Ingenuity Cleveland keeps creative fires burning with help from CDC friends

Anyone familiar with Cleveland’s arts and culture scene has at least heard the name IngenuityFest. For more than 15 years—save two darkened by the pandemic—the annual event has filled city nights with fun, color, and creativity.

This remains the case even with the festival’s transition from a revolving multi-venue get together to in 2016 moving into its now permanent location at the Hamilton Collaborative's IngenuityLabs, where music, art displays and community workshops enliven 300,000 square feet of space.

<span class="content-image-text">Ingenuity’s executive artistic director,Emily Appelbaum at Bal Ingenieux 2016</span>Ingenuity’s executive artistic director,Emily Appelbaum at Bal Ingenieux 2016Event creator Ingenuity Cleveland—a nonprofit dedicated to arts and innovation—underwent a strategic change in 2013, becoming a year-round service-based organization where creativity is connected with our region’s educational and economic development needs.

Such a large-scale shift required a little help from friends, notes Emily Appelbaum, Ingenuity’s executive artistic director. Fortunately, the organization has found a place in its new year-round St. Clair-Superior home to contribute to the neighborhood’s most critical work, including a master plan initiative commissioned by Councilman Anthony Hairston and the Famicos Foundation.

“For us, it’s about highlighting what is already amazing and showcasing it in the best light,” says Appelbaum. “We’re working with CDCs to show off our neighborhood or the downtown core. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, we just need to amplify the energy that exists.”

The St. Clair-Superior neighborhoodencompasses AsiaTown as well as a deeply integrated Slovenian and Croatian residential base. Alongside a majority Black population,the neighborhood boasts a cultural melting pot that speaks upwards of two dozen languages and dialects.

Partnering with the St. Clair Superior Development Corporation (SCSDC) is a natural fit for Ingenuity, although the group also has strong relationships with the Famicos Foundation—a CDC providing affordable housing and integrated social services to Cleveland residents in St. Clair-Superior, Glenville, Hough, and the areas around Lee and Harvard roads.

Additional Ingenuity partners past and present include NASA, Bike Cleveland, Downtown Cleveland Alliance,and the Cuyahoga County Land Bank.

<span class="content-image-text">Ingenuity Fest 2010 under the Detroit - Superior Bridge</span>Ingenuity Fest 2010 under the Detroit - Superior Bridge

Today, Ingenuity is working with numerous groups on a sweeping master plan that aims to bolster St. Clair-Superior and surrounding Ward 10 neighborhoods.

The Re-Discover St. Clair-Superior Master plan — spearheaded by City Architecture —focuses on greenspace, wayfinding and additional infrastructure investments supported by SCSDC, Famicos and other community-based colleagues. An online survey promoting the plan centers on infrastructure investments—greenspace, wayfinding, housing, public art, and more.   

“Partnering with (SCSDC) is a natural fit for Ingenuity, as is working with Famicos,” says Appelbaum.

Organizational allies also support Ingenuity on its Ignite! Neighbor Nights that run the third Thursday of each month from April through November. Programming features entertainment and area entrepreneurs eager to display their wares. Ingenuity launched the outdoor events during the pandemic to keep people connected in a tumultuous time.

“We want to be good neighbors, so we have to reach outside of our four walls,” Appelbaum says. “Is it the most important thing to deploy artists and musicians to entertain people in line for a COVID vaccine? Because we’ve done that, too. There’s a focus on how to come together and support each other. It’s a special opportunity that we’ve responded to.”

<span class="content-image-text">The Dreamer's Bal</span>The Dreamer's BalGetting the word out
Ingenuity was formed in 2004 by James Levin and Thomas Mulready, launching in Public Square before lighting up Playhouse Square, East 4th Street and the streetcar level of the Detroit Superior Bridge in subsequent years.

Settling in St. Clair-Superior has brought the organization closer with the neighborhood CDC and new executive director Jeremy Taylor. With Taylor at the forefront, SCSDC represents the area from East 30th Street to Martin Luther King Boulevard, along with all land north of Payne Avenue up to East 55th Street and Superior Avenue.

Taylor, named SCSDC executive director in October 2021, is intent on making his community a place where people can comfortably live, work and play. To that end, he’s worked with Ingenuity on multiple programs including barbeques on St. Clair Plaza.

The arts-friendly nonprofit brought giant Scrabble and Jenga games to the plaza this summer. Barbeques not only offered attendees tasty food but also linked them to local businesses and resources. SCSDC also served as a partner for this year’s IngenuityFest, giving tickets to residents and backing a program that brings in outside visitors by the thousands.

“IngenuityFest is a catalyst for people to rediscover our neighborhood,” says Taylor. “It’s something that residents can feel proud of.”

Ingenuity does not just go dark for the year once the festival ends. Taylor points to volunteer “Ingeneers” that help the organization meet its year-long vision to build and create. Ingeneers derive from all backgrounds, assisting with Neighbor Night planning and events like the annual Bal fundraiser.

“It’s a matter of promoting IngenuityFest or programs beyond that,” Taylor says. “Getting the word out to keep residents engaged is a win-win. We want everyone to know how great this neighborhood is.”

<span class="content-image-text">Ingenuity Fest 2012</span>Ingenuity Fest 2012A grassroots collaboration
IngenuityFest being a regional draw makes the work of project partners all the easier, says Famicos director of community building and engagement Erica Burnett.

But citizens in the communities served by Famicos are also challenged by ongoing inequities only exacerbated by COVID-19. For example, the digital divide—which describes a dearth of computer and Internet access—resulted in a complete lack of contact with some community members when coupled with pandemic restrictions.

However, outdoor gatherings hosted by Famicos and Ingenuity have reconnected people to food distribution services and any other assistance they may require. Grassroots collaboration is also making residents a vital facet of the regional master plan still in its infancy.

“Ingenuity looks at best practices to connect the community,” says Burnett. “Now it’s at a different scale of identifying and meeting basic needs. We want to look at these issues from each person’s lens while sharing ideas amongst each other.”

Repetitiveness in messaging is key to building momentum in the transient neighborhoods that Famicos oversees. Ultimately, latching onto Ingenuity’s name when going door-to-door is a strong strategy for the CDC.

“Ingenuity does a good job of marketing who they are,” says Burnett. “People gravitate toward that name, so the marketing has to be repetitive. Residents may not know who is behind the work, so you have to build community trust. You can’t just hand out flyers—the strategy is to knock on doors.”

Appelbaum of Ingenuity knows there is much work to be done in the months and years ahead. Her nonprofit is currently taking recommendations for next year’s Neighbor Nights as work continues around the regional master plan.

We’re taking peoples’ latent creative energy and giving it a goal and a focus,” she says. “Programs are being created for the folks we serve, not just an outside audience.”

This story is part of FreshWater’s series, Community Development Connection, in partnership with Cleveland Neighborhood Progress and Cleveland Development Advisors. The series seeks to raise awareness about the work of 29 Community Development Corporations (CDCs) as well as explore the efforts of neighborhood-based organizations, leaders, and residents who are focused on moving their communities forward during a time of unprecedented challenge.

Douglas J. Guth
Douglas J. Guth

About the Author: Douglas J. Guth

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to being senior contributing editor at FreshWater, his work has been published by Crain’s Cleveland Business, Ideastream, and Middle Market Growth. At FreshWater, he contributes regularly to the news and features departments, as well as works on regular sponsored series features.