations.

Sarah Nemeth [00:22:18] So you've been all over the place.

Sean Watterson [00:22:23] Yeah, I think between my time in government and my time on Wall Street, I think it was something like 40 countries that I ended up hitting. South America, Brazil, Mexico, Chile and the Middle East, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia.

Sarah Nemeth [00:22:48] Did you spend any significant time in those places or was it just like to drop in?

Sean Watterson [00:22:56] The only place that... The place I went regularly, which was kind of nice, was Paris. The negotiations for the Financial Action Task Force typically took place in Paris. So I would just go there for work. But typically that was sort of every other month. And so got to spend time there in and get to know Paris a bit. Most of the rest of the travel would be at most about a week at a time, but I would try and make the most of it. You know, we did training in Abuja, Nigeria, and I got to get out into the countryside and get to know Abuja. Same thing with Citigroup, got to spend time in Kuala Lumpur and got to get outside of the city and see other parts of Malaysia. I think one trip for Citigroup was New York to Brussels for meetings and then Brussels to Kuala Lumpur. And then I think from there to Santiago, Chile. So that was kind of crazy travel those days. Yeah, yeah. [crosstalk] Yeah.

Sarah Nemeth [00:24:18] The work seems really exciting and traveling, getting to see everything. So when you're in all those places, did you ever notice any spot that everyone went to? Did you pick up on that when you were traveling or were you preoccupied with your other work?

Sean Watterson [00:24:35] Well, I always looked for a place that the people who live in those places went rather than sort of more touristy chain sort of things. It was strange. I went to Hong Kong and there are parts of Asia and even the Middle East that feel very much like you could be in a shopping mall in New Jersey or Los Angeles. Same stores, same feel. And that really didn't have much appeal. I liked being in South America where I liked getting outside of those places and and seeing the more authentic places. So I always kind of sought that stuff out. I also knew when I left Cleveland, I was coming back to Cleveland at some point. I was reading cleveland.com every day online. I was coming back to Cleveland. I would come back and see a lot of Indians games. Sean Kilbane was a big Indians fan, too, and a big music fan. I saw lots of shows at the Happy Dog before we took over the Happy Dog. In fact, my brother was the first bass player in The Boys from County Hell, the Pogues cover band that's been playing in Cleveland for probably 15 years now, and one of their first gigs was at the old Happy Dog, so.... I never thought I would get into the bar business. Really, it was Sean Kilbane who called me up and said he was done being a broker. Wanted to try something new. And I said I would go along with it. I figured it was a way to get me out of out of New York at some point, back to Cleveland. I figured we'd go out of business within a couple of years because we didn't know anything about the business. But we could probably get back what we put into it and move on and do something else.

Sarah Nemeth [00:26:48] So what year did you come back?

Sean Watterson [00:26:53] Well, we bought the Happy Dog August 1st, 2008. I was actually still living in New York. Sean was running it. We had other partners. Rob Thompson, Joe Foley, and Rini McNulty. And I was sort of doing the marketing from afar. It was just as Facebook was kind of coming online. And so I was doing a lot of the marketing from my apartment in Brooklyn. At the time I was working for Merrill Lynch. I'd switched from Citigroup to Merrill Lynch and it was a strange time because that was the whole mortgage meltdown. I started at Merrill Lynch the summer of 2007 right before it all came out that things were spiraling out of control. I was fortunate. I sort of survived all of the transitions. And I had a plan to eventually move back to Cleveland. I had talked to my boss at Merrill Lynch and he understood that's what I wanted to do and we sort of were working on a timeline. And then as a result of the merger with Bank of America, that all sort of got accelerated. My boss survived the merger and I survived with him. But the week he was supposed to take over as the head of the new combined department, he got a job back at the Treasury Department in Washington, D.C., which happened while I was on vacation in California seeing my brother, who's out in Los Angeles. And my new boss at Bank of America said, hey, just wanted to make sure you're sticking around. And I said I am, but you understand, I bought this bar in Cleveland and the plan is for me to move back there. And they said, yeah, we heard something about that. When's that supposed to happen? And I said, Monday. I figured they didn't know and they were going to contact my old boss. So I just sort of slipped it past them. And then as soon as I got back from vacation, I packed up my apartment and moved to Cleveland and lived above the Happy Dog. [crosstalk] Yeah. So that was that was April 2009.

Sarah Nemeth [00:29:29] Do you know a little history about the building that you purchased? Was it always the Happy Dog before...

Sean Watterson [00:29:38] Well, the history on it. I think it was built in the mid to late 40s by the Sokach family. And you can see it says John Sokach, 1940-something on the Detroit facing side of the building. So the Sokach family built it. They ran it. I think they had trouble getting a liquor license initially. I don't know the whole story there, but it didn't open as a bar until, I think, 1952. And it operated at least for a time as the Yankee Bar and Grill. Ray Pianka would know the stories better if he were still here to tell them. But yeah, it was a rough neighborhood in the 60s and 70s. There were stories. I think one of the Sokach's ran into some trouble with the law. I know there was... I'm not sure on that, but the little bit of research I had done. But I know at some point Judge Pianka worked to get all of the liquor licenses from all the bars on the south side of Detroit taken away and that side of the street was dry. And so when that happened, it went from being the Yankee Bar and Grill to Mom Sokach's Restaurant.

Sarah Nemeth [00:31:11] Oh, that's where that was? I talked to Norm at Parkview. So he told me he walked in there one day. So that's the restaurant or the place that he walked in to meet the little old lady.

Sean Watterson [00:31:25] Yeah. Yeah. Mom Sokach. Yeah. People said she was behind the bar. You could barely see the top of her head behind the bar. She was a she was a little old lady. So she ran it. And then I think I don't know if she had passed away. It sort of closed when she stopped running it for whatever reasons. And then friends of ours bought the building in the late 90s. I think 1999. Don Schurger bought the building and he and Billy Scanlon opened it up as Happy Dog. It didn't have a liquor license at the time, so it was sort of a BYOB concert venue. Billy's musical tastes ran more jam band. That was back in the dog star days. The logo was a dog's face inside of a star and it was like red and yellow and green and some of us called it the Hippy Dog because of the jam bands. But they brought in good music and they did the work with the neighborhood to get the liquor license back. I think it was 2005 when they officially got their liquor license and before that they would do one off fundraisers for Cleveland Public Theater. I think multiple one off fundraisers for Cleveland Public Theater. Probably more than... More than probably were technically allowed [laughs]. But, you know, that was in the early redevelopment of Gordon Square when James Levin was was running CPT. And then I think at some point they just sort of ran out of energy running it. And that's when Don reached out to Sean Kilbane and Sean reached out to a couple of us. The ownership group changed multiple times until right before we signed on the dotted line. But yeah, that takes us kind of right to August 2008. And then like I say, I moved back April 2009. I lived above the Happy Dog in one of the apartments. I had one desk that was Happy Dog and one desk that was Bank of America. And I was on conference calls for Bank of America starting at 7 a.m. and then the bar was open till 2:00 a.m. So I could only sustain that for so long. And I think by the end of the summer of 2010, I left Bank of America to do Happy Dog full time.

Sarah Nemeth [00:34:26] Yeah, it would be intense. That's a long day!

Sean Watterson [00:34:29] Yeah.

Sarah Nemeth [00:34:32] So your brother had played at the Happy Dog. You're familiar, kind of, with the Detroit Shoreway area. When was the first time that you came to the West Side and saw Detroit Shoreway, what it looked like?

Sean Watterson [00:34:53] When I was working at Baker. That second year, I was there when Sean Kilbane started working there. Sean had gone to Ignatius and grew up on the west side. And so that's when I started hanging out with his group of people. Saint Ignatius folks. And. We would hang out at the Fulton Bar and Grill before it became Momocho. Johnny Mangos, when that first opened up. As far as Detroit Shoreway, Happy Dog was a little later in the 90s. So I would say. And remember. I mean, I was in the City Grill a couple of times. There was a club, the Brillo Pad. That was somewhere in Detroit Shoreway for a while. Yeah, kind of a nightclub, kind of like the High and Dry was back in the day in Tremont. So I was in the Brillo Pad a couple of times and the Parkview. Parkview was kind of the place to watch Indians games.

Sarah Nemeth [00:36:14] What were the people like then – the clientele, the type of people?

Sean Watterson [00:36:23] Umm, I don't know, I was in my 20s and we were drinking. And having a good time and it was a crowd you could do that with. It didn't feel like everybody was 20. It felt like you had kind of a wider range of folks. That's just the vibe at Parkview and Hoople's and kind of what we carry through at Happy Dog. So it was a mix of neighborhood people, kind of kids who'd gone to Ignatius, not a lot of east siders. I ended up moving to Ohio City right before I started law school. And before that, I had actually lived just over 117th on Lake in Lakewood. So I kind of moved my focus west when I moved back in fall of 94, I think by January 95, I was living in Lakewood. And then by fall of 98, I was living in Ohio City, over on Whitman and 41st.

Sarah Nemeth [00:37:33] So a lot some people say that maybe this area was a little bit rough before they started... I guess you wouldn't remember the 70s. But just that there was a lack of investment here. Perhaps like there wasn't that much beautification happening, people didn't really come down here, or that there was a sustained drive to come down to this area. Maybe you came down at night to drink, but then you went back. Like it wasn't a constant flow of people. Would you say that's true? Did you ever come down here during the day?

Sean Watterson [00:38:11] No, I didn't come down here during the day, actually, when I was a baby, my aunt lived just west of Detroit Shoreway. I guess would be Cudell. And so technically I was spending time. Both my parents were working and I think they were dropping me off for the week and picking me up on the weekends. I don't think that lasted very long. My mom didn't... That didn't work for her for very long. But yeah, there wasn't a lot of daytime. But I was working during the day anyway. And on the weekends, I was hiking during the day and, you know, we weren't really doing anything city-wise during the day on the weekends.

Sarah Nemeth [00:39:08] Just trying to get a sense of maybe how the area shifts a little bit, demographically. Or gentrification.

Sean Watterson [00:39:20] Well, we knew when we bought the Happy Dog that the streetscape project was going in and that the Capital Theater was getting renovated. And at the time there were plans drawn up for Near West Theater. But it was sort of, you know, if they raise the money, they'll build it. But we did know the streetscape was going in. So that was something that... That's what made us think if we really don't know what the hell we're doing in two years, we'll probably be able to sell it and at least get back what we paid for it. That kind of idea. I would say the first years, you know, there was an excitement. Room Service opened right after Lux had opened. We opened right about the same time Stone Mad opened. So there was kind of a... We weren't the first wave. Cleveland Public Theater was the first wave. We were sort of a second wave, I think. But we were a pretty tight knit group of people. And I think at the time in Cleveland, there wasn't as much going on. So the stuff we were doing, we were able to to draw from all over the city. And part of that, you know, being an east sider and being west and being a part of the Happy Dog, I sort of made it my mission to get east siders to come west, and so some of the stuff we did at the Happy Dog was sort of intentionally trying to pull that eastside crowd in. Like the partnership with the group from the Cleveland Orchestra. And then. That was. I forget what year that was. Might have been 2011. We did the first one. [crosstalk] Sure. I met the principal flutist from the Cleveland Orchestra named Josh Smith at a party in Cleveland Heights, and he said he'd always wanted to... He's played in all the big concert halls all around the world, but he always wanted to play in a bar. And I said, I've got a bar. And so it took us a while to get something together. But we did. We tried it out. I think on a Tuesday or Wednesday night. And he had four or five colleagues from the orchestra come play with him and I think for that first one, we called it Orchestral Manoeuvres at the Dog, kind of a play on OMD. And we kind of talked it over. He was like, do I do Beatles covers or something like that? And we both decided, no, do what you do. And people will respond or they won't. We'll see. But, you know, be who you are. And it turned out it was a huge success. More than any of us thought. And then we kind of built on it rather than just repeat it. One of the things we figured out was the fact that it could have failed miserably was one of the things that made it interesting. So we kept trying to add something that could fail, like the next time we added piano and brought in a baby grand piano to the Happy Dog, then we did it as a live radio broadcast. Then ultimately we did a recording of it live at the Happy Dog. Ensemble HD, Live at the Happy Dog, a double vinyl that we had produced at Gotta Groove, with Clint Holley doing the mastering from Well Made Music, who's over at 78th Street Studios now. But at the same time we were pushing that, we were also sort of pushing the whole concept. So we came up with the idea of doing something called Gordon Square Goes to the Orchestra. Because orchestra members had come and played in our community and we made it free. It was sort of a let's pay the orchestra back by going and seeing them in their space, we ended up taking 75 people on discounted tickets. We rented one bus, we got University Circle to throw in the other bus for free and sort of started building that relationship between our neighborhood and the orchestra, which ultimately led to us working with the orchestra on their first neighborhood residency. So the orchestra started their first neighborhood residency program in Gordon Square. And we timed that [for] the same week that the Ensemble HD Live at the Happy Dog record came out. And we were able to draw international attention to the neighborhood. We also... So That residency was a concentrated sort of week to 10 day period where orchestra members played in 17 different venues. From Gypsy Bean to Stockyard Meats to Sagrada Familia and Saint Coleman's, Happy Dog, the wine bar that was at Battery Park, 78th Street Studios. Just sort of a concentrated... So that everybody in the neighborhood would run into somebody from the orchestra during that week. And we also took that opportunity to get as many East Siders over to see all the work that had been happening here and all the interesting things that were going on with 78th Street Studios, with some of the new restaurants that were opening. I think Toast had just opened. Spice probably was already in place by then. And it was a way for us to sort of say to these east siders – and I'm one of them, so I can say this – you can come here because the orchestra is coming here. But then on the flip side of it, for the neighborhood and for the residents, it was this message that this orchestra that's one of the best in the world, that does their residencies in Vienna and Miami and Tokyo and all these world class cities is doing their residency in our neighborhood. And the message was this neighborhood and the city of Cleveland is as important as these other places. And I think that was one of the turning points in neighborhood development, just in terms of the amount of attention. We were the focus of a National Endowment for the Arts triennial meeting. BBC America did a TV piece on the neighborhood and on the orchestra doing its residency. I was covered in The Economist and New York Times? So it brought a lot of attention to the neighborhood.

Sarah Nemeth [00:46:56] The investment in the neighborhood. Everyone that's kind of like a business owner or affiliated in that way. Is there like an association of you, like business owners in the Gordon Square area?

Sean Watterson [00:47:10] There is. I actually ran the merchants association for Detroit Shoreway probably right about the same time that we put the special improvement district together. Because I was on the initial board for the special improvement district and we sort of took the marketing committee of the Special Improvement District and merged it with the Merchants Association. And so I sort of ran that jointly, first with Nick Fidor and then with Adam Rosen and Chad Jones. Ian Andrews before Chad. And at the time a lot of the businesses and the theaters and 78th Street Studios were all attending. And it was because a lot of the businesses were locally owner/operator owned businesses. It wasn't chains or second locations or third locations. It was all sort of people who... many of whom were living in the neighborhood, but all of whom on their business and were going to work in the neighborhood. And we were able to work together to sort of promote each other's businesses, promote the activities going on at CPT and at 78th Street Studios and neighborhood festivals. Dingus Day. Gordon Square Arts Festival. There was a real community spirit to it, which is something that is sort of a common thread through at least up until the last couple of years with the neighborhood. It'll be interesting to see sort of [what] the newest phase is once the Metro Parks took over Edgewater and made Edgewater Park as nice as they've made it and now have put the beach house in. That really put gas on the fire in terms of the Battery Park development, the new construction north of Detroit. So it'll be interesting to see because it's a lot of new people in the neighborhood. A lot of people who are coming in, paying top dollar for something that is already established as opposed to the more sort of pioneer spirit kind of thing earlier on. So...

Sarah Nemeth [00:49:50] In that merchant thing or any of the other groups, is there a fear that those corporate-owned companies will start infiltrating because there's those five hundred [to] thousand dollar a month apartments over there that are just being put in front of Parkview or any of the gentrification that's impending that might change the image of what you created here, the essence of this community that makes it so cool, that makes it desirable?

Sean Watterson [00:50:31] It's possible, although Detroit Shoreway controls a lot of... The community development corporation controls a lot of the store fronts, and that's been an asset in terms of making sure that we've not had chains coming in. Not necessarily that they were knocking on our door, but we had the flexibility to put a Super Electric pinball parlor in at the corner of 65th and Detroit, where if that was new construction, private development, those guys wouldn't have been able to afford that space. But that's something truly unique. That adds character for the neighborhood. And Detroit Shoreway as the CDC has sort of a broader mission than a commercial developer does in terms of keeping this a mixed income neighborhood. Keeping affordable options in place. I worry less about chains coming in and more about... You know I could see what's happened in Tremont happening in Gordon Square. You don't see a lot of Chains, but you do see more and more investment and people getting priced out. But you don't see like what you see in the Flats. You know, there's not going to be a Margaritaville in Gordon Square.

Sarah Nemeth [00:52:03] That would just change the dynamic of the whole entire place...

Sean Watterson [00:52:05] I don't. Yeah. I don't see it. I mean, really, unless you get new construction, a lot of those places aren't gonna go into some of these older buildings and build out. That's just... So I don't see the character changing that by. But I do see, you know, it's sort of inevitable the more people you add and the more they come from a different demographic than... Or a concentrated part of one demographic that made up the neighborhood. It'll have its impact, but at the same time. As a city, having people live in the city rather than the suburbs ultimately – and hopefully not all of the new stuff is tax-abated – having property tax dollars and income tax dollars and money being spent in the city will be good for the city as a whole. We're not like San Francisco in that every square inch of the city is been bought up and everybody run out. There's a lot of room. It's just in specific neighborhoods where the development is concentrated, you might see changes. That line.

Sarah Nemeth [00:53:41] Kind of in closing, I do want to ask if you could describe what the inside of Happy Dog looks like for someone who hasn't gone yet?

Sean Watterson [00:53:47] Sure. It looks probably the same as it did in 1952 when they opened the Yankee. It's a big... You walk in and it's sort of a trapezoid sort of space. When you come in the front door, the stage is immediately to your right. And then the first thing you see is the big racetrack oval wood bar. People have said, you know, if this were New York, that probably would have been ripped out and replaced five times. But because it's Cleveland, that didn't happen. And so now you have this space that would cost a ton of money to try and recreate. And if you recreate it, it wouldn't be what it is. So it's got almost 50 stools around it. And there are the old chrome stools with the red vinyl seats. We've got booths along the one wall and high tops along the backside of the bar. It's all wood paneling. There's pink neon lights that sort of illuminate the ceiling. It was set up for performances because... It's great for a lead singer because every seat at the bar can see the lead singer on the stage, which lead singers like. That's why they're the lead singer. And the one thing that we did add – this was probably 2010 or 2011. I mean, we added taps. We added the tap system, but we added the basement bar – The Underdog. And we really designed that around the shuffleboard table, which isn't there anymore. But when we first bought the Happy Dog, the one thing Shawn Kilbane wanted when anything was a shuffleboard table, because the bars in Chicago that he had gone to when he went to Loyola – and Hotz's over in Tremont – had shuffleboard tables. So we actually designed and built the basement bar around the shuffleboard table. And the first week we were open, the people playing shuffleboard were so loud and obnoxious, having fun, playing shuffleboard that it drove everybody else crazy and made Shawn Kilbane regret that he ever came up with the idea in the first place [laughs]. But it's a great it's a great extra space. We use it for... I mean, we've done standup comedy down there. We do parties down there. We've done video game nights down there. It's just a cool extra space, and when we have a show, it can get loud up in the Happy Dog. So to have a space if you don't like the band or if you came to see one band, but you didn't like the other band, a place to kind of get away and be able to hear yourself think before going back to the show.

Sarah Nemeth [00:57:00] Do you have kind of an eclectic offering of music that you offer or is it specifically one genre?

Sean Watterson [00:57:03] It's original. That's sort of the one overriding. And we made the decision when we were doing music. We knew we were going to do music. We were both music fans, Sean Kilbane in particular. But we made the decision that if we wanted good music, we had to pay the musicians. So from the outset, we set it up that the bands got to keep 100 percent of the cover charge at the door because we knew if they couldn't afford practice space or instruments or money to record, we weren't going to have a good music scene. They had to be supported if you wanted good music. And as a result, over half the people who work at the Happy Dog are musicians, working musicians, which has given us access to all kinds of music from around the country. Because when they go on tour and make friends, those bands, we sort of have an inside track on bringing them to Cleveland. So, you know, that was a key part of how we set out to do things. Um, yeah.

Sarah Nemeth [00:58:26] Well, I guess now officially in closing, what are your hopes for the Detroit Shoreway area and Gordon Square?

Sean Watterson [00:58:35] I don't think they need my hopes anymore. Well, the Metro Park's taking over Edgewater and doing a really nice job of making it accessible and clean. At the same time that the pedestrian underpasses and the connection at 73rd Street. I think it's sort of on its way. The bigger concerns are, like I say, just sort of making sure that it retains a neighborhood feel as opposed to a playground feel. I also wonder what the long term outlook is. A lot of stuff got built in the last five years. It'll all sort of need renovation at the same time. If it's all quality construction and it's long lasting, great. If it's not, then then we could be looking at sort of a turnover period if this stuff is not holding up well.

Sarah Nemeth [00:59:52] That makes sense. New construction. There's always a worry.

Sean Watterson [00:59:53] Yeah, I mean, the other long term thing is... My thought all along has been that Detroit, from West 25th to at least 78th and probably to the shoreway is as is the arts and culture corridor for the west side. It's the west side partner to University Circle. So I think I think Hingetown and Gordon Square will grow together at some point. I think the University Circle institutions will continue to plant flags on the near west side. Whether that's Music School Settlement at Bop Stop. Transformer Station for the Art Museum. Hawken School at Saigon Plaza. I think that will continue to happen as a way for some of those eastside institutions to build stronger relationships with people on the west side.

[01:00:55] Yeah, I think it definitely could be beneficial if there's... Instead of even opening up this interview saying what side of town are you from... So that it is just Cleveland.

Sean Watterson [01:01:07] Yeah.

Sarah Nemeth [01:01:08] So on that note, thank you for being here today.

Sean Watterson [01:01:11] Thank you very much.


Detroit Shoreway



Document Type

Oral History


61 minutes

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Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License.