Thursday, October 03, 2013

Nonprofit Thursday Ruminations: A Sense of Place

University Circle Legacies and Opportunity Corridors

My deep affinity for University Circle predates my understanding its status as one of the world’s unique repositories of knowledge, beauty, and culture.

It began when I was a child and none of that world-class stuff mattered. The Circle was simply a mystical and fun place, a natural center of learning and adventure. My elementary school classes took trips to the art museum, touring the Armor Court and the Egyptian galleries. There was the occasional school excursion to Severance Hall for a weekday morning concert featuring Haydn and other more accessible classical composers.

There were also a couple of summers where I spent three hours a day for six weeks taking French classes with students from all over the county. By the time I was ten or twelve I had become used to wandering all around the Circle neighborhood, most often alone, wholly ignorant of my privileged position as a vested civic co-owner of such grand treasures.

Wade Oval Wednesday, August 2013
I didn’t know at the time how rare my status was. University Circle then and now was a cultural oasis. Today its movers and shapers have learned that the survival of their institutions depends upon attracting newer, younger, and more diverse audiences and patrons, not from the old time sense of noblesse oblige, but out of self-interest. They know conceptually that this no longer their parents’ Cleveland. So the more enlightened among them are looking to build bridges to the surrounding neighborhoods.

That’s a far cry from how their predecessor caretakers managed the oasis. Instead of establishing an open and welcoming environment, the Circle impresarios equipped their domains with invisible moats designed to maintain separation from the new immigrants that had slowly overtaken the surrounding neighborhoods of Glenville, Hough and Fairfax in the fifties and sixties. When East Cleveland all of a sudden became a black enclave around 1970, the Circle was itself virtually encircled, save for a narrow southern path uphill to the Heights through Little Italy.

How do you dismantle the invisible?
The catalyst for these remembrances was my attendance this past Monday at the premiere of a documentary designed to be a legacy film capturing the history, art and architecture of University Circle. The film was screened in the Iris S. and Bert L. Wolstein Research Building on the campus of Case Western Reserve University.

A good chunk of Cleveland’s civic and philanthropic elite was among the early arrivals to claim places in Wolstein’s 180-seat auditorium. The film did an exceptional job of capturing the history of University Circle, with its unique concentration of cultural, medical and educational institutions that form the city’s intellectual core. Many of these institutions are over a hundred years old, established with the wealth of the industrial titans who amassed incredible riches in late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Cleveland was to manufacturing what Silicon Valley is to information technology today.
The film traces the history of the Circle area from its early farmland status through its role as an Underground Railway station, its development of a millionaire’s row enclave, and its eventual metamorphosis to a unique mélange of public space, institutional might, and civic wealth.

The film gives a nod to the unfortunate decision of most Circle institutions to wall themselves off from their surroundings as area demographics shifted and their neighbors grew more déclassé. The film used the marvelously mellifluous Dee Perry, the elegant Adrienne Lash Jones, and an infectiously energetic class of John Hay High students as implicit reminders of efforts to create a more inclusive University Circle.

But as much as I tip my hat to Nina Freedlander Gibans and Jesse Epstein for their work in conceiving and producing the film [about which you can learn more here], I confess to having a vague discomfort at evening’s end.

Perhaps it was because there was only one black attendee there without a readily discernible role to play. I was there to observe and report, and I discovered that my friend Danny Williams was there as a panelist for the panel discussion that followed the screening. Danny heads The Free Clinic, a Circle outlier near the East Cleveland border [“on the wrong side of the tracks” he joked with serious implications]. I saw only one other black person in attendance, kind of an eerie reminder of the Circle’s formative days.

When Danny spoke during the panel discussion, he referenced the work his agency did with the medically marginalized, and noted the irony of the Free Clinic’s existence within the orbits of two of the country’s largest and best hospital systems and also in an area where medical outcomes show huge disparities when tracked by zip code.

While his remarks seemed to draw sympathetic nods from many in attendance, what added to my discomfort as I sat there was realizing that probably fewer than ten people in the room knew or cared that voters in the adjacent community of East Cleveland would the very next day be charting the course of their city, including its relationship to the Circle we all love.

Where do we go from here?
University Circle has come a long way in shedding its isolationist heritage and impulses. But it has a long way to travel, like so many of our area institutions, before the invisible barriers that keep so many people from feeling able to claim a part of their birthright as Greater Clevelanders are removed.

So I ask you, what will it take to make the Circle’s neighbors feel as comfortable and unselfconscious as that kid who wondered amongst all the imposing edifices and perfectly manicured spaces so long ago?

What would it take to create a Human Opportunity Corridor?


Anonymous said...

I think your comments are unfair to the video. The audience was made up of people who subscribe to CWRU Nord/Baker, possibly the PD/ and friends of Nina and Jesse

It was done on a shoestring and reflects to some degree most people's feelings about University Circle which is a treasure...and it will be used because we currently have nothing of its kind

The Human Opportunity Corridor is a beautiful concept, though...I mean no disrespect to that idea

Richard said...

Thank you for your comment. I was actually concerned that many people might have a similar reaction to yours. However, I was pleasantly surprised to hear directly and directly from several people who were in attendance, as well as least one who was intimately involved in the production, expressing appreciation for my report.

I think my post makes clear my regard for the Circle. I think Nina performed a great service to the community through her production of the documentary.

I in no way meant to imply that the promoters of this film or any one meant to be racially exclusive. I am a Baker Nord subscriber and a consumer. I believe I learned of the video via B-N, the Cleveland Leadership Center, and possibly other sources as well.

I blame no one for the complexion of the audience. The fact that it was overwhelmingly white is a fact that I sensed visually and viscerally and it served as one catalyst for my piece. The post-screening dialogue contributed as well.

My focus here wass on the history and systemics of our community, and not on any individual participant or attendee.

Consideration of UC and its history leads me naturally to reflect on its future, which for many should lead to realization of the "Opportunity" Corridor project, about which I shall be writing presently.

I would be delighted to know how you evaluate the pros and cons of the OC as it presently stands on the drawing board.

I deeply appreciate your readership and comment. Thank you.