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These Beautiful Art Projects Saved One Rust Belt Community from Economic Ruin

December 4, 2015
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These Beautiful Art Projects Saved One Rust Belt Community from Economic Ruin
The Locks of Love were installed directly across from the construction on Waterloo Road. Courtesy of Ali Lukacsy
This Midwest city shows how you keep a disruptive infrastructure project from destroying commerce.

Construction projects wreak havoc on everyone’s lives. Residents become sleep deprived when the jackhammers wake them each morning, and commuters stress about detours adding minutes to their daily travel. But local business owners may suffer the most harm, as merchants on Manhattan’s Upper East Side near the Second Avenue subway construction and West Los Angeles storeowners coping with the new light-rail extension cutting through town can attest. Noise and dust drives away customers and businesses lose millions as a result.

When a year-long, $5.5 million repaving project threatened Cleveland’s now-thriving Collinwood neighborhood near Lake Erie, one civic group came up with a solution. Northeast Shores, a community development corporation, asked 225 artists to beautify the half-mile under construction with 52 community art projects. Funded by a relatively modest $118,000 grant, the initiative helped keep all 33 participating merchants in business.

“It’s pretty typical in Cleveland that a streetscape project results in business loss,” Brian Friedman, executive director at Northeast Shores, tells the blog Springboard Exchange. “People decide not to come thanks to the orange barrels.”

Mac’s Lock Shop on Waterloo Road.

Ravaged by the decline of the city’s manufacturing industry and the onset of another recession, vacancies used to dominate Cleveland’s central thoroughfare, Waterloo Road, and more stores were boarded up than occupied. By 2013, however, a new generation of small businesses was reviving the neighborhood, but infrastructure improvements needed to catch up.

To create a distraction amidst the chaos, Northeast Shores drew inspiration from a similar arts project in Saint Paul, Minn. The development agency offered small monthly grants, made available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Storeowners instantly crowded outside their offices, clamoring to get in.

“We were a little distressed by the number of merchants who were literally waiting for us to open so they could shove paper at us seconds apart from each other, to make sure they could be included,” Friedman recalls. “We didn’t think it was a good community-building moment for us to have merchants sitting in front of our office at 5 o’clock in the morning, arguing with each other about who got there first.”

With a streamlined application process, projects soon got underway. Mac’s Lock Shop, for instance, helped sculptor Ali Lukacsy put up luggage locks stamped with individual messages (Locks of Love) on fences. Storefronts and open spaces filled with crafts.

Not only were beautiful surprises scattered throughout 10 city blocks, but the venture also helped to solidify lasting partnerships and sparked community involvement from artists who could’ve hunkered down in their studios until the streets were clean. Creative businesses — art galleries, performance spaces, fabric stores and design agencies — proliferated, and now, Waterloo Road is considered the city’s hotbed of arts and entertainment.

A detail of the Locks of Love installation.Courtesy of Ali Lukascy

That strong civic fabric will be vital as Cleveland shifts its image from Rust Belt holdover (derided as “The Mistake on the Lake”) to an attractive destination for Millennials (with a new nickname of “The Comeback City”). “I want Waterloo to be a mini Austin or Nashville,” Cindy Barber, co-owner of Beachland Ballroom, a longstanding live music venue on Waterloo Road, tells the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. “We have to dream big to expand what we’ve been doing here to get people to Waterloo.”

The artwork gets visitors to stop and look. From there, closing the deal should be the easy part.

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