welcome to collinwood: plan to attract artists with affordable housing is work of art

When she moves to Cleveland this month from Brooklyn, New York, artist Ivana Medukic will gleefully watch her monthly nut dwindle from out-of-control to more-than-manageable. In NYC, the installation artist was paying $1,850 per month for a one-bedroom apartment, plus an additional $350 per month for rented studio space. The mortgage on her North Collinwood home, in contrast, will cost just $900 -- and she has plenty of room for a studio.

Medukic and her husband Matthew Bee, a chef, are just two of the latest "creative types" who have opted to trade in a pricey existence elsewhere for a more affordable lifestyle in North Collinwood. Lured by affordable housing, a burgeoning arts community, and generous tax incentives, these arts-minded pioneers are breathing new life into an old-world neighborhood.

Situated along the shores of Lake Erie, North Shores Collinwood is an ethnic Cleveland neighborhood perhaps best known for its polka, pierogies and modest 20th-century dwellings. But thanks to arts anchors like the Beachland Ballroom and nonprofit Arts Collinwood, this dog-eared burg is not only reinventing itself, it is attracting residents from out of state.

Since 1994, Northeast Shores Development Corporation has rehabbed approximately 125 existing homes in the area and constructed some 60 others. But a recent convergence of factors motivated the nonprofit organization to more tightly focus its efforts, explains director Brian Friedman.

Nationwide, artists have been fleeing well-established arts communities in lieu of more affordable dwellings in less famous but still arts-friendly locations, Friedman says. And while stereotypes might have one believe that only the proverbial warehouse loft will do, the truth is, artists have families too. As such many desire homes with a backyard in a community of like-minded residents.

Dubbed the Waterloo Village Model Block, the arts-centric development plan concentrates efforts within a tight 14-block footprint. Since 2007, 16 vacant, post-foreclosure properties have been rehabbed and marketed specifically to artists. To date, 12 properties have been sold and occupied by artists -- with nearly half relocating from out of state.

Neighborhood leaders who for years have been working to redevelop the area could not be happier. In fact, the success of the plan has taken them a bit by surprise. "We anticipated there would be a local response to our efforts," notes Friedman, "but we didn't anticipate the amount of interest there has been from outside of the region."

Freelance photographer and Akron native John Lynn Kirk left Cleveland over a decade ago, ultimately landing in Nova Scotia. A well-known rock photographer, Kirk has seen his images appear in national magazines and on album covers. He says that Cleveland's music scene, including the Beachland Ballroom, is what drew him to North Collinwood last year.

Kirk says that Beachland owner Cindy Barber, a Northeast Shores Development Corporation board member, was invaluable in helping him find the perfect fit. "I could have gone anywhere, like New Orleans," he explains. In the end, he says, he chose Cleveland because it offered him "the best of both worlds" -- affordable housing and a thriving music scene.

This interconnection between artists, residents and neighborhood developers has been vital to the community's survival and growth, notes Barber, who has lived in the area since 1985. It was one of the main reasons she opened her music venue 11 years ago. "My vision was that we'd open the Beachland and other people would start entrepreneurial ventures around me right away," says Barber. "It's been such an unbelievably difficult amount of work, but I'm glad it's happening."

The plan offers buyers a choice between a non-renovated home for as low as $5,000 or a maintenance-free rehabbed one with a warranty for approximately $95,000. Additional grants, special interest rates, and a 12-year tax abatement are also available to those who qualify.

Plans currently are underway to complete 20 additional houses over the next three years, with ads for those homes appearing in East Coast arts publications. "The demand outstripped our immediate supply," says Friedman. "We needed to ramp up our acquisition process because we were slowing down people's ability to join us."

Visitors to the area can't miss a vividly hued duplex one block north of Waterloo. The home belongs to painter Monica Doyle, who recently relocated to Cleveland after spending 20 years in Australia. "At the moment this house is my art project," she explains, saying she painted the exterior in burning river orange, Lake Erie blue, and Cleveland plum. "I can safely say it's the most eye-catching house on the street."

Doyle says that she would recommend the neighborhood to anyone, as long as they're community-minded people.

"[North Collinwood] is an interesting mix of races and generations. The creative element -- the artists -- are usually the glue of the best areas."

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Photography by  Bob Perkoski
- Photos 1 & 2: Brian Friedman, Executive Director of Northeast Shores Development Corp
- Photos 3 & 4: Monica Doyle, Artist who purchased a home in North Collinwood in 2008
- Photos 5 & 6: Cindy Barber, owner of the Beachland Ballroom
- Photo 7 Waterloo District
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