Visitors to Sophie Schwartz exhibit Bridged, presented by the Cleveland Print Room with support from Creative Fusion at Riverview Welcome Center

Most every Clevelander has passed the modest mid-century building on West 25th Street between Franklin Avenue and the iconic 1963 Riverview Tower apartment complex, but few actually see it. The landscape somehow swallows it up. Earlier this summer, that changed.

LAND studio teamed up with building owner, Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA) to reactivate the space, which the Plain Dealer described in 1964 as a home for “a year-around, professionally supervised program for children, teen-agers and adults.” Eventually, the three-story “garden apartment” buildings designed for younger residents and families would be demolished. (The acreage they occupied is now the Ohio City Farm.) The center’s use declined until it was relegated to storage, and it has essentially lain fallow for more than ten years.

As part of its ongoing long-term efforts to stabilize and transform Irishtown Bend into a seventeen-acre greenspace and connectivity hub, LAND studio enlisted Sudanese artist Malaz Elgemiabby to reanimate the space and visualize its future. She began eliciting ideas from area residents and community members nearly a year ago. Then in May, an immediate need arose for an exhibition space for artist Sophie Schwartz’s photo show, Bridged, which was part of the 2019 Creative Fusion Waterways to Waterways edition sponsored by the Cleveland Print Room (CPR). The opportunity was a perfect fit. Opening the center would give the community a glimpse of what their input was informing and Schwartz’s captivating images of the surrounding landscape would have a display venue. But first a cleanup was in order.

“When we first walked in and saw it,” recalls Sally Winter, the CPR’s program director and residency liaison, “we looked at each other, and we were like: this will never work.”

The ceiling’s acoustic tiles were torn and hanging. Distressed linoleum covered the floor. Obsolete and miscellaneous equipment was strewn everywhere. Dingy drapery covered windows lined with unwelcoming bars. Worst of all, it was just one month until Schwartz’s June 20 opening date. One member of the survey team, however, was unfazed. Winter recalls, “Malaz said, ‘No, no, no. It will be beautiful.’” And so it was.

Curious Clevelanders trotting between #CUYAHOGA50 events dropped in and mingled with art lovers and residents alike. Everyone relished the space. “It was really friendly,” says Winter. “It was open, warm, and generous in spirit.”

While the opening may have been a Cleveland-style Cinderella story blooming inside the walls of a mid-century dream, it was symbolic as well.

“For me, this means trust,” says Elgemiabby, citing the previous input of community stakeholders. “Trust is lost when you don’t see what happens to the information you give.”

The event was a follow-up to a June 14 barbecue for Ohio City residents. Elgemiabby asserts it was “not food for the people,” deriding the tired notion of have food and people will come. “That’s not dignifying,” she says. Instead it was a unifying celebration, with residents preparing the offerings for a crowd representing an array of ages and cultures. The site also hosted one of the June 30 CMHA Common Ground discussions. That organization couldn’t be more pleased with the development.

“CMHA is excited to be a partner with LAND studio in creating an inspiring space that is a meaningful part of the community, embraces the history of Riverview and enhances the lives of the individuals and families we serve,” says CMHA CEO Jeffery Patterson.

Inspired by French artist JR’s Inside Out Project, on August 1, the public art installation, OUTprint / INprint, was unveiled. It included wrapping the center with 250 portraits of people in the community and displaying images captured by residents on the interior that depict contributors’ concepts of dignity.

Next up for the space: part-time office hours for LAND studio staff, says Tara Turner, LAND’s senior director of development and communications. Over the next two years, the group will focus on programming alongside partners such as the CPR and Praxis Fiber Workshop. Turner notes the Welcome Center is one component in an overarching goal. “In the end, we just want to connect people with the river and the lake who were never able to have that before,” she says of a riverside community that is unfortunately isolated from the river.

In the meantime, Elgemiabby is brimming with lofty ideas for the center’s future. She envisions a storytelling museum, performance space, a community kitchen to complement the Ohio City Farm, and an accessible observation platform that would showcase the stunning views of Cleveland from atop Irishtown Bend.

“This is not just an architectural project,” says Elgemiabby, noting her desire to create a sense of community that does not degrade it. “This is a social project. This is the building that’s going to connect the segregated communities in Ohio City.

“It’s not just a building for the community. It’s building the community.”