Regular reporting and commentary from the inner rings of Cuyahoga County, Ohio. Primary interests: Cleveland/NEOhio regional public affairs; African American politics, commerce, culture and society; public education; national and international affairs; Cavaliers∫Browns.
Thursday, October 03, 2013
Nonprofit Thursday Ruminations: A Sense of Place
University Circle Legacies and Opportunity Corridors
affinity for University Circle predates my understanding its status as one of
the world’s unique repositories of knowledge, beauty, and culture.
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.
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
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.
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.
do you dismantle the invisible?
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
do we go from here?
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?
would it take to create a Human Opportunity Corridor?