Literary Lots turns vacant lot in Slavic Village into robot-themed playground

Literary Lots' new pop-up spot has transformed a vacant lot in Cleveland's Slavic Village neighborhood into a natural play space featuring programs, activities and performances based on the children's book The Wild Robot. The arts project launched on July 12th in a 120-foot by 300-foot vacant space at Union and Broadway in Slavic Village, and it runs through August 11th.

Literary Lots founder Kauser Razvi says she selected The Wild Robot because it tells a powerful story she believes needs to be heard in today's world. In the book, a robot becomes stranded on an island and survives by adapting to live among animals in the wild. “It’s about identifying, bullying, isolation, and belonging,” she explains. “It’s about having value in your own space.”

As a first generation American, Razvi has increasingly been disturbed by the divisive attitudes of exclusion growing today in the United States. “I am a brown woman and the daughter of [Indian] immigrants, and in this political climate it’s very depressing for me personally,” she says. “This is my way of showing up to create a space and spark a little joy, a little wonder. That’s hard in this day and age."

Razvi installed previous Literary Lots in 2013 and in 2014 in Ohio City before taking a break. In addition to today's political climate, she says the book and the vacant lot motivated her to again create a fantasy world.

After the 2016 election, Razvi reached out to Soulcraft founder Peter Debelak about building a bigger Literary Lot in Slavic Village. He immediately agreed to the challenge.

“It was a natural partnership,” Debelak says. “Soulcraft’ s fundamental philosophy is empowering people in the community. When Kauser came to me and asked, ‘do you want to scale it up and do it larger,’ we said yes."

The two decided to take their time to build it right. Debelak worked with more than a half dozen students from the neighborhood and members of Youth Opportunities Unlimited (Y.O.U.), Cleveland Central Catholic High School, and Slavic Village Community Development Corporation to build robots and other props for the lot.

“We’re working with kids in the neighborhood to learn woodworking and metalworking, and to be involved in the design,” explains Debelak. “And now, they are working in the lot.”

They raised $60,000 from 10 organizations to help fund the project. Most of the funds went toward materials and overhead to operate on the lot.

Now that The Wild Robot lot is built, visitors can come by seven days a week during daylight hours. Within the first week, neighborhood kids were already taking notice of the robots, a mural in progress (painted by artists Chester Hopkins-Bey with the Visit Arts Collective), and the tall grasses that Razvi let grow on the lot.

“There are two to three neighborhood boys who come, and they just hang out for five to seven hours a day,” Razvi says. “Now they want to be a part of it. We have orange T-shirts that we wear, and they want them.”

So Razvi and Debelak challenged them to read a list of 10 books and some tasks to do to earn their shirts. “We planted things and showed them how to water the garden when they come in,” explains Debelak. “They came in and they started reading the 10 books.”

Other members of the community have also taken notice. Razvi says a local church pastor is going to hold his Sunday services on the lot on Sunday, July 28, and other residents have asked that the lot stay open through Halloween.

Programming on the lot includes daily workshops and activities, as well as evening events on Friday and Saturday nights. Lake Erie Ink holds writing workshops every Tuesday and Thursday; PCs for People holds regular workshops where participants take apart computers to learn how they work; Progress with Chess holds chess activities every Wednesday afternoon; Dee Jay Doc and the Refresh Collective host interactive hip hop performances on Wednesdays; America Scores hosts soccer and poetry workshops; and GrowU regularly teaches cooking in an Airstream trailer on the lot.

There are movie nights, and Cleveland Public Library Fleet Branch hosts story times. Even members of the Cleveland Orchestra periodically make appearances. Literary Lots is still accepting donations to cover the costs of the project.

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.
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