Thursday, September 21, 2006

Writing's Long Tail, Part 2

I mentioned yesterday that I would republish an article from my personal archives that touched on the life of Masumi Hayashi, an artist and Cleveland State professor who was tragically murdered last month. You can view an online museum of her work
here. The piece below was originally published in Northern Ohio Live in 1993. It included a photo of her, as well as of the photographic mural (not the one above) she produced for the newly restored condominium building she was moving into.

Preservation Hall

Once gutted by fire and mired in bankruptcy, a dull little building on Cleveland’s near West Side is reborn as condominiums—but more important, it calls attention to the rejuvenation of the Detroit-Shoreway area and the methods of neighborhood resuscitation.

By John Ettorre

By six o’clock, the line for food was 25 people deep and inching forward almost imperceptibly. With no mixed drinks in sight, the stuff-your-face crowd had shifted its attention to delectables such as calamari which were silently seducing them from the serving table. Outside on West 75th, a saxophone player wailed; inside, most of the major players of the neighborhood movement in Cleveland mingled about, toasting the latest emblem of urban in-migration.

And the nonprofit Detroit-Shoreway Community Development Organization which helped make it happen was capitalizing on the event to market the neighborhood.

“This is neighborhood development that isn’t like urban renewal,” Cleveland’s Community Development Director Chris Warren, himself a veteran of the neighborhood movement, was saying. “It isn’t like the time in our history when neighborhood development meant come in and take old buildings that are maybe not in particularly good shape or in good use or abandoned, and level them and build anew. No, this wasn’t like that. This is a project that starts with community ownership, saying it’s an important building, an important site, and it’s worth something to save the building.”

But beyond the ballyhoo and the canapés, the fact remains: After five years of struggle to shield it from the wrecking ball, the 71-year-old City Savings & Loan building at the convergence of West 75th, Detroit and Lake is about to find new life as condominium dwellings with a couple of storefront commercial units. Moreover, the building does exemplify the important process of maintaining—as opposed to recreating—a neighborhood, even as it stands as a linchpin of sorts in an area of Cleveland’s near West Side that has for years been on the brink of irreparable deterioration.

One irony, however, was inescapable. Mayor Mike White was supposed to be the keynote speaker that night, using the platform to signal the city’s determination to pour its development energies into not just the downtown skyline but on neighborhood housing. Instead, the mayor begged off at the last moment to go to Florida for a pseudo-event: the official designation of Cleveland as an All-American City.

No matter how partial you are to old buildings, it would be a stretch to classify the City Savings building as architecturally significant in and of itself. Since 1922, the neoclassical brick building has stood watch at this corner with the kind of dully solid architectural presence that savings institutions have always favored to imply security. Over the years, it has also housed a library, pharmacy and technical school.

Unlike some of its neighbors, City Savings isn’t steeped in history, at least not the kind you read in textbooks The old Watterson-Lake Elementary school next door, built in 1906, and the recently refurbished Gordon Square Arcade a few blocks east on Detroit, for instance, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Nor has City Savings straw-colored rough brick exterior aged gracefully.

But remarkable is in the eye of the beholder. Surely it must be worth something to sit for several generations blending peacefully into this neighborhood west of Ohio City and a few dozen blocks east of the West 117th area, where Cleveland gently segues into Lakewood.

The intersection of Detroit and Lake was once the end of a streetcar line, the early 20th century equivalent of sitting squarely at the edge of a highway interchange. That’s why commercial development here was so bountiful and why the housing patterns in the surrounding neighborhood are so dense. In the bustling, optimistic pre-Depression era when Cleveland was the nation’s sixth-largest city, neighborhood residents could walk to the streetcar and catch a quick rid downtown. Lake Erie, in all its recreational splendor, was less than a mile north.

Though the streetcars have long since disappeared, the lake hasn’t gone anywhere. And beginning this summer, six new residents and the occupants of two commercial storefronts will begin blending into the neighborhood.

From the third-floor roof and solarium of the renovated structure, you can drink in a view of Cleveland’s skyline and at least a sliver of Lake Erie. Below, the residential units, which were still being readied in June, are spacious and bathed in light from the plentiful windows.

The living spaces blend exposed brick with perhaps too-generous dry wall to suit the tastes of a purist. Residents have customized much of their interiors, many leaning to blond hardwood floors and sleek, white cabinetry.

Though blighted in spots and in need of general repair, the surrounding neighborhood is not without its attractions, chief among them its proximity to the lake. A short hike down East 76th through a couple of tunnels burroughing under the Conrail tracks and the Shoreway, is Edgewater Park. A few blocks east is Cleveland Public Theatre. The experimental performance venue has spawned such annual events as the Performance Art Festival, Sonic Disturbance and Festival of New Plays. Just beyond that is one of the city’s better ethnic eateries, the Vietnamese restaurant Minh-Anh.

The script of this building’s life might well have unfolded differently. City Savings, like hundreds of old buildings before it, had become a vacant eyesore after a devastating fire in 1986, prompting resident to begin demanding the wrecking ball. Just across Detroit—where a Burger King now sits in cookie-cutter splendor, its suburban-style landscaping clashing with the surroundings—a huge Tudor structure was torn down only in the late seventies.

City Savings was a prime candidate to follow suit. With the building mired in bankruptcy proceedings, title to the property was encumbered by piles of liens, frustrating all efforts by the community to somehow redevelop the building after the fire.

“As bad as the building was, and it was bad,” Ward 17 Councilman Ray Pianka said at opening-night festivities, “it wasn’t as bad as the legal obstacles to gaining control of the site.”

Eventually, after five years of frustrating delays, the building was released from the bankruptcy proceedings, opening the way for Detroit-Shoreway to purchase control. By that time, the interior had been mostly gutted by an intermediate owner.

The Detroit Shoreway Community Development Organization, begun by Pianka 20 years ago this fall while he was still in law school, is a nonprofit neighborhood group—funded by a variety of foundations and Cleveland’s Economic Development Fund—that works to channel money to residential commercial and industrial development in the Detorit-Shoreway area. It now has eight fulltime employees, a board of 17 and still functions as a grassroots operation by enlisting the help of area residents.

For the City Savings & Loan project, the group bundled grants--$105,000 from the city, $50,000 from the state, a $48,000 pre-development loan from a national foundation called Local Initiatives Support Corporation—and began shopping for lenders to fund the rest of the redevelopment work. National City agreed to loan $350,000 and pump another $100,000 into equity ownership. Then, as architectural plans were being drawn up, the developer called in a broker who knew how to design space to meet the demand of the urban housing market.

“We were seeing a pent-up demand from artists for condos, live-work space,” says Keith Brown of Progressive Urban Real Estate, which served as the sales agent for the units and has been credited with helping turn around the Tremont neighborhood. “(Artists have) been around the community for a long time, and they’re used to getting kicked out of the Warehouse District” by escalating rents, he says. So Brown’s firm maintains waiting lists of as many as 40 people who are looking for just the right urban space. Many are artists.

“It was Keith’s idea to put in the solariums and the roof decks,” says Jeff Ramsay, project manager for Detroit-Shoreway. “People want outdoor space. These things help the units sell. And it was Keith’s vision to leave it with a lot of open spaces that would help gear it toward the artistic community.”

Masumi Hayashi, an art professor at Cleveland State University and an accomplished fine-arts photographer who has won first-place honors at the May Show, was one of those parked on Brown’s waiting list. “I used to live in the Bradley Building downtown until it became gentrified,” she says. Then she rented living and studio space for years in Ohio City. But she was now ready to own some property.

Hayashi soon become one of six new condo owners at City Savings, at prices ranging from $54,000 to $91,000. Even at those prices, the units were snapped up quickly. “We have people who were angry they couldn’t get in,” says Keith Brown.

“I was very surprised at the prices,” says Norm Krumholz, Cleveland’s planning director under mayors Stokes, Perk and Kucinich, who now splits his time between being a professor of urban affairs at Cleveland State and a guru to the neighborhood movement. “I didn’t know that there was a market for units of that type (in the city), no matter how unique,” he adds.

“There’s money to be made in these projects now, which wasn’t true in the past,” says Mark McDermott of Cleveland Housing Network, a nonprofit organization which builds and refurbishes housing for low-income families. “Seven years ago, there wouldn’t have been a market for this (building), and the reason it has changed is the nonprofits have changed the perceptions of the neighborhood.”

And this project did require no less than the intervention of a focused, experienced nonprofit group to pull it all together and help expedite the bureaucratic tangles. (Detroit Shoreway was the first nonprofit Cleveland neighborhood group to win a federal Urban Development Action Grant, or UDAG, for the Garden Square Arcade project, when most UDAGs were going to downtown projects. “A private developer would not have had the patience to work through the details for six units and a couple of storefronts for two to three years to save that building,” says Chris Warren. “The return wouldn’t have been there.”

If there’s considerable hope in some quarters that this condominium project might serve as a pattern for others of its kind, significant questions remain about how many of these deals banks will support. Despite National City’s self-congratulatory boilerplate—its press release trumpets that “this project is an exciting illustration of National City’s commitment to the Detroit-Shoreway community and to the City of Cleveland”—there’s not a lot of evidence that traditional commercial banks are prepared to take more than the occasional plunge into distressed urban neighborhoods once they’ve satisfied their legal requirements under the 1978 federal Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), commonly referred to as anti-redlining legislation.

As Chris Warren says: “If the banks are just doing that, looking for signature projects—one in this neighborhood, one in that neighborhood, another in that neighborhood—then we will have failed. If the banks are looking at this as simply a way to puff up their CRA file, then all of the rhetoric that night of the banks is nonsense.”

Instead, he hopes their reaction will be: “Ah, this worked—let’s do six more.”

It all hinges on the market demand, of course. As Krumholz puts it: “How deep the market is, I don’t know. Artists typically don’t have a lot of money. It could be that there’s a huge wave of people from the inner ‘burbs that are tired of living there and are ready to inundate the city. I’m skeptical of that, but it could happen.”

On a windy, overcast early afternoon in June, as construction crews applied the finishing touches to the structure before the new residents were due to begin moving in and workmen installed glass block in a second-floor doorway, the elementary school next door on West 75th let out. A band of well-integrated kids, perhaps sixth graders, shuffled past the building, yammering and shadow-boxing their way down the sidewalk. “Hey, Antoine,” one kid called out to a buddy, “they fixed that building.”

Closer observers are cautiously optimistic. As Chris Warren was leaving the opening-night reception with a group of friends from the neighborhood, he recalls that their talk was subdued. “The discussion went something like this: ‘It really looks terrific, glad it’s back. Not quite sure what this all means, but it beats the hell out of a vacant, overgrown corner in our neighborhood.”


At 8:32 PM, Blogger Daniella said...

This is such a tragic loss and your essay makes it so painfully obvious that these people care very much about their home.

Thanks well written and so precise.

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