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.



A black-capped chickadee in the hand

A black-capped chickadee in the hand

The pictures speak for themselves: It’s a snowy day, and the tiny birds alight in the palm of your open hand to to pick out a sunflower seed before just as quickly fluttering off to eat it.

At the Brecksville Reservation of the Cleveland Metroparks, chickadee feeding in the winter months dates to the 1940s, when naturalist A.B. Williams began to feed the birds. Inside the nature center there’s an old black-and-white photo of Mr. Williams, nattily dressed in his fedora and tie, his hand outstretched as a black-capped chickadee perches there.

A.B. Williams

A.B. Williams

Seventy years later, the birds in those woods know the custom. Dozens of them gather in the trees around the feeders at one end of the shelter—chickadees, woodpeckers, and some other birds that don’t skip town for the Cleveland winter. They know the drill. When we were there, as many as a dozen people at once stood in a little arc around a split rail fence, their hands reaching out, offering food.

The feel of a little bird’s feet perched on your finger tips, suddenly, twitch twitch, and gone—is a little like fishing for perch. You wait. You wait. You concentrate on standing still. You try to think like the birds. You look into their eyes, and when they get close you can tell when they’re thinking about the seeds in your hand.

These birds aren't afraid of a little snow.

These birds aren’t afraid of a little snow.

They flick their wings and land there, peck a seed, hop, twitch, and then the bird is gone, and once again you’re waiting for the next.

The chickadees are dusty shades of grey, white, and black, with beige beneath their wings. They’re quick and beady-eyed. You’d be justified on a cold winter day to put a glove on your hand, and the birds don’t seem to care if you have a glove or not. But I’d recommend going with your bare skin, the better to feel the little bird feet, the shuffle of their weight, the gentle peck of their beaks as they snatch a seed.

This very life-like dummy might lead you to think the birds are not very bright.

This very life-like dummy might lead you to think the birds are not very bright.

It feels lucky every time.

A Naturalist in Brecksville says they prepare for the chickadee feeding season about a month ahead of time by putting a dummy naturalist out among the trees with a wooden bowl of an outstretched palm there full of seeds, just to introduce the idea of a human shaped feeder standing there. Some of the other Metroparks reservations have begun feeding programs in recent years, she says, and she’s tried it herself at home. But nowhere she knows is it so magically successful as in the Brecksville reservation.

You should try this, and bring your kids. It’s 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays and Sundays, through January. Here’s the info. 


How could you not love this?

How could you not love this?


Close quarters

Lakewood houses are packed in tight, usually with nothing but a one-lane driveway and a little strip of a flower bed separating one from the next.

Sometimes two neighboring Lakewood houses are built with adjacent driveways. That makes for a double wide drive way which—in good weather, and as long as you get along with your neighbors—can be very handy for jockeying the cars around. But in snowy weather, two adjacent driveways like that pose a special kind of problem.

Because on the one hand, you can’t shovel your snow off on the neighbor’s driveway. And you can’t shovel in the other direction because that’s where your house is.

The only solution, as anyone who has one of these driveways knows, is to shovel the snow past the house, and then pile it up in your front yard. You could hire a guy with a snowplow, if you have the money for that. But most of us in Lakewood deal with our own snow.

gathering mass

gathering mass

Snow shoveling under any circumstances is solid exercise. But if you’ve got to move a big pile 30 feet down the drive—making the pile bigger as you go before you shovel the whole mess off to the front yard—that’s more than just exercise. That’s what we call “hard labor.” Depending on your health, you might just be better off hiring a guy with a plow.

But let me tell you about the “snowman method” for driveway clearing.

I invented this technique the other day, when I decided to take advantage of the packing snow and the gravity of my driveway’s gentle slope. Most driveways slope down toward the street, which makes it easy to roll things that way: Kickballs, basketballs. I began near the top of the driveway, rolling a snowball down toward the bottom.

When we say something “snowballed,” we mean it grew over time, like a snowball rolling down hill, gathering more snow. This is what happens if you roll a snowball down your driveway. All that snow—all that white mass, and the labor it represents—gets caught up in the rolling. And then, in the joyous, gravity-assisted process of making a gigantic snowball, it finds its way to the bottom of the driveway.

The fully executed "snowman method"

The fully executed “snowman method”

Once I got there, I rolled the big balls off to the side and stacked them up in the yard—hence the “snowman method.”

You are hereby encouraged to try this at home.

One sheet of paper, one little letterpress book

It’s not magical: It’s just elegant. The single sheet book form is old-school simplicity. One sheet of paper printed on one side, cut and folded to make a little 8-page booklet with no glue or stitching.

It’s a great form to photocopy, or to make a PDF so that anyone anywhere can print it out and make their own, as the folks at Printeresting are doing with their Rum Riot Press exhibit. 

But all that elegance is made richer if you make the book with a letterpress machine.

And as it happens,  next month I’m teaching an introductory letterpress class at Zygote which will show you not only the basics of movable type and printing on the Vandercook Proofing Press, but also how to make these little books.


If you’re curious about letterpress, you should take this class. If you know a bit about letterpress and would like to see some innovation re: laying out forms in the press bed, you should take this class. You can sign up here.

We’ll use a custom chase, which simplifies what could be a complicated layout by giving you little windows in which to organize your words and pictures.

As you can imagine, this little booklet is a beautiful way to lay out a sentence you love, or a few lines of poetry, or a short comic, or whatever you can fit into 8 small pages. My plan for my class project this time is to lay out simple statement that gives this blog its name: A bicycle . . . is a gyroscope . . . that takes you places. Hope to see you at Zygote Press!



Yeah, I’m down with OPB. Other People’s Blogs, that is.

I’m generally wary of compliments from people I don’t know, especially in the blog-o-sphere. So much of what so many bloggers have to say to each other feels more about self promotion than sincerity. But after a bit of clicking around, I’m proud to have been tapped by Portland print maker and blogger Drew Kail for the “One Lovely Blog” award.

There are two reasons: One is that Drew’s relief prints are teriffic, especially in the way they play with the transition of positive and negative, each taking turns carrying the information of an image. That’s the stuff of print-making. My own work is significantly dependent on color, and I truly admire folks like Dru (and like my friend Claudio Orso) who do it all in black and white. So thanks Drew: even though we’ve never met, and I hadn’t run across your work before, it means something to me to hear from someone with your skill.

The other reason: I clicked through the list of fifteen blogs Dru follows–the listing of which is part of passing on the word of “one lovely blog”–, and they are generally teriffic–relevant to art and fine writing. He clearly had found stuff that makes sense, and which coheres.

As that particular requirement to forward a list of blogs might lead you to believe, the “One Lovely Blog”  award is indeed built for promotion. The rules:

1. Thank the blogger who nominated you and provide a link.

2. Name 7 random things about yourself.

3. Pass the recognition to 15 blogs you enjoy and let them know.

I’ve already taken care of that first rule, and I hope the mandate doesn’t undercut the sincerity of my gratitude. It’s not just checking off an item on a to-do list to say “thanks” in this case.

As for that second rule:

1) I’ve just returned from a long weekend of bicycle camping on Kelly’s Island with my lovely wife and two kids.

2) I’m searching for a good set of Maillard 700 high flange hubs and a few other select parts to help me complete the restoration of my old Peugeot racing bike, which I sold more than 25 years ago and recently (at least two owners down the line) bought back

3) I’ve been about 2/3 finished tuck pointing the front of my 102 year-old house for about 10 years.

4) The first fish I ever caught was a 10″ small mouth bass. I caught it with a line tied to a clothespin, sitting in a rowboat with my uncle and grandfather.

5) I never had pets as a kid.

6) I’m constantly trying to figure out what to do next.

7) I invented the Water Moose Portable Sprinkler Park, which converts a fire hydrant into a water wonderland. Behold:

That final requirement of the Lovely Blog Award–posting links to fifteen blogs a person follows and admires– is no small thing. You’ve got to work to be able to comply with this rules. You can’t be one of those bloggers who’s all about “me.” You’ve got to follow other people who have something to say. Following 15 blogs isn’t as time consuming as following 15 newspapers, but it does take a bit of prowling.

Fortunately, we only go back to the blogs we like. The blogs that I pay attention to generally fall into three categories: They have to do with bicycles, art (especially printmaking), and urban-ism, especially in Cleveland. So  Here’s my list.


Old Ten Speed Gallery is exactly that, a portrait gallery of old bikes from the era when they used to call them “ten-speeds.”

The blog at Momentum (a cycling magazine). Momentum is an asset when you ride a bike. When we ride bikes, we guard our momentum like diamonds. That’s why so many of us run red lights.

Bikesnobnyc:  How he maintains his daily pace of snobbery is a marvel.

Urbanvelo. Years ago, when I fell in love with bikes, it was a sporting, recreational thing. These days, people ride bikes in the city, and it’s largely about transportation, style, and culture. The blog at Urban Velo steadily grazes on cycling news around the internet and comes up with plenty of images, video, and cultural notes, in addition to the product reviews which do not interest me at all. They picked up the story of my old French bike once.


Some bloggers are good at simply showing you what they’ve been up to. It’s a kind of conversational fluency that Hooksmith has in abundance. Plus, it’s great to find other people worldwide who deal with the peculiarities of obsolete printing equipment, such as Vandercook presses.

Speaking of Vandercook presses, the Vanderblog has great information about maintaining them, troubleshooting, presses for sale, etc.

Printmaker Alex Gillies keeps a diary of his wood block adventures in a blog called Against The Wood Grain. He’s got a great style, and he’s happy to take on projects with unconventional printing surfaces, such as a solid body guitar, or a skate deck.

Letterpress printer Larry Thompson blogs about the the kind of thing letterpress printers deal with as they use and restore old equipment. His Greyweathers Press seems to have produced several beautiful books, setting –among other things–great examples of English poetry in editions worthy of the words. Take for example this edition of William Wordsworth’s Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey. 

Woodblock printer Matt Brown tracks his adventures on the Ooloo Press blog. He does color wood block prints, as I do, with different blocks for each color, but his are a bit more nuanced, and he practices Japanese Hanga tradition, instead of using a letterpress.

Karen Sandstrom’s blog Pen In Hand is about drawing, and much more than that. It’s about going into a second career, becoming an artist. After a first career writing about the arts at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, she went back to school–to art school, no less–and launched a second career as an illustrator. So you know, if you’ve worked at newspapers all your life and are wondering what to do next now that the industry is in the tank, this is frequently inspiring. And nice to look at, too.

It’s almost like cheating to plug printeresting under circumstances like this: It’s a steadily robust gush of great print material related to printed matter of all kinds. Broadly read. Fueled by half a dozen regular contributors.  And they’ve got this great how-to zine project going on–for Printeresting’s Rum Riot Press exhibit, they’ve asked a dozen artists to make simple how-to zines in that cool, single sheet book format. Check it out!

Heavy Metal Press Co.’s blog is essentially promotion for that shop, but the photo documentation of the jobs they take on shows they are truly ambitious and have serious capacity to register, deeply emboss, and other feats that make letterpress printing look luxurious, and they are not afraid of a complex job.



The blog 100 days in Cleveland ended with the publication of a calendar (which has the same name as the blog) and a book (called New To Cleveland: A Guide to (re)Discovering the City) with writer Justin Glanville. Even though the hundred days are up, it’s still worth a look back at illustrator Julia Kuo’s affectionate renderings of the everyday details of the city.

Rustwire.com is Angie Schmidt’s blog about rust belt cities admires the innovation and pans the stagnation that’s common in old industrial cities like Cleveland.  In this post, Cleveland City Hall’s Poverty of Ambition, she takes on Cleveland’s response to bicycle advocates who wish the city were moving faster to accommodate the more energy efficient mode of transport.

I met Erin O’Brien through an old newspaper job, where her column “Rainy Day Woman” held forth on subjects diverse as internet porn and a family recipe for a Hungarian cucumber salad.  Her Blog, The Erin O’Brien Owner’s Manual for Human Beings, is at least as diverse as that–a constant supply of domestic bliss and deep Cleveland culture, from the food to the way people talk.

If you care very much about cities, odds are you’ve run across James Howard Kunstler’s high energy sarcasm, either in his books or in his blog “clusterfuck nation.”  My first encounter with Kunstler was his book The Geography of Nowhere, which makes its way through the history and illogic of urban and suburban development in the US. It’s nowhere near as nice or hopeful as Jane Jacobs, even if he did follow up with a book called “Home from Nowhere.” But Kunstler is just plain fun to read, and the vast majority of the time, even if he’s not offering solutions, I find myself cheering him on. In addition to his main blog, you’ll also find his “eyesore of the month” there–a photographic celebration of just about all the crappy things we Americans have done to the American landscape.


Well there you have it.

What are you reading these days?

I got a great deal on some particle board the other day.

A few months had gone by since I finished my last binge of a letterpress project, so I figured it was time to start working on a new one: another children’s book, printed with wood blocks and movable type.

Jacob and the Djembe Rocket is a classic odyssey, a trip to the stars and back. It’s the story of a boy at a drum circle who is surprised when, by the force of rhythm blasting out the back of his djembe rocket – he takes off into the sky and finds himself soaring above his town, eventually touring the constellations. Then, when he comes back and tells the drum circle beaters where he’s been, no one believes him—even though they saw it with their own eyes.

The print and the plate

One day Jacob was at the drum circle, pounding along with the big kids. The bonfire burned, and the air shook with sound, and except for the moon and stars, the sky was just about as dark as it gets.

Jacob had a new djembe. Just got it the other day. And so he came to play.” 

Along the way there are references to principles of physics, and to the classic children’s story Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel. It’s mostly un-metered, but it falls into 12/8 time for a refrain of vocalized rhythm that ought to be fun to read with kids:

With four of eight blocks printed

Ba dukka ba dukka ba dukka ba TAH

Ba dukka ba dukka ba dukka ba TEK 

As this description makes clear, the story is already written, and in fact it has been complete except for tweaking a word here and there, for a couple of years. What I mean by ‘start working” on Jacob and the Djembe Rocket is to start making of the wood block pictures, and printing them. Which for me are one in the same process. The pictures don’t exist in any form until the blocks are carved and printed together.

The particle board isn’t for carving the pictures, but as a base for the carved block. They have to be the same height as Foundry type, which is a very precise nine hundred eighteen thousandths of an inch high. Most of my letterpressing friends probably know already that if if you glue some quarter-inch Shina to some five-eighths particle board, and add a couple sheets of paper beneath it on the press bed, that gets you pretty close. The Home Depot doesn’t carry five-eighths particle board, but Loews does.

“He knelt over the top of it, like on horseback, and he continued to pound out beats.”

It takes eight blocks to make this picture. I’m telling myself right now that most of these pictures will not be that complicated. Most will not have both glowing fires and moons. Still, this book will certainly take well over 100 blocks to make the pictures. I’m printing them one by one. Before I finish this post, I will have one picture complete, and a story ready to go, and this big stack of particle board and Shina plywood waiting for me to draw the rest. I’ll be at this for years.

And so it begins.

The Water Moose at Lakewood Streetwalk, 2011

The swallows come back to Capistrano. The Monarchs go back to their trees in Mexico. And ever year at the same time, the Water Moose Portable Sprinkler Park returns to Detroit Avenue in Lakewood, Ohio. Like so many animals that make an annual pilgrimage, the water moose returns with just one thing on its mind: Total soakage of anyone who passes near its vast spray.

In case you don’t remember last year, here’s a little refresher: the Water Moose uses the full force of a municipal fire hydrant to convert a piece of Detroit Avenue to a sprinkler park. With the support of Lakewood Alive and the City of Lakewood, and with assistance beyond measure from Glenn Palmer at Lakewood Hardware, and with further support from the guys behind the counter at Summers Rubber Company the Water Moose is back Saturday, July 21 from 4 p.m. until the Summer Meltdown ends.

Check out this video, shot last year by the incomparable Dan Morgan. 

I like the way the whole scene sounds. The white noise of the traffic is gone because Detroit Avenue is closed to cars. Without that you can hear the steady rhythm of the sprinklers like brushes on a snare drum. You can hear kids feet slapping wet pavement as they run from one gushing sprinkler to the next. You can hear the kids voices and laughter peeling out.

The weather looks promising.

I’m just about at a loss for words to explain what joy it gives me to put a sprinkler park on Detroit Avenue. To all the dads out there, come on down and say hello. Bring the kids. Bring your mom and Dad. Heck, bring the entire family. And wear your swimsuit.