Public Art Project to Help Cleveland Heal After Traumatic Explosion

On Jan. 25th, 2010, the issues of vacancy were made explicit in Cleveland. Around 3 PM a house exploded on W. 83rd St in Cleveland’s Detroit Shoreway neighborhood, and it leveled nearby houses, displaced families, and broke windows for blocks and blocks. No one died but several people were hurt. It was later determined the explosion was gas-induced, and that it was arson. After long, a neighbor was put on trial, acquitted, but jailed anyway because he’d been going in and out of the said vacant house taking appliances. In sum, the explosion served as a literal flashpoint to the uncertainties Clevelanders had been living with for years. And so it is here, then, that urban planning for feeling people will be tried.

And here’s how it will work. The power of the image—the symbol—will be used through the medium of architecture and the arts. Specifically, one of the condemned houses due to the explosion will become the canvas for a community art therapy project. Here, architects Jim Fish and Rob Donaldson of Mod{all} Studio have designed cut-throughs in the house so that the art can be seen inside the vacancy. The art itself—to be led by local artist Melissa Daubert—entails helping residents process the issues of abandonment by figuratively “placing” them within it. More exactly, Daubert will lead a community art day in which residents will create cardboard silhouettes of themselves that mimic their behavior at the time of the explosion. These silhouettes will be hung within areas of the house behind white screens. The silhouettes will be mechanized and lit at night, thus creating moving shadows that will be tripped by sensors as people approach the exhibit. By giving “life” to vacancy, the aim is to change the way it is perceived—less emptiness then, and more space.

The second part of the project also involves symbolism, but less figuratively, as it entails demonstrating the potential of vacancy through the science of sustainability. More exactly, the house/art exhibit will eventually be deconstructed using Cleveland NSP funds allocated for house disassembly. Various pieces of the house and the installation will then be relocated down the street to enhance an existing reading garden, as well as for the creation of an outdoor classroom. The plans for this outdoor classroom—also being designed by Mod{all}—involve the creation of the outline of a structure, not unlike Philly’s Ben Franklin house. By demonstrating the harmony and human capital that can be developed by combining the reuse of previously “dead” materials with an existing “dead” lot, the second phase of the project aims to show that Cleveland can be rebirthed from the value of all its “dying” parts.

Images are powerful and narratives are powerful, yet in an urban world dominated by the concrete of skyscrapers and the transactions in banks, the undercurrents of people struggling and feeling can get left out. These undercurrents can weigh down the trajectory of a city’s future because there is no future in a city of ghosts. Bringing the facts of loss and the need for the acceptance to the forefront of city planning can become immeasurable to the unleashing of potentials. This can be done with novel projects, or projects that create images and capture attention and tell real stories of what we all feel but are often ashamed to admit.

Some theory behind the project…

Psychology as a field grew out of the desire to solve conflict. As religion is to the original sin, then, psychology is to the original fissure—be it a break in a belief system, identity, or sense of security. Early on, the way to tackle this conflict was through taking on intrapsychic battles (e.g., id v. ego). After long, the therapeutic effort expanded as the focus went from the intrapersonal to the interpersonal to the family system, with the rationale being that a self, a couple, or a small group are all good vessels from which there can arise some repairing of the cracks.

Can this outward expansion be taken to the next level—or to the scale of the city? Who knows? But this describes one project that intends to give urban therapy a shot.

Beneath the surface of the city is its undercurrent of feelings

Putting the city on the couch—though radical, the justification is not new, as the concept of a city identity has been around for some time now. In fact the German term for being alive is “da-sein”, which literally translates into “being there”. Being where? At the ballpark, on the avenue, on the iconic bridge leading to the avenue as the game crowd gathers while wearing like-colored hats…

Yet it’s not just about your body and eyes and the places and people that creates for the collection of I’s into Us—be it a Cleveland, a Nashville, or New York. Because it’s also about meaning, or the feelings you have attached to place. Here things can get messy, as certain people have certain experiences for different places. But generally, when examining the health of a city’s identity—which in large part relates to the quality of its people’s attachment—you’d do it the way a therapist examines the individual: by analyzing how one feels about their self and then comparing this to how one used to feel. For instance, was it good then and better now? Was it good then and bad now? Was it good then, bad now, but a resilient optimism is there to turn it around? Or was it better then, bad now, and there sits a stall in the collective outlook that only makes the state of things worse?

Now, in the tangible world of zoning, traffic flows, and bank one can ask: why all the fuss? After all, the health of a city depends on the measurable only, like the amount of factories churning and clusters clustering—and the number bodies trickling in to make the need for services great. But this isn’t so, at least according to a recent study conducted by Gallup and sponsored by the Knight Foundation. In it, the researchers found that those cities with the highest levels of resident passion and attachment also had the highest rates of local GDP growth. Said Jon Clifton, deputy director of the Gallup World Poll: “Our theory is that when a community’s residents are highly attached, they will spend more time there, spend more money; they’re more productive and tend to be more entrepreneurial. The study bears out that theory…”

The Cleveland conflict: the life of Harvey Pekar vs. the ghost of Bob Hope

Cleveland used to be great, a contender. It was 1948 and the population was soaring and the Tribe was winning—and the output of economic growth and innovation was humming to the rhythm of a furnace-lit city that was manufacturing what people desired. Soon enough, we got fat on the idea of our own self-importance, and so we stopped trying and evolving and recruiting and accepting until that horizon was getting closer of an end coming nearer. Then the 60’s and 70’s happened: rivers on fire and ghettos on fire and our mayor’s head on fire (no, seriously). And with it the illusion of permanence burned, causing our people to get less attached to a place they used to be proud of, and this was reflected in the fact that one-third of Cleveland’s population left in the span of a mere twenty years (from ’60 to ’80).

This is not to say that Clevelanders have no Cleveland pride because this isn’t the case. It is only to say that the city’s pride is often co-opted by an attachment to what used to be as opposed to being leveraged with yet another Cleveland trait: its resilience.  In fact, we could become the aggregate of the Harvey Pekars in us but instead remained chained to the collective ghost of Bob Hope– and that’s because acceptance is needed for any potentialities to unfold. Pride—resilience—acceptance: the triad should be posted on billboards from Hough to the Stockyards, if only because non-acceptance has been bleeding this city of its chances to turn the page for some time know, keeping us blinded to what outsiders have been pointing out when they get here. Said writer and world traveler Anthony Bourdain: “[Cleveland is] A place so incongruously and uniquely…seductive that I often fantasize about making my home there.”

The question becomes, then: how does acceptance come about? In a therapeutic sense this involves working in the present, in particular with the constant reminders serving to incite a fear that is tied to unresolved loss. Nothing symbolizes loss in cities such as Cleveland like its vacancy. There is physical decay. There is the helplessness that arises when seeing your neighborhood slowly being owned by no one. There are shadows and darkness that serve to cluster illicit activity. And there is the reminder in the boarded, broken windows that there is an emptiness inside due to the fact that people lost their jobs and families left.

Now there are many ways people deal with the negative feelings associated with vacancy. Often people simply leave, or move away to cities or suburbs where disinvestment isn’t so rampant. Of course this only ignites a cycle of leaving until all that remains are pockets of nothing. Other methods are more active but no less destructive, like burning down vacant houses if only as an act of assertion. Detroit’s Devil’s Night was perhaps the pinnacle of this, but the images of fire and sirens probably fostered even more citizenry fear than citizenry relief. I know it did in Cleveland on W. 83rd St.

There are better ways to deal with the collective uncertainty embodied by mass vacancy, and the suggestion here is the urban therapeutic approach. But there needs to be a method—in particular one that’s capable of capturing the public’s mind en masse as you can’t stuff a city before a shrink. Enter, then, the power of the image—the symbol—especially as it relates to a crystallizing event.

-This post was contributed by Richey Piiparinen, the brainchild behind the W. 83rd project. Richey is a Cleveland resident, new father and student of urban planning at Cleveland State University’s Levin College of Urban Affairs. Rust Wire is super excited to have him aboard.

(Note: The author is the project manager. The project team is also comprised of Melissa Daubert, Mod{all} Studio, neighborhood residents and block club members, Councilman Matt Zone, and Detroit Shoreway Community Development Organization. Please contact to provide support for this project. We need it. The residents deserve it. For real. And thanks to our sponsors to date.)


Filed under Art, Good Ideas, Headline

2 responses to “Public Art Project to Help Cleveland Heal After Traumatic Explosion

  1. schmange

    This was really a crazy and scary thing. I wasn’t home when it happened but my dad was at my house and it shook and everyone knew something had exploded. How many houses are like this in Cleveland? Sometimes, I swear, this city reminds me of Baghdad.

  2. Jamie

    Ever been to Baghdad?

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