keep collinwood weird: kresge grant will propel arts-led revival on waterloo

The two-story building on the corner of E. 156th Street and Waterloo Road might be stubbornly vacant, but that hasn’t stopped artists from making it beautiful. This summer, Hygienic Dress League, street artists from Detroit, painted it bright gold, right down to the doors and windows, before adding a guy in a gas mask holding a bird. Armed with paint and a projector, they worked at night over the course of a few days.

Welcome to Waterloo, which is fast becoming the weirdest, most creative strip in Cleveland. Long a haven for biker bars and ethnic halls, it's now a diverse district lined with public art, where residents can take in a concert at the Beachland Ballroom, check out an art opening at a local gallery, or knock back a microbrew at a corner pub.

It's a neighborhood that's steadily evolved over the last decade, but that slow and steady progress is about to get a huge boost thanks to a $1.1 million grant from the Kresge Foundation (yes, that Kresge, the large philanthropy whose support you’ll hear about on NPR). The nonprofit Northeast Shores Community Development Corporation will use the money to renovate five blighted commercial properties for creative startups and artist housing. This will add to the 20 or so arts-based businesses currently on the street.

In the past few years, Waterloo has gotten a lot of attention for its creative revitalization. Northeast Shores landed a $500,000 grant from ArtPlace America to combat vacancy and foreclosure using arts-based development and another $500,000 grant from the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture to attract artists to live and work here.  

Waterloo’s latest additions will include Brick, a ceramic studio and gallery at E. 161st and Waterloo; The Lotus Project, which will transform a string of decrepit houses on E. 156th into satellite art studios for Zygote Press and Loren Naji and a home for the Reverend Albert Wagner Museum; and Praxis, a fiber arts studio and exhibition space being launched with support from the Cleveland Institute of Art. Waterloo’s newest businesses will open sometime within the next 12 months.

“We’re down to four properties on the street that are stubbornly vacant, that are not preordained to become something,” says Brian Friedman, Executive Director of Northeast Shores for the past nine years. “Everything else is spoken for.”

Northeast Shores also is using the Kresge grant to offer Collinwood Rising Vibrancy grants of $1,500-$3,000 for local businesses and artists who organize events that encourage visitors to come to the street while it's under construction.

Artist-led development

Perhaps more than anything, Waterloo’s gradual revival is a testament to what happens when community leaders do more than just preach the gospel that artists are the engine of neighborhood development -- which, let’s face it, is a bit of a cliché when every retail strip in Cleveland wants to be an "arts district." Instead, North Collinwood’s instigators have given artists the keys to the car and told them to drive revitalization.

“We want to connect artists to the neighborhood and get them working hand-in-glove with neighborhood improvement,” says Friedman. “We hope they’ll get weird with it.”

That approach appears to be working. This diverse strip boasts two music shops (Blue Arrow Records and Boutique and Music Saves), a sausage shop (R&D), a dive bar (SS&W Boardwalk), an ethnic hall with killer fish fries and bocce (Slovenian Workmen’s Home) and two sculpture gardens. Waterloo Arts continues to energize the street with its regular gallery shows. This year, Waterloo welcomed the Maria Neil Gallery, Space: ROCK Gallery, Gallery One Sixty, Callaloo Café and Bar and Blitz Barbeque.

Up next: more weirdness

The Lotus Project will be the latest addition to the mix of creative businesses in the Waterloo Arts District. Artist and gallery owner Loren Naji says he was drawn to the effort when Northeast Shores said it would help fund renovations that will convert a vacant house into a gallery and art studio.

“It will be a gallery turned inside out,” Naji says of his project, which is called Satellite because it supplements his main gallery in Ohio City. Naji plans to install art both outside and inside the building, and create a small apartment that he’ll rent to another artist. “Art is what makes communities come alive."

Zygote Press is working on setting up its own satellite here, and while the group has not yet signed on the dotted line, co-founder Liz Maugans says the project likely will move ahead. The letterpress shop will use the E. 156th location for commercial printing services that increasingly are being squeezed out at its E. 30th Street headquarters.

Maugans envisions printing for businesses on the street and teaching classes to local residents. She’s particularly excited about the opportunity to be involved in the neighborhood's arts community. “We could have just moved upstairs in our current building, but the sexiest part for us was the collaboration with other businesses like the Beachland," she says.

Brick, the new ceramic studio, will open next year in a newly renovated building and house at E. 161st and Waterloo. Ceramicist and would-be entrepreneur Valerie Grossman, a recent graduate of Cleveland Institute of Art (CIA), says she never would have been able to realize her dream of opening a studio on her own.

“It’s an awesome opportunity to have them believing in me,” says Grossman, 25. “I thought, Holy cow, they’ll help me support myself with a career in art. Unbelievable.”

Grossman will enter into a lease-purchase agreement with Northeast Shores to buy the building, and the CDC will handle the renovation work. The studio will plug a hole in the local ceramics community, Grossman says, by offering area artists affordable kiln and workshop space plus an art gallery to display their work.

Rounding out the list of newcomers is Praxis, a co-op for fiber artists that will open across from the Slovenian Workmen’s Home in the Waterloo Studios. Executive Director Jessica Pinsky, who teaches at CIA, says the new nonprofit will give fiber artists a place to practice their craft.

“We’ll have a gallery and a huge workshop with 17 to 18 floor looms and a full dye lab,” says Pinsky. “It will be open to students and local artists who want to use it as their studio space. There will also be tons of classes and programming for the public.”

Growing pains

Waterloo might not look particularly vibrant right now given that the street is completely torn up. But all that will change when the $5.5 million streetscape project is completed. By next fall, the neighborhood will feature wide, pedestrian-friendly sidewalks, new landscaping, and an outdoor stage and seating area where bands will play. New restaurants, like chef Steve Schimoler's Crop Rocks, will join other new eateries as part of Alan Glazen’s Operation Light Switch project.

All this activity has breathed new life into the North Collinwood residential market, too. Last month, Northeast Shores sold five houses through its Artist-in-Residence program, the same number it sold in an entire year not long ago. “We have more buyers than I have product for – or product coming,” says Friedman.

As for that persistently vacant but artistically painted building at E. 156th, who knows? SPACES currently is scouting out a new home and apparently is considering either Waterloo or Hingetown in Ohio City.

“We want to be part of a vibrant area -- something very arts-focused,” says John Farina, board president of SPACES. “In University Circle, we would be one of many. But in Waterloo, we’d be a substantial part of the neighborhood; we’d be an anchor.”

Reflecting on the progress that Waterloo has made over the past decade, Friedman recalls a vision that Beachland Ballroom founder Cindy Barber had 13 years ago when she first opened.

“When Cindy opened the Beachland, she said she wanted to create a 24/7 street with a focus on music," notes Friedman. "People looked at her like she’d lost her mind. Now there’s momentum.”

Photos Bob Perkoski

Read more articles by Lee Chilcote.

Lee Chilcote is a journalist, essayist and poet whose work has appeared in many regional and national publications. He is Managing Editor of Fresh Water Cleveland and Editorial Director of Issue Media Group. He has earned Master's degrees in English/Creative Writing and Public Administration from Cleveland State University. Originally from Cleveland Heights, he lives in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood with his family.
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