How artists helped keep 33 businesses in a Cleveland neighborhood open through construction chaos

This story is the first of THE REPLICATORS, a series highlighting artists and organizations that have used toolkits and programs offered on Creative Exchange to create new programming in their community. Click here to see all of the Creative Exchange toolkit offerings.  

Cleveland’s Northeast Shores Community Development Corporation knew they needed to brace their neighborhood for upheaval. They had been awarded $5.5 million for a streetscape project in the Collinwood neighborhood near Lake Erie, but were worried the improvement would come at a price for local business owners.

“It’s pretty typical in Cleveland that a streetscape project results in business loss,” says Brian Friedman, Northeast Shores’ executive director. “People decide not to come thanks to the orange barrels.”

So they sought inspiration from Irrigate, a creative placemaking project in Saint Paul, MN, which confronted a similar dilemma. Irrigate launched in 2011 in response to the Twin Cities’ disruptive construction of a new light rail line, which was threatening local businesses and community activity. Hoping to create new opportunities for connection in the community in the midst of the construction chaos, Springboard for the Arts, Twin Cities Local Initiatives Support Corporation, and the City of Saint Paul partnered for the project. Over three years of ongoing construction, Irrigate trained artists as community organizers, facilitated partnerships between artists and business owners, and supported small-scale art projects in the construction zone.

These art projects drew new media attention to the construction area, and resulted in stories that were about the surprise and delight of the art. Businesses found new ways of attracting customers, community members found new opportunities to share their stories and artists connected with new audiences. The narrative surrounding Irrigate in the affected area was overwhelmingly positive, a sea change from the wave of bad press that came with the difficulties of being in the construction zone.

Northeast Shores’ existing peer relationship with Springboard for the Arts, through Irrigate funder ArtPlace, alerted them to the project’s success. Though the streetscape on Collinwood’s Waterloo Road was much smaller than the light rail line that prompted Irrigate, Northeast Shores saw the potential to replicate the model in Cleveland.

Artist-led community development made perfect sense for Northeast Shores. They were already promoting the area as Waterloo Arts & Entertainment District, working to attract artists and creative businesses to abundant vacant commercial space.

Northeast Shores decided to mimic Irrigate’s model of encouraging artists to work with local merchants, helping them find creative ways to attract business throughout the construction. In November 2013, the organization launched the Rising Vibrancy Program, a series of grants for partnerships between Waterloo business owners and artists. The project received funding from the Kresge Foundation and from Cuyahoga Arts and Culture, a grantmaker funded by Cuyahoga County’s cigarette tax.

Irrigate became not just an influence for Rising Vibrancy, but a direct guide: Springboard for the Arts’ Jun-Li Wang and Laura Zabel visited Cleveland to help kick off the project and share their advice from Irrigate. Wang also helped write the Rising Vibrancy grant application.

Rising Vibrancy instantly excited local artists and merchants, Northeast Shores’ Friedman says — to an almost overwhelming degree. The program allowed people to apply for monthly grants, awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. That last part created some chaos.

“We were a little distressed by the number of merchants who were literally waiting for us to open so they could shove paper at us seconds apart from each other, to make sure they could be included,” Friedman says. “We didn’t think it was a good community-building moment for us to have merchants sitting in front of our office at 5 o’clock in the morning, arguing with each other about who got there first.”

Once they moved to a postage-based application system, though, the program went on smoothly. Over the next 10 months, $118,000 was granted to 33 merchants and 255 artists, resulting in 52 community art projects — all in one half-mile stretch of Waterloo Road.

In one of the projects, hosted by Satellite Gallery, 32 artists from throughout the Cleveland area created original artwork on pieces of plywood and then assembled them into a cube to be displayed as public art. Participants said they valued the chance to contribute to a collective project, and to socialize with artists outside their usual circles.

One project centered on B & B Upholstery, a longstanding local business that didn’t see how their daytime clientele fit in with the arts and entertainment activity. That changed when a Rising Vibrancy grant fueled collaborations with Waterloo area artists: metal sculptor Jerry Schmidt, fashion artist Krista Tomorowitz, and Azure Stained Glass Center contributed to an art opening in the storefront. Newly convinced of the ability of arts programming to attract new business, B & B’s owner hosted a second arts event during the construction — this time without additional Rising Vibrancy funding.

Another project that extended beyond the initial grant was “LOCKS of Love, From Waterloo.” Artist Ali Lukacsy’s sculpture for Mac’s Lock Shop became a permanent fixture of the neighborhood when another business owner offered outdoor space for its ongoing display.

The original collaboration between Lukacsy and the locksmith began when she needed to get her own home’s locks changed. The owners told her they were interested in the arts, but were worried about being left out of the neighborhood’s arts-centered development. Lukacsy had the idea for a metal sculpture used as a participatory “locks of love” display, with people personalizing locks and attaching them to the sculpture’s frame. The project could repurpose materials Mac’s had on hand: a stash of tiny luggage locks that had been made obsolete by TSA restrictions.

An event at Mac’s in March 2014 invited visitors to stamp their names or other messages on the locks, hammering small letters onto them. They could then hook those locks onto the 3 foot-by-3 foot sculpture. By May, the piece was installed on a fence in the nearby lot, part of a larger locks of love display connected with the Waterloo Sculpture Garden. A new addition to the piece came from an unexpected fan of the project: Make Love Locks, a Brooklyn business that custom-engraves locks to commemorate special occasions for its customers. They engraved and donated locks spelling out the piece’s title, “LOCKS of Love, From Waterloo,” to be attached to the fence. Now it’s public art that people can access around the clock, Lukacsy says.

“LOCKS of Love” was just one of three Rising Vibrancy projects Lukacsy worked on. Another grant paired her with the owner of a storefront that had sat vacant for years. In a previous collaboration at nearby Euclid Beach Park, artists had “yarn bombed” one of the beach’s piers, weaving together knitted panels around it. When the pier was torn down, the panels were salvaged, and Lukacsy was able to show them in the vacant Waterloo storefront. The art show attracted visitors, and soon afterward, the building owner was approached to turn the space into an ice cream parlor.

“People had never paid attention to the building,” Lukacsy says, “and then bringing them in for the gallery show showed them the potential.”

Her third grant funded a project that had already been in the works when the program began. Phone Gallery transformed one of Collinwood’s empty, gutted pay phone booths into “Cleveland’s Smallest Gallery.” Lukacsy, artist Ivana Medukic, and local handyman Doug Holmes refurbished the structure and installed electric lighting. They curate new Phone Gallery shows regularly; Lukacsy says the tininess of the space is ideal for students and newer artists who may not have enough work to show at a typical gallery.

Lukacsy’s merchant partner for the Rising Vibrancy grant was Russ’ Auto Care, the business to which Phone Gallery is attached. The owners have been supportive of the project, Lukacsy says, lending electricity to power it and letting the gallery’s stewards paint the surrounding brick. And they get excited about the art: “When new artists install work there, the business owners come out and interact and feel like part of the project, too,” Lukacsy says.

But like Mac’s Lock Shop, Russ’ “never gets dragged into the arts and entertainment district because they don’t see themselves as part of that mold,” she says.

For Lukacsy, that’s at the heart of what the Rising Vibrancy program made possible in the Waterloo District. It’s been important, she says, not to push out the longtime businesses that don’t seem to fit the art-focused branding.

“What every street, every community needs to keep in mind is that diversity is key,” she says. “If you have an oversaturation of art galleries and arts businesses, you need other businesses around to keep the street active 24/7, not just when there are special events like art walks. There are these businesses that keep the street active and sustain other businesses there.”

Working with merchants who didn’t have an arts background wasn’t always easy, Lukacsy remembers. “They didn’t necessarily understand how the art project would generate business and help them sustain their business during the year,” she says. “It required me to sort of be a salesperson for the arts at large and what we could do together.”

But the effort was worth it, she adds: “There might be some friction, but if it’s a project you think will be good for the neighborhood, stick to it and in the end you’ll see the results are good for everyone.”

Unlikely blends of art and business development are familiar territory for Northeast Shores — they started working in the arts relatively recently themselves. The organization has existed since 1994, but not until about 2008 did they develop an “obsession with what arts can do to help the community,” Friedman says.

“At the core, we are a community development corporation that stumbled into the arts,” he says.

Projects like Rising Vibrancy continue to demonstrate how much the arts can do, even in small-scale, fairly low-cost collaborations. Of the 52 projects, 47 of them plan to continue even without ongoing funding. Every merchant who participated in the program made it through the construction without having to close up shop. And even a relatively modest $2,270 per project has changed the look and character of the street and increased visits to the Waterloo Arts & Entertainment District.

You can learn from Irrigate, too: Springboard for the Arts has since turned the project into a free toolkit. Request the kit for guidance on building partnerships and using art to face civic challenges in your community.