Archive for May, 2011

Demand Equal Respect.

The news rolling out this week that housing prices have taken a two-year dive stirs up a new wave of public discussion of the housing crisis. NPR ( http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2011/05/31/136815778/home-prices-at-new-recession-low ) and just about every serious news outlet has reported the S&P/Case-Shiller news that housing prices nationally have dropped to levels below what had previously been accepted as the market’s “bottom.”

 New York times reporter David Streitfeld added that home ownership may no longer be a keystone of the American Dream. He quotes the CEO of housing website Trulia, “The emotional scars left by the collapse are changing the American psyche.” 

 To the degree that’s true, it’s no wonder. We turned real estate value into vapor, allowing our bankers to sell faith that houses are always worth more every year. They sold loans like used cars. Then they sold them again.

But there’s another problem, too: and a simpler one. The problem is that we have devalued our market by creating a supply of houses that far oustrips demand. We let the construction industry build as many homes as it can finance. Doesn’t matter how many people there are—only if the builder and the banks that finance him believe it can sell.

 So now we’ve built too much. And for a long time in Northeast Ohio, demand has been shrinking.

 A couple months ago CNN cited the census to note that more than 11 percent of houses nationwide are vacant: http://money.cnn.com/2011/03/28/real_estate/us_housing_vacancy_rates/index.htm

 We’ve simply built far more than we need. As I reported a few years ago  http://www.clevescene.com/cleveland/unnatural-resources/Content?oid=1521317  Cleveland has four times as many abandoned houses as it has homeless people. ( There are by now well over 15,000 abandoned properties in the city—houses no one wants or will take responsibility for, simply awaiting the wrecking ball. There are, according to the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, about 4,000 homeless people in the city. You could give each of those people a house, and still have three houses for every homeless person left over).

We’ve built too much, and we haven’t cleaned up after ourselves. Now house litter the landscape like fast food packaging—our waste, big piles of it, up and down the street.  

Cleveland dot com reports that the vacancy rate across Cuyahoga County is 12.3 percent, almost a full point higher than the national average. In Cleveland itself, the rate is 19.3 percent. Almost one house in five.


We need to clean up after ourselves. What we need to do, is to give humans the same kind of respect we give ducks. What I mean is that we need to look after the environment we live in. For years, federal and state wetland mitigation legislation has required that if someone wants to build something that would ruin or eliminate a wetland, they have to do penance by restoring a wetland someplace else.

Why don’t we enforce some similar requirement on housing construction?  An acre for an acre.  Sure: You can build a house on farmland in a market that has longterm declining demand. But to do so, you’ve got to remediate equal acreage, cleaning up the same amount of waste property somewhere else. Once a developer had remediated his brownfield acreage, it might become attractive to build right there, rather than go to the additional expense of acquiring greenfield somewhere else.

If that’s too expensive for the housing industry, tough. We’ve got way more houses than we need. Way more than we’ve proven willing to maintain. We’ve got to stop giving the industry a pass because we hope it will create some jobs. Using the housing industry to drive the economy means we live in our own waste.  Why do we put up with this?

If we can protect the places where ducks live, why can’t we do it for humans?

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Hessler Street Fair, 2010. Photo courtesy of Hesslerstreetfair.org.

“Please note that Lakewood could create a similar program with their CDBG repayments or current funding if they so chose.”

We’ve all seen neighbors inspire each other. One person cuts the grass, then the neighbor decides it’s time for him to do it, too. One paints a house, and someone else gets the idea.

As vacancy, abandonment, and demolition creep out from the central city, entire neighborhoods could use some of that inspiration as they deal with the forces that would wreck the very assets that distinguish those old neighborhoods from suburban homogeny. Lakewood–which has been dealing with a steady stream of demolition threats to significant, historic property–could use a dose of inspiration.  Cleveland offers no shortage.

Consider the Hessler Street Fair— where drum circles are always in fashion, where the vegetarians might just outnumber the rest of us, where Cleveland’s own Afrobeat sensation Mifune played their final gig last weekend, where some of the most optimistic people in Northeast Ohio gather annually. Hessler has a back story that gives Lakewood a deeper cause for celebration than that first (and long-awaited) sunny spring weekend of 2011.

According to Hessler.org, the fair was launched more than three decades ago to raise money for the preservation of the unique residential neighborhood in the heart of the CWRU campus: Victorian homes with front porches closely huddled along short streets paved in brick and wood block, surrounded by the city’s biggest arts and educational institutions. It’s a great neighborhood on any day, and when the Hessler Street Fair is going on, it’s a triumph of grass roots activism.

The Hessler Street Fair started when the local development corporation, University Circle Incorporated, wanted to demolish houses on Hessler to build dormitories and parking lots. People who lived there didn’t want that. So they turned their annual block party into a fair to raise some money in support of the Hessler Neighborhood Association’s preservation efforts. That was 1969. Hessler Road was dedicated as a landmark district in Nov. 1975 by the City of Cleveland. Thirty-six years later, it’s still one of the most beautiful and interesting residential blocks in town.

Meanwhile, over in Collinwood, the Northeast Shores CDC hopes to preserve its own landmark, the LaSalle Theater http://northeastshores.blogspot.com/2010/01/public-come-out-in-force-for-lasalle.html. Built in 1927, the LaSalle fits Northeast Shores’ (and the neighborhood’s) vision of an arts district anchored by the Beachland Ballroom and the many galleries along Waterloo, and populated by the many artists that live in the area. Northeast Shores bought the LaSalle out of foreclosure in 2009 to make sure it would be used in a complimentary way, and not knocked down. That a CDC would buy a building in the hope of preserving it puts an institutional twist on the grass roots effort that saved Hessler Road. But it’s the same kind of dream: The neighborhood likes its unique buildings. As much as they are a challenge, they are also its brand.

Now, in Lakewood, residents are grasping for ideas to save the Detroit Twin theatre from the wrecking ball as rumors that a local McDonald’s franchise has designs on that location—designs that, in typical McDonalds fashion, probably involve the demolition of the existing building.

Lakewood could take inspiration from Hessler Road and from Collinwood. But only if someone takes up the charge. The local development corporation, Lakewood Alive, does not seem inclined to stand in the way of any new commercial investment, even if it means demolition of some of the neighborhood’s most obvious architectural assets. The Lakewood Historical Society established a fund to move (and therefore preserve)  the Civil War-era Matthew Hall House. But its owner knocked the house down before the plan could be executed. Without a significant fundraising effort, LHS is not financially positioned to take stewardship of a significant commercial property.

But none of that means someone couldn’t step up.

Northeast Shores executive director Brian Friedman was kind enough to answer gyroscopethattakesyouplaces’ questions about his organization’s efforts to preserve the LaSalle, on East 185th St.

According to Mr. Friedman, the LaSalle was built in 1927 by a bank that occupied one of the building’s storefronts. It has a one-screen movie theatre, four storefronts, and five apartments.  Most recently used for an antique car show (for which the theatre seats were removed) the LaSalle hasn’t been used at all in about a dozen years. The last movie was shown there in about 1995. All the storefronts and apartments were occupied, however, until the foreclosure evicted the occupants about two years ago.

Concerned with the possibility that such a significant piece of the neighborhood could deteriorate or be demolished, Northeast Shores bought the building for $150,000 in September, 2009. According to Friedman, the sale was made possible by special financing from the Village Capital Corporation and Enterprise Partners—financing from a loan pool intended for the acquisition of key properties for future development. The loan pool is only available within the Cleveland city limits.

Friedman says “If not for this loan fund and having a sympathetic lender, there is no way that we could have done this.”

He adds, “Please note that Lakewood could create a similar program with their CDBG repayments or current funding if they so chose.”

Owning such a building comes with some ongoing costs. The seller paid back taxes when Northeast Shores bought the property, but Northeast Shores is responsible for taxes that have accrued since then. (Friedman is working to get the taxes reduced: The county values the property at $650,000, though that’s more than 4 times the most recent sale price. For now, the LaSalle is in the Board of Revisions’  mix of backlogged cases.)

And of course finding a viable use for such a space—a buyer with a business plan and the capacity to execute it—provides a zoo full of metaphors for actually dealing with the challenge: It is the elephant in the middle of the room. It is the 800 pound gorilla. That would be the case in Lakewood, too.

Northeast Shores took the neighborhood through an open house / visioning exercise in January, 2010 to generate ideas for the space. Friedman’s belief is that a brewpub in that location would serve the neighborhood well. He says there’s been some interest, but no one has yet signed a commitment.

The loan gave Northeast Shores two years to come up with a plan for the LaSalle. That means it comes due in September.”

 “We are very hopeful that one of our three decent (brewpub) leads . . . gets firm soon,” he says.

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It’s Cleveland Bicycle Week.

We go for miles and miles on the crooked streets

 And it’s raining.

 This is not a Laurie Anderson song.

 This is just the way it goes.

 Anyone who’s read this far could be forgiven for having already formulated some crack on the righteous vengeance of Cleveland weather, raining down upon the two-wheeled idealists during their festival of two-wheeled idealism. A person could also be forgiven for posting the same on George Nemeth’s new Cle+ Sucks blog.  http://cleplussucks.com/

 But even with the rain falling like a punishment, you can’t help but find encouragement in the bike culture that has emerged in Northeast Ohio in the last couple of years.

It’s not that those of us who choose to get around on bicycles aren’t still considered weirdos with some kind of zealous, environmental agenda pushing us along. People still think biking to work is pretty exotic. To wit: the Minister of Culture, Michael Heaton rode his bike to work on the one sunny day last week — so that he could write something for the Pee Dee this week. Bless him for pedaling all the way downtown from Bay Village. But on the sidewalks, Michael? Really?

Heaton’s column simultaneously is evidence that while biking to work is still pretty unusual, it’s got the attention of the mainstream just enough to write funny adventure stories about it.

Here’s another sign of progress: Maybe a dozen years ago, the local Critical Mass contingent was meeting in Ohio City, at the underground concert co-op known as Speak In Tongues. Maybe half a dozen riders would gather, and when I told them I wanted to write about it, they were uncertain whether they wanted their radical cycling movement to grow beyond the underground. Biking to work . . . . sharing the road in the city . . . . Shhhh!

A gyroscopic feeling, when we go out wheeling

By about eight years ago, Cleveland Critical Mass numbers had swelled to about 40. After one fateful night in 2003–when Cleveland police swarmed around the cyclists and wrote a bunch of tickets–then-Mayor Jane Campbell’s planning director Chris Ronayne –now director of University Circle, Inc.–joined the ride. It was both shrewd political posturing and official recognition that bikes belong downtown.

By Summer 2010, Cleveland Critical Mass was drawing hundreds of cyclists every month. Hundreds.

Now, Cleveland can actually talk about bicycle culture. It’s not just the righteous, environmentalist thing to do anymore. Sure, you’re burning less gas and saving money, and pumping out less pollution when you ride your bike to work. Sure, you’re consolidating your commute time with your exercise time, and you don’t get any parking tickets. But for all that to continue, there must be something more. And fortunately there is: you’re having a great time: balanced on two wheels in a line, leaning through your turns. A bicycle is a gyroscope that takes you places.

Please do yourself the favor of checking out Cleveland bicycle culture this week. You’ll meet people. You’ll find encouragement and support that might just get you over that hump of motivation so that you use your bike a little more. And if you bike a little more—trust me on this–you will simply have a better life.

Bike culture even found its way into an  art gallery, as Wall Eye  presents Pedaling Art. https://www.facebook.com/#!/event.php?eid=208311342532611  I’ve got a series of woodcut and letterpress prints in the show, which opens with a reception from 6 to 11 p.m. Friday. They’re pictures of bikes, and they go with a rhyme about riding your bike through the depopulated city at night.

We go flying on our bikes

Through the city at night.

We’ve got generator lights

Front and back, red and white.

When we go downtown

There’s nobody around

And so the only sound

Is our wheels turning around

On the pavement.

Don’t know where the people went.

Doesn’t matter what they think:

The city is our roller rink.

Here’s the rest of the Pedaling Art info:

FRIDAY, MAY 20, 6:00-11:00 PM
Free secure bicycle valet parking provided by Ohio City Bicycle Co-op
8:00-10:00 PM — Stationary bike racing by Great Lakes Gold Sprints

After party at 1300/Third Gallery, 1300 78th Street, third floor

SATURDAY, MAY 21, 12:00-6:00 PM

2:00 & 4:00 pm — Bike Films

SUNDAY, MAY 22, 12:00-4:00 PM
2:00 pm — Bike Films

FRIDAY, MAY 27, 6:00-11:00 PM
8:00-10:00 pm — Great Lakes Gold Sprints

SATURDAY, MAY 28, 12:00-6:00 PM
2:00 & 4:00 pm — Bike Films


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The Future Site of a McDonald's?

It’s as if history has a big red target on it in Lakewood. Three significant development proposals in the city so far this year have targeted buildings that have some iconic quality about them—each one a piece of the heritage and physical character that make the city attractive.

All to be demolished. Buildings that are not dilapidated. Buildings that have great possibilities for re-use. And all the while, comparable and truly ruinous properties–even vacant land–lie fallow nearby.

Long-vacant property in Rockport Square

 How is it that developers take a look at Lakewood and decide that one of the few remaining lakefront mansions, a handsome church, and a streetcar-era theatre are what they want to knock down, while they ignore empty land and buildings that actually need to be demolished?

The Heideloff House, saved by the zoning code

Early in the year a developer—Adobe Luxe Living– came along with a plan to demolish the lakefront mansion known as the Heideloff house, with the intention of replacing it with 14 lakefront condos. Fortunately the plan was scuttled by zoning that prohibited that number of condos from going into that space.

But the striking thing is that Adobe came up with that plan while another waterfront parcel sits idle on the west edge of the city, already cleared.  And this one has easy access to the water and marinas, which the Heideloff house does not have. And it’s positioned at the end of the vast and verdant Emerald Necklace park system.

Waterfront land, zoned for condos, that doesn't require demolition of a great house

 Then along comes CVS, looking to demolish the handsome Lutheran church at Arthur Ave. and Detroit, to replace it with a big box drugstore. They have their sites set on this property despite the fact that already-cleared acreage sits to the east on Detroit. Despite the fact that the massive property Giant Eagle vacated to move across the street still sits un-used.

Finally along comes a McDonalds franchise with a plan to knock down the Detroit theater to replace it with a fast food emporium. Even though the inside is undistinguished architecturally, and even though it hasn’t been successful as a theater (and even though the economy and our massive flat screen TVs make the odds of theatrical success there extremely steep), the building is in decent shape. The roof does not leak. The massive interior would be easy to subdivide or redevelop as anyone saw fit. And if you drive down Detroit making a list of distinguished buildings, the white tile front and classic marquee would absolutely put this building on it.

The Hilliard / Westwood, Advanced in its decay, awaiting the wrecking ball

 What especially hurts about the proposed demolition of this theatre to build a McDonalds—or for that matter the church to build a CVS—is that about ¼ mile to the south of either of those stands the old Hilliard / Westwood theatre –once truly grand on the inside, but now decayed to such a state that demolition is the better option. The roof has leaked for more than a decade and a half. Daylight shines through the roof in several places.

Knocking down the Hilliard / Westwood to replace it with a drugstore or a McDonalds would do the city a favor. The developer who did that would be praised far and wide. It might even catalyze more investment in the neighborhood.

But demolition of the Lutheran church or the Detroit Theater only ruins possibilities. As Observer publisher Jim O’Bryan observed, (http://www.lakewoodobserver.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=7&t=10083&start=30 )we stand to lose these pieces of the city—architecture that physically distinguishes our neighborhoods—because we have been asleep at the switch. There is no plan guiding developers away from the demolition of what makes the city interesting, and toward the re-use of our vacant land and seriously decayed buildings.

Massive vacancy ignored while developers propose demolition of a church and theater

I’m afraid the opposition to all this proposed destruction hasn’t been more vehement because people have been worn down by the constant battles of living in a city whose age, economic state, and architectural style simultaneously attract people who want to enjoy all that, and people who want to knock it down because they think that’s the best way to make money.

So when it comes to fighting to keep the architecture that makes the place interesting, do we have it in us to take up the cause, or are we all just too tired?

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Daubert, Slawson, and Placko's One Exquisite Wall

It’s the kind of collaborative improv that cities are made of. A bunch of separate people set up shop on a main street block and do their thing. The sum of their parts makes the neighborhood.

 Improv is the creative force behind the art and music in two neighborhoods Friday night, as Zygote Press opens Three Artists, One Exquisite Wall with a reception in their St. Clair-Superior galleries. Meanwhile, in a west side neighborhood that is NOT Gordon Square, Tremont, or Ohio City, Chuck Karnak has jumpstarted All Go Signs with an avant garde jazz show that comes right on the heels of his multimedia event last weekend.

At Zygote, three artists who haven’t worked together before found themselves gathered and taking turns with the same set of walls—each adding to the whole, then stepping aside for the next to do their thing. In their artistic careers, Melissa Daubert, Cory Slawson, and Melinda Placko all have made it a point to reach out with their art, making the community and the urban environment a part of it.

The ways they’ve done that, though, are diverse. Melissa Daubert’s whimsical, interactive sculptures are very different from Cory Slawson’s vacant lot intervention of a few years ago, or from the informative and thoughtful Hotel Bruce blog she co-founded, and both of those are different from the ways Melinda Placko has–for example–involved children in sidewalk chalk drawing via Young Audiences.

What they have in common besides that relationship to surroundings is an overt insistence on engagement. That’s certainly the case in their show that opens at Zygote Press this week. For Three Artists: One Exquisite Wall, curators Elizabeth Emery and Stephanie Kluk assembled the three women to improvise together, each taking turns with one of Zygote’s galleries to make one collaborative installation.


 The resulting environment evokes planetary calamity with cheery colors and somehow fitting whimsy. A tormented sky in vivid blue is split by a lightening strike that seems dangerously close to some stenciled barrels of something that looks hazardous.

The air around all that is being sucked into a floor-to-ceiling tornado that has ripped a tree out, roots and all. Mossy, sculpted Humanoid action figures are floating in the atmosphere. On one wall a torrent of trash—fast food packaging, duct tape, and other paper waste—seem to have been sucked toward the gathering storm.

Lightening and a tornado


 The thing is consummated—its message driven home—as result of the artists’ synergy: Some of Melissa Daubert’s mossy humanoid action figures seem to be pulling on some of Cory Slawson’s tape, which extends into the tornado clouds: it’s as if mankind is pulling strings, and the result is this whimsical planetary calamity. How it all resolves itself is anyone’s guess. Zygote Press is at 1410 East 30th St. For info., call 216-621-2900, or go to zygotepress.com. Opening reception from 6 to 9 p.m., with artists talk at 7:30. Free.




After that it’s worth the drive around the Innerbelt to the All Go Signs warehouse at West 96th Street off Madison, where the whimsical calamity of improvised music rages, without polish or apology. If you want to find out where Cleveland’s experimental musical underground grooves, this is it.

 But first, some background. Because in the first half of 2011, All Go Signs is awaking from a long sleep.

For several years Go Signs grand wizard Chuck Karnak did his own thing, throwing big, multimedia parties in his west side warehouse space: Bands would rock the stage, artists would rock the walls, and dance companies would rock the house, stiltwalking through the crowd, or hanging from the ceiling on silk scarves. Karkak’s skill was in showing off other people’s work—enabling other people to do their thing.

Then Karnak got busy with other people’s business in another way, as one of the region’s most versatile and adventurous production managers. After running spaces for Ingenuity for several years—booking stages, handling lights, imagining how the urban environment could be used to show off art and performance—he moved up to managing production for the whole shebang, including last year’s Bridge project. He did dance shows. He worked on big benefits.

All that kept him busy enough that he put his own big warehouse shows on hold. For years, the only events on Go Signs home turf was an intimate, monthly gathering of hardcore jazz improvisers. Each month Dan Wenninger’s Oblique Orchestra anchored an evening, playing with some of the region’s other major musical risk takers—from duets to larger groups. Musicians blowing traditional jazz instruments or exotic equipment from the far east would get up on stage with no plan but to make noise together.

Last weekend Karnak blew the dust off his big show, hosting a music, dance and art extravaganza at his warehouse for the first time in about 4 years. Highlights included Hot Cha Cha, Ohio Sky, and dancers from the SAFMOD diaspora. Karnak is putting another warehouse sized show together for the summertime.

But in the mean time, he and Wennenger offer more adventurous jazz, including a performance Friday night featuring three improv jazz acts: Wizards, up from Columbus, is rooted in free jazz, motivated by the spiritual connection between improvisers. The band’s explorations are built around sax player Hasan Abdur Razzaq, who came of age musically in Cleveland in the early 70s. His sound is influenced both by Baptist preaching and by Arabic music. He also performs on hand percussion and electric cello. Adam Smith performs on drums, as well as synthesizers. Gerard Cox adds rhythm to the wizard mix with a strong left hand on the keyboard filling the role of the bass.

The show starts at 9 p.m. All Go Signs is at 1935 W. 96th. Admission: $5 at the door.

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