Urban Designers from Cuba Visit Cleveland, Help With Neighborhood Project

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At first glance, it might seem like an old, Midwest steel town like Cleveland wouldn’t have much in common with a tropical, island city like Havana.  But a group of urban designers from both places are finding that they share some problems and can help each other find solutions.  

A crew of students from the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative have set aside their laptops and drawing pencils in favor of hammers and wire cutters. The collaborative is a division of Kent State University’s school of architecture and it uses the city as a living workshop.  This afternoon they’re removing fencing that separates three pieces of abandoned property along 105th street in the Glenville neighborhood on the city’s east side.

Helping them is Sofia Aguiar, a visiting architect from Cuba.  She and colleague Ernesto Jimenez came as part of a cultural exchange program called Creative Fusion, funded by the Cleveland Foundation.  She works in a distressed neighborhood away from Havana’s traditional tourist district.  

"And here, it’s a bit the same," she says. "You have many houses that are abandoned, you don’t have many people walking the streets, but you want to give new life to this place."

That's something she knows about.  Aguiar and nine other artists operate out of a formerly vacant industrial building that they’ve turned into a cultural center.  It’s drawing visitors from across the country and around the world.  The Fabrica de Arte Cubano or F.A.C. houses galleries, theaters and concert venues.  Restaurants and cafes are also popping up along once deserted streets.

"It’s like re-imagining former industrial and manufacturing areas with the arts and culture as a new driver of identity," says David Jurca.  

He's associate director at the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative.  Jurca and his students have visited Havana a couple times to explore this idea of creating a new identity for a neighborhood.  He says one of the keys to breathing life into an abandoned property comes from a mindset of doing more with less.

"There is a real artistry and creativity and ingenuity in the way they’re able to create amazing spaces with constraints." 

Constraints that come from a half-century of austerity under a communist government and U.S. economic sanctions.  The Cleveland Foundation’s Lillian Kuri says the Cubans have turned that deprivation into an advantage.

"That’s really the theme of this whole Cuba and Cleveland collaboration: what can we learn about how you can, with very little, create even more innovation than sometimes we do in the United States with all the resources that we have?"  

Cleveland’s East 105th street was once bustling with retail and nightlife. But, after decades of deprivation, abandoned apartment buildings and empty storefronts now line the once thriving thoroughfare.  The Kent State students are removing fences that surrounded a former medical building, a closed nursery, and an adjoining parking lot. Emily Williams says a long-term goal is to emulate what was done at the Fabrica de Arte Cubano.  She's looking forward to see the process.

"What I’ve always been interested in when I started learning about urban design was how, with one small site, we can bring this area back to life," she says.

For Reuben Shaw, the attraction of this site is as a piece of African American history.  The Medical Associates Building dates back to 1962, during the height of the Civil Rights movement.  Pioneering black architect Robert Madison designed this building, which was built specifically to house black doctors.

"Oftentimes there’s this sense that you have to go somewhere else to get the right treatment," Shaw notes.  "But he kind of brought the neighborhood together by showing them that they could get the treatment here."

The buildings are getting cleaned out, and the Cubans have helped construct simple but attractive chairs and benches from old shipping pallets.  This makeshift furniture is being placed around the three merged properties, and a colorful canopy is stretched across a driveway.  It’s hardly comparable to the vibrancy of the Cuban cultural center, but it’s a start.  The young urban designers hope it will become a destination and attract people otherwise speeding past. Maybe it will get them wondering about a neighborhood they thought was dead.  

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