Buckeye Road Gets a Little Love

A sure sign of neighborhood decline is the appearance of plywood on empty storefronts.  Doors and windows that get covered to prevent break-ins, become symbols of an abandoned community.  But, a new public art project along Buckeye Road on Cleveland’s east side is putting some paint and a message on some of those boards in an attempt to rekindle the concept of “neighborhood”.

"I can remember growing up here," says longtime Buckeye resident, Damien Ware. "My family was very proud of this neighborhood  At that time, it was still Hungarian."

The community along Buckeye Road was once one of the world’s largest enclaves of Hungarians outside of Europe.  And it developed a thriving commercial district. 

But then, the economy went sour. The Steel Belt turned into the Rust Belt, and things started to change.

"I had a couple of cousins and uncles that were involved in gangs," Ware recalls.  "There was a lot of drug activity.  This was the 80s"

As a local block club president, Patricia Mays says it’s been a struggle to keep the street respectable.

"We had the streetwalkers at one time.  And then we went from cleaning that up to the juvenile kids getting totally out of hand.  Then, we went from that to the breaking and entering.  Then we went from that to just destroying.  And not caring about where you live.  Or what your atmosphere should look like.  To me, where you live represents you."   

Cleveland-based LAND studio works with area neighborhoods to help develop that sense of identity through public art.  Painters, sculptors and even landscape designers are commissioned to create works that serve as community signposts --- for the people who live there and for potential visitors. But, Project Director Tiffany Graham says there’s more to it than dressing-up a public park with a statue.

"Our organization is never successful when we say, 'Oh, Hi community.  We’re here to put some art in your neighborhood.  You’re welcome', and then leave.  It has to be done in conversations with the community.  It has to have a message that resonates with people --- have some sort of connection.  And fill a gap they needed."

A new connection was started, more recently.  Some shuttered storefronts were given new boards and a fresh coat of paint --- but the goal was more than cosmetic.  People walking, biking or bussing down the street are seeing messages, from a neighborhood poet --- Damien Ware.

"I come from a family of writers," he says.  "I really took my writing more serious as a combat veteran from Iraq.  We would patrol the streets of Bagdad, and after every patrol, I would reflect on that."

For the Buckeye project, Ware is using a special form of poetry, known as a “lune”.

"A lune is an American version of the haiku," he says.  "A haiku has a syllable count of 15.  The lune has a syllable count of 13.  It makes you choose the right words to bring a message using brevity --- being intentional about your words."

One sign says, “Let me help you with your heavy burden and baggage."  Another reads: “Keep your head to the sky, for the sun will always shine”.  And then, there's “The streets will never love you, like a neighborhood should”.  Mixed among these intentional words are some ancient symbols from the West African Adinkra culture.

"They are poems unto themselves," he says.  "For instance, one of them reflects on how there is strength in humility:  'Help me so that I can help you'"

The messages are not only locally written, they are locally painted by a sign painting artist, who emulated the look of area shop signs --- that idea came from local marketing firm, Little Jacket.  Creative Director Roger Frank says the the goal is to surprise someone in their daily activities. 

"The truth of advertising is that it’s an uninvited guest --- most of the time it goes unnoticed.  So, what can we do to tug at you and say, 'Hey, we’re worth looking at?'"

For the past 18 years, the Ajax Men’s Store sign’s been a familiar sight to folks on Buckeye.  The tailor shop was started by Emell Jones’ father and has weathered a brutal economy.  Jones says he likes the lunes.

"It gives the building an uplift.  Instead of some old raggedy boards, now you’ve got some pictures and it makes you think about some things that you never thought about, until you saw the pictures on the billboard.  They’re pretty nice."

From the streets of Baghdad to Buckeye Road, Damien Ware has seen some tough times.  And his hometown street has too.

"Out of all the places I’ve been in the world," he says, "there’s no place like being in someplace that you’re familiar.  I have memories of walking up and down the street, makes me glad I decided to raise my family here --- I have two boys.  This is part of my identity and their identity.  Gives me a sense of purpose to do the work that needs to be done here."

Of course, a few hundred dollar’s-worth of plywood and paint can hardly compensate for the economic infusion that’s truly needed to make Buckeye Road commercially viable once again, but Patricia Mays says at least baby steps start you in the right direction.

"I would really like to see more storefronts reopening, and more businesses," she admits.  "But, if we have to cover it up right now, with more painting of the buildings and the different saying of phrases on the buildings --- yes, that’s a plus."

She says she really likes the lune across the street from her.  It reads: “True Love Can Be Found in Knowing Who You Really Are.”

It's a love poem to a community from one of its own.  It's a statement from a neighborhood that’s trying to understand who it is, and where it wants to go.

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