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Can Public Art Heal, Unify And Build Trust On Cleveland's East Side?

A mural entitled "Revolutionary Prayers" by Cleveland artist Kevin Harp, aka Mister Soul, covers the side of a building at East 93rd Street and Union Avenue in Cleveland. [Kevin Harp]
A photograph shows a mural on Cleveland's East Side by artist Kevin "Mister Soul" Harp.

On a rainy weekday, Antoinette Wheeler and her adult son and nephew pulled up to an ATM on Cleveland's East Side, near East 93rd Street and Union Avenue.

As they waited for their transaction to complete, they got to talking about a mural on the building next door.

The mural, by Cleveland artist Kevin Harp (aka Mister Soul), shows a Black woman with angelic wings, praying. The words “unity” and “peace” flank her.

"She’s praying for unity and peace," Wheeler said, nodding her approval.

Click to enlarge: A map shows the locations of existing and proposed public art and green space projects in Cleveland's southeast neighborhoods. [Seventh Hill]

But her nephew, Coraun Jones, thought the mural would benefit from including people of multiple races.

"You have to take care of everybody," Jones said. "It could be different kind of people that stay around here that could feel left out."

Howard Hubbard, Wheeler's son, spoke next.

"But I feel as though the message is unity. I feel as though that doesn't just stand for one color or one race. Unity can mean all," he said.

Antoinette Wheeler, Coraun Jones and Howard Hubbard (left to right) discussed the "Revolutionary Prayers" mural following an ATM stop. [Justin Glanville / ideastream] 

Getting people thinking and talking to each other is one of the goals of a plan called Elevate the East.

It aims to bring murals, outdoor sculptures and landscaped gardens to as many as 50 different sites across the city’s southeastern neighborhoods, including Buckeye, Mount Pleasant and Kinsman.

"There's not a whole lot of public art on the East Side of Cleveland," said Sherita Mullins of the nonprofit neighborhood group Burten, Bell, Carr Development, Inc., one of the leaders of the plan. "There's different neighborhoods that are known for public art, and we should consider bringing in public art to our side of the city."

Starting in 2019, Burten, Bell, Carr, Cleveland Councilman Blaine Griffin and local design consulting firm Seventh Hill held a series of meetings and neighborhood walks with residents. LAND studio, a public space design nonprofit, was also involved, with the idea that it would commission artists — mostly local ones — to design and build the projects.

Aside from inspiring dialogue, residents also named healing as a goal, Mullins said.

"It's been a lot of murders and trauma in these areas," Mullins said. "And so public art can be a way to reframe what's going on in the neighborhood. [For] residents, this is an opportunity for them to have a voice and participate in what they want to be known for and tell the history of the area."

A 'Black Lives Matter' mural installed on Cleveland's East Side in Summer 2020 was one of the first Elevate the East projects realized. [Clevelandtraveler.com]

The plan identified 50 possible projects, most of which it said could be completed within five years. So far, three are finished: The painted mural at East 93rd Street and Union Avenue, a large photo mural at East 116th Street and Kinsman Road and a Black Lives Matter street mural on East 93rd Street and Bessemer Avenue.

Mullins said before any new project is built residents will be reengaged through flyers, public meetings and events.

A Learning Experience

That emphasis on community engagement came out of some tough lessons learned about five years ago. That’s when a mural project on Buckeye Road covered over artwork created by a grassroots neighborhood group,  Bridging the Tracks.

The group's members had painted bands of color and silhouettes of people in the front windows of an empty movie theater on the street. That work was later replaced by murals commissioned by LAND studio, featuring the work of Cleveland poet Damien Ware.

"We all were excited about having some more murals on the street, but it hurt — it hurt — for our Bridging the Tracks mural to be painted over," said Kirby Broadnax, a Bridging the Tracks member. "I think none of us felt like we had a lot of control. There was some trust that was broken, and in communities where we're already dealing with enough stuff, that's not a dynamic you want to add into the mix."

A mural installed by Bridging the Tracks in 2014 filled the front windows of the shuttered Moreland Theater on Buckeye Road. [Bridging the Tracks]

Broadnax now consults with groups seeking to resolve conflicts. She believes there’s been an evolution in the way institutions across the city, including LAND studio, work in Black neighborhoods. But she says there’s still room for more dialogue and healing.

Removing Barriers

David Wilson of LAND studio said he completely agrees that more work remains to be done.

"You could draw a direct line from 2015 to how we have evolved as an organization since then," Wilson said. "We started looking at what are some of the processes that we are doing as an organization that might either intentionally or unintentionally create barriers to participation, both in the communities that we work in and with the artists and designers that we work with."

LAND studio now has a racial equity and inclusion framework, Wilson said, and lets neighborhood groups drive resident engagement.

Those new principles will be put to the test in coming months.

Twelve Elevate the East projects were attached to a federal grant to rebuild the Woodhill Homes public housing neighborhood, and seven are expected be fully funded by the grant. That includes what's being called the longest mural in Ohio, which will cover a 733-foot brick wall bordering a transit maintenance yard near the intersection of Mt. Carmel and Woodhill roads.

A 733-foot brick wall along Wooodhill Road, shown here in an architectural rendering, may become the longest mural in Ohio. [Seventh Hill]

Joy Johnson, also of Burten, Bell, Carr, said she expects that as the pace of building accelerates some residents will question spending money on public art when the neighborhoods face challenges that many regard as more pressing, such as a lack of well-maintained affordable housing and deteriorating streets.

"I think those are valid points, and I think that we have to have both," Johnson said. "Why can't Kinsman have nice houses and public art? We don't have to choose."

Editor's note: About 10 years ago, Justin Glanville worked for an organization that merged with Cleveland Public Art to become LAND Studio.

Justin Glanville is the deputy editor of engaged journalism at Ideastream Public Media.