Portrait of a neighborhood: Fairfax is ready to enter its long-awaited renaissance era

For the last two decades, Cleveland’s Fairfax neighborhood has been master planning for a renaissance—and now its golden age is in sight. With an ideal location on the $331 million Opportunity Corridor and an array of developments and initiatives coming to fruition, the area is preparing to round the bend on a four-pronged Strategic Investment Plan that began in 2008.

“All of this stuff is coming together at once,” says Denise VanLeer, executive director of Fairfax Renaissance Community Development Corporation (FRDC). “It’s somewhat chaotic because it’s so much at one time, but it’s also very exciting and exhilarating.”

Among the projects taking shape is the New Economy Neighborhood, an emerging innovation and technology district to serve the city’s growing “eds and meds” sector. Located at the intersection of E. 105th St. and Cedar Ave., the area will soon be home to IBM’s new Explorys facility.

Additionally, Griot Village, a 40-townhome intergenerational housing development, has paved the way for Innovation Square—FRDC’s largest undertaking to date. Envisioned as a mixed-use, walkable urban community with ample greenspace, the project will comprise 500 units of mixed-income housing.

Both projects are located on the east end of the evolving Opportunity Corridor. Scheduled for completion in 2021, the ambitious project will create a new three-mile boulevard meant to attract large-scale investment to an area known as the “Forgotten Triangle.”

Map of Fairfax

During this transformational time, one of FRDC’s top priorities is making sure long-time residents benefit from the progress and are an integral part of shaping Fairfax’s future. The same goes with points of historical interest and long-standing institutions that have played a role throughout the neighborhood's rich history—one that dates back to its annexation to Cleveland in 1872.

Shaping a bright future

Tucked between University Circle and MidTown, Fairfax is one of 11 neighborhoods in Cleveland that is comprised of more than 90 percent African-American residents. Along with playing home to notables including Langston Hughes, Jesse Owens, Dorothy Dandridge, and Bobby Womack over the years, Fairfax was a frequent stop for Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He spoke to congregants at Olivet Institutional Church, as well as at Antioch Baptist Church during the 1960s.

Karamu House“[Fairfax] was one of the first neighborhoods where there was a large African-American population,” explains Ward 6 Councilman Blaine Griffin. “A lot of those people who originally migrated to that area from down south and from the Central area of Cleveland continue to live there to this day.”

The neighborhood’s cultural relevance is reflected in its anchor institutions—such as Karamu House, the oldest African-American theater in the country. The side of the building bears a massive mural of Ruby Dee, one of many influential performers to come through the space including Robert Guillaume and Vanessa Bell Calloway. In May, the Cleveland Foundation announced a $2 million grant to aid Karamu House in its ongoing renovations and improvements.

Connecting local youth to the area’s history has been a challenge, but VanLeer says that a speaker series at PNC Fairfax Connection is helping to change that. Some of this year’s highlights have included talks by historian Dr. John Grabowski and comedian W. Kamau Bell. “PNC Fairfax Connection does a lot of programming and brings in a lot of speakers to talk about the history of Cleveland and this neighborhood,” says VanLeer.

PNC Fairfax ConnectionThe only model of its kind in the country for PNC, PNC Fairfax Connection provides programming that goes well beyond history into job readiness training and classes on topics from graphic design to digital filmmaking. All programs are provided free of charge at this community resource center. PNC Fairfax Connection also works with Cleveland Clinic on its Louis Stokes Internship Program.

"There is no banking done here—we're here to serve the needs of the neighborhood," says executive director Brian Williams.

Redefining key relationships

With its main campus located in Fairfax, Cleveland Clinic has a significant economic impact on the area—and that will only increase with its goal to double the number of patients served over the next five years. However, in the past, “it existed in isolation of the community,” explains Senior Director of Community Relations Vickie Johnson.

Griffin and Mihaljevic address the crowd at Karamu House in December.The relationship between the Cleveland Clinic and Fairfax residents has long been on the mend. Griffin identifies that strain as the biggest challenge for his office, but a pursuit all parties are working very hard to redefine.

Johnson recalls a time former Chief Executive, Dr. Toby Cosgrove, spoke at Karamu House: “One resident, Mr. Winfield, asked a question. And Dr. Cosgrove—hands in his pockets, pacing on the stage—said, ‘Is that all you have? I know you all have tough questions for me,’” recalls Johnson. “From that moment, I felt he was sincere.”

That sincerity has been amplified by the current Chief Executive Dr. Tomislav Mihaljevic, who expressed his strong desire to connect with the community to a packed house at Karamu House in December. A seemingly simple walk around the neighborhood stunned residents, setting off the Clinic's efforts to increase transparency and engage in more community outreach.

As new businesses like IBM make the decision to move to Fairfax to strengthen their ties to the Clinic, it is difficult to ignore the role the Clinic plays in the neighborhood's economic growth. Though many Cleveland Clinic employees live outside of Fairfax, the Clinic hopes these continued developments—alongside employer-assisted housing incentives—will convince people to move into the neighborhood.

“Fairfax population is around 6,100 [residents], but Cleveland Clinic employs 20,000 people in Fairfax who spend eight to 10 hours a day, seven days a week, three shifts, in that neighborhood,” explains Johnson.

Cleveland Clinic is also working closely with Fairfax to restore 40 percent of the city’s tree canopy as part of the Cleveland Tree Plan. The program allows Fairfax residents to get a tree planted in their yard, free of charge, and receive education about why trees are an important health component.

Keeping Fairfax history alive

Fairfax’s residents are actively involved in and attached to their community, even as the population has dwindled from its peak of 34,000 in the 1920s to around 6,100 today. As new development looms, there are some concerns about gentrification, but VanLeer says those will be met with reassurance and support.

The FRDC building on Quincy Ave.“We do not believe in displacing people. We will not do that. If people want to stay, we want them to stay, and will help them find resources to make improvements to their houses,” says VanLeer. Griffin agrees, sharing that his primary area of focus as the Councilman of Ward 6 is “always [to] increase population in the area and avoid displacement.”

Long-time residents of Fairfax are essential to its well-being and preservation—and willing to work hard to help their beloved home thrive. On Tuesday, June 12, residents and stakeholders gathered to collaborate on an art installation for Playwright Park, conceptualized by residents and brought to life by Cleveland artist Augustus Turner.

Although scheduled community meetings are a major source for ideas to improve and expand the neighborhood, there are also unofficial gatherings, according to Walter Stanley, a 41-year resident of Fairfax. Community members often get together to discuss what is going on in town. “People come back through all the time,” Stanley says, which speaks to the strong community bonds.

Mural painting at Fairfax Community MeetingGriffin points to the fact that many people have reunions in Fairfax to affirm the tight-knit feeling of the community and rich traditions developed over more than 100 years. It is crucial to put these stories at the forefront so they can be passed down from generation to generation, forging strong ties to Cleveland, no matter where people go.

“There is history here, but it needs to be lifted up and people need to be reminded,” says Johnson. At such a pivotal time in history, Griffin summarizes, “Fairfax has a critical role not only to itself, but to the future of Cleveland.”

This article is part of our On the Ground - Fairfax community reporting project in partnership with Fairfax Renaissance Development Corporation, Cleveland Clinic, PNC BankGreater Cleveland Partnership, Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, and Cleveland Development Advisors. Read the rest of our coverage here.

Read more articles by Rebecca Ferlotti.

Rebecca Ferlotti is a freelance writer and was the project editor for FreshWater's On the Ground - Fairfax series.