Archive for the ‘recycling’ Category

2014-01-27 15.38.55 On Friday nights in the summer time in Tremont, Chick Holtkamp, Niki Zmij, and some friends occasionally climb the brick exterior of Chick’s building. It’s the urban face of rock climbing, a Cleveland reaction to the fact that we just don’t have much in the way of good natural climbing rocks around here. They attach belay ropes for safety, cling to the bricks and window sills, and go up like spiders, practicing techniques they’ll use on trips to places like Moab, or Yosemite.

Cleveland has a dedicated community of climbers, but they have to travel to find big rocks. There are a couple of small-ish rock gyms where they can climb indoors. Holtkamp and Zmij, however, have a vision of a climbing facility that would put Cleveland on the nation’s climbing map in a whole new way. If only they can get the right people to listen.

Rock climbing, Tremont style

Rock climbing, Tremont style

What they want to build is a climbing gym that takes advantage of the city’s spectacular architectural heritage. Of course there are plenty of large industrial spaces that might serve such a project well. But their vision is to use the city-owned Fifth Church of Christ Scientist. It’s one of the most celebrated vacant landmarks in the region, a neoclassical sandstone octagon that stands at the corner of West 117th and Lake Road.

The fight to somehow preserve the building has been going on for twenty years. The congregation opened the doors there in 1926 and held services there until 1989, before selling it to Riser Foods in 1991. Riser, which operated a Rego’s Grocery Store that stood nearby, wanted to level it for parking.

People in the neighborhood raised enough of a ruckus to hold up the demolition, though. They picketed and petitioned, and the grocers backed down. Riser’s first revised plan was to incorporate the structure into a new grocery store. They gutted the woodwork and other interior details, along with removing asbestos, in 1995. But the economics didn’t work out, and the plan was scrapped. In 2002 they decided working out a way to reuse the historic building was too much a burden, and they gave the property to the city of Cleveland: a gift. Since then a few developers have come and gone with ideas, including a bookstore, a produce market, and of course subdividing the structure into condominiums. Former councilman Jay Westbrook supported the neighborhood’s interest in finding an adaptive re-use for the building for years, but none of those visions became reality.  As of January 1, it became an opportunity for councilman Matt Zone.

Holtkamp and Zmij believe their proposal might have the magical combination that makes it feasible, though. First, renovating a stone building as a climbing gym doesn’t require the same level of polish as a grocery store or bookstore or pricey condos need. That would make it much less expensive. Neither does it need as much parking as any of the retail establishments that have been proposed.2014-01-27 15.39.53

Perhaps most importantly, though, it has the benefit of being visionary. It’s an inspiring way to preserve and even capitalize on a prominent piece of Cleveland’s fallow architectural heritage. Comparing it to other climbing gyms is almost unfair: It’s not a boxy warehouse, but a soaring, octagonal brick and stone space capped by a dome. The eight sides of the interior could create climbing challenges to satisfy all skill levels. There are other indoor climbing gyms, but the 56 foot dome would put this one near the top in terms of how high people could climb. And the appeal of adaptive re-use by a young congregation focused on physical activity would make it every bit as much a landmark as it was as a church.

It’s hard to imagine people better prepared to carry out the vision. Holtkamp is a respected climber, and not just in Cleveland. As it happens, he’s also a successful redeveloper and manager of old masonry buildings. He was one of the first new investors in Tremont back in the 1980s when he began renovating some of the most prominent buildings in the neighborhood. Lemko Hall, which was used in the film The Deer Hunter, is just one example. Zmij, also a climber, has worked in commercial climbing gyms.

Until the rock climbing proposal surfaced, the former church was facing the same fate as it did 20 years ago: A grocery store developer wants to demolish it for parking. As the Plain Dealer reported last fall, the best outcome people in the neighborhood dared to hope for was to keep the columns and portico standing in a little scrap of a green space flanked by parking for the grocery store. It would look like a fragment of ruin in a city park: it would be better than a total loss, but still a monument to how wealthy Cleveland once was, a sad reminder that we used to have classically proportioned churches built out of real stone.

But a rock climbing facility would keep the structure standing, and bring it back to life. It wouldn’t be the first time a hulking Cleveland vacancy was turned into an athletic attraction. Here’s hoping City Hall gives this one a chance.


Here’s a link to Neighbors In Action, a grassroots group looking to preserve the church.



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Life, death, and resurrection, expressed in red clay

“What’reyougonnado with all those bricks,” said the truck driver as I pulled my Honda up to the fence. It was 6:30 a.m. and very quiet outside what was left of the Detroit Theater in Lakewood. Demolition was almost complete. With permission from a guy on the crew, I was there to take another load of the red clay blocks back to my house.

“I’m gonna put them in the rut next to my driveway,” I told him, which is true. “I’ve got one of these skinny little Lakewood driveways, and my mother in law drives an F-150,” I said.

Because that’s also true, and I knew the truck driver would like that. He’d think it was funny, blaming the rut on my mother-in-law, and the fact that she drives a big Ford pick-up.

“Gotcha,” he said, tilting his head and smiling, nodding in that exaggerated way that’s supposed to tell me that he knows exactly what I’m talking about because  he’s got a mother in law, too. Well, I didn’t say anything, but my mother-in-law could take his mother-in law any day of the week.

But his whole demeanor changed when I told him about the rut next to my driveway. I could tell that it mattered to him that  I had a practical use for the bricks–not some froo-froo nostalgic attachment to the way the city used to be. This guy I was talking to, he was no pussy with the historic  streetcar bullcrap.

“I don’t get it,” he went on, “there’s these people here all day watching this come down like they don’t have anything else to do. I know it’s sad, and a lot of people went to the theater,  but it’s progress, man. And you know when there’s a McDonalds here they’ll be waiting in the drive through for a big mac.”

“Yeah, that’s true for some of them,” I said. “No matter how many of us talk about how we hate McDonalds, a whole bunch of us line up to buy their crappy food.”

“Well I just gotta swap out this dumpster and get out of here,” he said. “Remember to close the gate when you’re done. They get sticky about that.”

So I watched his hydraulic truck slide the 40 cubic yard dumpster up onto the bed like those tons of demolished theater debris were nothing, and then he drove away, leaving me to pick out a few dozen bricks to lay in my driveway rut.

I’m not posting pictures of the demolition. Most of the people reading this have probably seen it in person, or they’ve seen Jim O’Bryan’s copious photos and video put up on the Lakewood Observer. Or they’ve seen Colin McEwen’s reports and video on Patch. 

But grabbing those old bricks to use them again did make me think of this, which I wrote years ago. It doesn’t have anything to do with the Detroit, actually. It was inspired by a story my friend Paul told about a guy on the east side cleaning bricks to recycle them. Still, it seems to fit.  I hope you like poetry.

I had a practical use for the bricks, but I went back later to grab this ornate piece of streetcar-era, glazed white terra-cotta, just because it is beautiful, and because I am kind of a pussy for that historic preservation bullcrap.

Used bricks: Red clay 

pieces of the broken city:

cold blocks of high fired earth

quarried, cut, baked, and laid

and tumbled back down:

match sticks to ashes, bricks to dust. 

But first, A man with a hammer

sits in the brick yard

tapping them clean for another go.

Used bricks: intersection of ambition

and industrial decay:

life, death, and ressurection

expressed in red clay.

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Very fashionable, no?

Today at William Busta Gallery, my daughter Grace, age 9-point-seven, will debut a bit of haute couture, a striking blue dress knit from those blue plastic grocery bags.

You’re well familiar with these bags. They’re the ones that get caught in trees and stay there, sometimes for years, whipping the sky like flags for the state of Gross Consumerism and Litter.

Pardon my vehemence. But these bags are a pox on the landscape. In Ireland, the government has even taken an effective action against them, with a $0.15 tax on each bag–an attempt to deal with their far-reaching environmental impact.

But getting back to the dress: This vivid blue bit of style is actually modeled after the one worn by Big Sister Kitty, the superhero Grace invented. Big Sister Kitty’s story is partly  told in the first little children’s book I printed, Clam Boy and Big Sister Kitty Liberate the Tree and the Sun and the Moon and the Entire Landscape.

Big Sister Kitty, engaged in the fight against litter

The plot: Someone litters one of those blue plastic bags. It gets stuck, high in a tree. Clam Boy and Big Sister Kitty see it, express their disgust, and figure out a way to A) get it down; and B) throw it away. Then the landscape is improved, just a little bit, at least for now.

In that story, Big Sister Kitty wears a blue dress that looks very much like the blue plastic bag itself. There’s a forthcoming book that tells how Big Sister Kitty got the blue dress she wore. But as you can tell by the word “forthcoming,” that story has not yet been told.

What must be told now, however, is how Grace got her Big Sister Kitty dress. The simple answer is that her Grandmother made it. Grace has two grandmothers–one known here as Grammy-Who-Sews, the other as Grammy-Who-Knits. This particular dress was made by Grammy-Who-Knits–who, outside this house, and among adults, is known as Betsy Shaffer.

Note the curly hem

Betsy gathered blue plastic bags from other knitters, friends, and family for months. She didn’t simply cut them like fabric to fit a dress pattern—oh no, nothing so easy and un-stylish as that. And neither did she knit the bags whole with big fat needles, which would have produced a much clunkier, chunkier thing.

Instead she cut the bags into strips about one-inch wide, tied those strips into skeins of vivid blue ribbon, and knit it in stitches like you’d expect to find in any decent sweater.

It is easily the most extravagant and labor intensive bit of recycling I have ever seen. The dress has a great shape. It’s skirt whirls out when Grace twirls in the kitchen—which she tends to do now and then. Besides wearing it for the release of my woodblock and letterpress book Common Household Rhymes for the Modern Child tonight at William Busta Gallery, she gave her classmates at Horace Mann Elementary School a preview by wearing it to school today.

Indeed, I’m certain this is a dress with a future. Grace is already planning to wear it on her birthday, which is Earth Day (which, coincidentally or not, is also the day I launched this blog). The truth is, she could wear it any day of the week, for just about any occasion calling for cheerful, stylish clothes. Washes easily. Drips dry. I mean, really.

Whirling in the kitchen

So if you come by this evening, be sure to engage Grace in conversation, and take a good look at her dress. She can tell you all about it. She can show you the story of Clam Boy and Big Sister Kitty. She can even introduce you to her Grandmother, Betsy Shaffer, who might just  reveal unto you untold mysteries of the human condition. She has that in her. I mean, really.

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