igniting the fire: social innovators spark cleveland's neighborhoods, kids

The best of intentions can start with a blaze and end up disappearing in a wisp of smoke. When the fire does not catch, when you build it and they do not come, organizers exhale and pull up stakes. Hopeful backers move on. The page turns.
But when the kindling sparks, it ignites flames of opportunity, hope and innovation. It illuminates dim corners, opens locked doors and transforms steadfast preconceptions.
From projects that reanimate neighborhoods to efforts that make kids clamor for more time to write, Fresh Water takes a look behind the curtain to find the social innovators making grassroots endeavors come to life.
Lake Erie Ink founder Amy Rosenbluth 
A Place to Create
Lake Erie Ink (LEI) started in 2011 with the intention of giving Cleveland-area kids a place to write, create and express themselves. But how many kids would sign on for extracurricular work with a pen?
"Our on-site programs probably see about 250 kids each year," reports LEI founder and veteran teacher Amy Rosenbluth, who created the organization with fellow educator Cynthia Larsen. The kids attend after school, evening and weekend programs as well as summer creative expression camps at a space in the former Coventry Elementary School. Rosenbluth's estimate is an unduplicated number representing individual kids, many of whom attend more than one program. Hence, actual participation numbers are much higher. The wildly popular daylong Comic Con event, for instance, attracts about 75 kids. LEI also does in-school programming and is starting a professional workshop for teachers.
While the organization relies heavily on volunteers, with the support of Community Partnership for Arts and Culture, LEI also enlists notable area writers and teachers such as Charles Oberndorf, Paula McClain, Les Roberts and Tricia Springstubb. Not only do they present to the kids, they work with them one-on-one.
"When kids are given time and space and resources to tell the stories they find important or interesting or cool, the more they become validated," says Rosenbluth. "They recognize that their ideas are kind of important and other people want to hear them and read them."
The teen programs in particular, which are attended by kids of all races, ethnicities and religions, nurture interaction that reaches beyond the words on the page.
"There are very few places where teens have the opportunity to actually listen to one another's experiences," says Rosenbluth, adding that people so often tend to self-segregate, "but the writing, especially poetry or any kind of creative experience, kind of mixes people up and they learn about each other. They're changing their perceptions about other communities and other people."
Rosenbluth admits that the impact is hard to measure, but incredibly powerful nonetheless. The takeaway is indelible.
"I find hope when I listen to kids."
Mansfield Frazier 
Urban Earth
If divine intervention has its place among social innovators, then why not enlist the help of the most popular guy on Mount Olympus? Paging Dionysus …
Mansfield Frazier did just that with his urban agricultural endeavor, the Vineyards and Biocellar of Château Hough at the intersection of East 66th Street and Hough Avenue. Last year, the three-quarter acre lot produced its first vintage from the Frontenac and Traminette grapes, with a yield of approximately 1,000 bottles of wine. The Traminette vintage took second place at the 2014 Stark County Fair. Call that a wink from the god of wine.
But the impetus behind the heady ending bloomed from a uniquely creative, and ultimately sensible, ideology.
"The generation that thinks of the Hough riots when they think of Hough -- that generation is dying," says Frazier, adding that he wanted to replace the fading image with "something that has an amount of cachet."
And Château Hough was born, albeit with a goal loftier than just a glass of good wine.
"This is really about employing people, disadvantaged populations," says Frazier, adding that he's enlisted people coming out of incarceration, the developmentally disabled and homeless for transitional jobs at the center.
The experimental biocellar, which is essentially a partially submerged greenhouse, is a work in progress. While first envisioned as a production center, Frazier believes it will serve more successfully as an educational facility. Permaculture designer Jean Loria continues to experiment with different plants and temperature control methods.
One option to help heat the space is a solar farm, which is on Frazier's wish list of future projects along with a fish farm and a fully functioning winery.
Rust Belt Riders 
Full Cycle
Another socially innovative enterprise that is centered on urban farming and the earth begs the question: Can a discarded banana peel make real social change?
Daniel Brown, founder of Rust Belt Riders, answers emphatically in the affirmative.
"Where some people see a rotting banana peel, we see a little bit of soil that will help people grow a carrot or some greens or anything," says Brown, whose partners are Michael Robinson, John Stone and Mikey Ericsson.
His fledgling operation makes that vision a reality. Rust Belt Riders (there are four of them, all on bicycle) remove compostable trash for a $5 fee and transport it to community gardens, where it can be transformed into fertile soil.
"If you look at waste management practices or the food cycle," says Brown, "both of those are outdated linear systems, so if we can inject a way to close those loops, we think that everybody stands to gain.”
"Composting on site means less money gardeners are paying out of pocket to remediate their soil, or it's one less grant application that a foundation is receiving, actually making these places -- gardens, urban farms -- more self-sufficient. What we're hoping to do is help make gardening a more viable opportunity for people."
Todd Kennedy 
Tumbling Forward
Decades before it was home to an innovative vineyard, and when the shadow of the Hough riots still loomed large, Todd Kennedy, the youngest of 15, was a street tumbler in that gritty neighborhood.
"We used to tumble off old mattresses and box springs," recalls Kennedy.
There was something empowering about the mind/body connection within the sport. He followed his instincts, eventually convincing a teacher of an all-girls' program to show him proper tumbling. That led to a scholarship to Copp's Academy and the competition circuit.
After majoring in social work in college and working as a youth development coordinator for the YMCA, he made the leap to teaching his beloved craft in 1999.
He approached management at the Ohio City YMCA and said, "I'd like to teach tumbling." The manager replied, "We have no mats and no kids. I'll hire you on as a customer service representative."
Kennedy got busy, calling schools and area organizations for mat donations. He recruited kids from the surrounding neighborhood as well as points east and west. When a $5,000 grant from the Lutheran Foundation came through in 2003, the program took off.
"I started getting kids coming in from Lakewood, Strongsville, and it was by word-of-mouth."
Kennedy has never looked back. He now teaches between 100 and 150 kids a year in the Cleveland Heights School District and anywhere between 35 and 75 through his programs at Franklin Circle Christian Church.
While Kennedy notes some of his kids are from disadvantaged homes, that's not what he sees. He recalls the story of one six-year-old student from his old stomping grounds in Hough. The family did not have access to transportation, a need Kennedy and other parents bridged. During one car ride, Kennedy asked the child what he wanted to be.
"A gangster," came the reply.
Kennedy countered, why not a doctor or lawyer? After all, anything's possible given enough time, effort and commitment. The child fell silent as epiphany bloomed.
"To let him know he could do anything in life … I didn't know that I impacted these kids' lives like that."
After six years with Kennedy, the young man is now a straight-A student and football player at Glenville.
Anthony Trzaska of The Nash 
Nash-ville, Cleveland style
Anthony Trzaska's goal is at once simple and daunting: to find a way to re-animate the Slavic Village neighborhood his grandparents built and his parents watched fall into decline, and then deliver it to Cleveland via the "new wave of the old world." And while one man cannot single-handedly transform a neighborhood, starting at the Nash (also known as the National Slovenian Home) gives his goal a formidable spearhead.
"Everything for our families has pretty much been at the Nash," says Trzaska, ticking off the events: his own communion party, his parents’ wedding as well as those for all his aunts and uncles. "I've been going there my whole life," he adds, noting that the same goes "for every other family that makes up that fraternal organization."
He joined the board three years ago and went to work, kicking off the effort by rebranding it from the National Slovenian Home to the Nash on East 80th because naturally, "everybody forever has referred to it as the Nash." He also brought the 97-year old organization into the 21st century with a twitter feed and a Facebook page.
"It gave us an opportunity to see if there's a market for this outside of the exclusive Slovenian community—and there is," says Trzaska.
Nearly 150 bike riders proved that assertion in March 2013, when Cleveland Critical Mass chose the Nash's fish fry for its monthly destination and they stormed the place, albeit politely.
"They opened the doors and pulled hundreds of bikes into the old hall," recalls Trzaska, and then they bellied up next to all the grandmas and grandpas who were there because they attend every Nash event without fail.
"They were blowing the blue hair off my grandma's head."
Trzaska calls contingents such as the Critical Mass group part of the "new Cleveland" and a target market for his vision of Slavic Village.
"These folks don't care about the east/west divide," he says. "They don't care about the decline in neighborhoods. They don't care about a perceived lack of safety."
Earlier this month, Trzaska hosted the first event at the Nash aimed at his target market (versus the Slovenian community): the kickoff of the Bothsider Bowling League, which will alternately polish the lanes at the Nash and Mahall's. More than 35 people attended the event.
"Everyone had a blast," reports Trzaska.
Eventually, he hopes to lure them to a revitalized Fleet Avenue once the ongoing streetscape project is complete next year. Trzaska grew up on Fleet and has taken up residence there once again -- at least for the home of his latest venture, Sonny Day Development, with offices at 5016 Fleet Avenue. With it, he intends to revitalize the once vibrant commercial district by working with existing landowners, and attracting new developers and tenants, particularly those associated with the maker movement.
"The maker community is reinventing Cleveland at a very nice clip and it's doing so through neighborhoods. It only makes sense that if Slavic Village is going to happen, it's going to happen this way."

Read more articles by Erin O'Brien.

Erin O'Brien's eclectic features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others. The sixth generation northeast Ohioan is also author of The Irish Hungarian Guide to the Domestic Arts. Visit erinobrien.us for complete profile information.
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