This Is Not Public Art
Nope, that is not a sculpture. It is the ravages of a car that came off the road, plowed through this concrete bench, and upended a formidable concrete planter before taking out the right half of Six Shooter Coffee, a couple doors down from Waterloo Arts. It was 7:30 in the morning and the shop was open, but miraculously no one was hurt, not even the driver. A few more feet to the left and it would have hit the middle support of the building: the guy slinging biscuits, and possibly the whole building, would have collapsed. It was freakishly the second time within a year that Six Shooter was hit by a car, even after moving to a new location on Waterloo Road. This past year, I have been increasingly bothered by the traffic in the Waterloo Arts District—by both the noise and the anxiety created when cars speed past. Last spring when we were newly into the pandemic, there was general talk about the increasing traffic speed, which was attributed to empty roadways and fewer tickets being given, although I don’t know if that was true. The problem of our streets being uncomfortable for anyone but drivers may in part be due to COVID-19 behavior, but the root of the problem is that we have abdicated our public space to cars; and we all pay for it in so many ways, especially the East Side neighborhoods. We have traded nice places to live for efficiency.
Letting the East Side languish is incredibly expensive in the long run for Cleveland, and also for Cuyahoga County. It’s like having a hotel and only renovating half of it. Over the years, millions and millions of dollars have been lost by neglecting these neighborhoods. The expense of sprawl, on the other hand, is catching up to us, with suburbs being unable to keep up with failing infrastructure before COVID. Now the problem is exacerbated as those cities are looking at shortfalls for years to come. The City of Cleveland, just like any other city, has the potential to be much more profitable than any suburb, simply because of density and the lower cost of infrastructure. That’s why the insatiable demolition of properties on the East Side is so short-sighted. In demolishing buildings, you are getting rid of the ability to profit off of the one thing a city has—land, and you are simultaneously lowering the profitability of the surrounding buildings by creating vacant, unwalkable neighborhoods. Even in its depressed state, though, the small commercial spaces on the East Side are surprisingly valuable. There is a simple value per acre calculation you can do to compare properties, and I recently calculated the value per acre of the Walmart in Mayfield Heights with the Millard Fillmore Presidential Library, a small two-story bar on Waterloo Road, with the Walmart coming in at $1,150,000 and the Fillmore at $1,376,000.
But how do we reinvest in these neighborhoods to create thriving urban ecosystems that are healthy, beautiful places to live? There are many things that can be done, but one thing that we know works is investing in the arts. It will not fix all the problems, but it has been shown time and time again to be a catalyst for development—so much so that arts revitalization has a negative connotation for some because gentrification is so likely to follow. It doesn’t make sense to blame the arts for this problem, though. The arts help to make neighborhoods nice to live in, and our goal must be to make all of our neighborhoods good places to be. We do, however, need channels for people living in these neighborhoods to build wealth and not be penalized for their neighborhood prospering. There are some things that can be done to mitigate those issues.
One thing we should not spend our time and money on is putting larger, faster roads in our city—like Cleveland’s Opportunity Corridor. The cost of these enormous projects is so large that it is beyond meaning for most of us. To put it in perspective, for the total cost of the Opportunity Corridor, we could give 800 Cleveland artists $20,000 a year for twenty years and still have $11,300,000 left over to run the program. Spend a little time imagining the impact of that investment. Of course, the money is not fungible so there is no choice to spend that money on the arts; but it is public money and that means it is our money, and we need to start asking questions about how we are investing our money and what kind of return we are seeing on that investment.
15605 Waterloo Road
Cleveland, Ohio 44110