• Krista Nightengale

Slavic Village Better Block

The great thing about using kids’ finger paint for our street treatments at Better Block is that clean-up is easy. A good rain washes it away. The bad thing about using kids’ finger paint is that a good rain will wash it all away. This is why Better Block and community members from the Slavic Village neighborhood in Cleveland painted the Slavic Village Better Block street mural not once, not twice, but three times in three days.

Rain may have watched away the mural one day, but community members responded to re-paint the mural.

The street mural was part of the Slavic Village Better Block, which was funded by the Cleveland Foundation. The Slavic Village Better Block was meant to create a vibrant node and gathering place just off Fleet Avenue, Cleveland’s first Complete Street. The Complete Street along Fleet had given the community bike lanes, better sidewalks, street lights, and more; but what it lacked was activity and places for people to gather. In surveys of the community during the kick-off for the project, community members listed gathering places as the biggest need in the community.

So, for the Slavic Village Better Block, we took 65th Street, a side street off Fleet Avenue and re-imagined it as a lively, vibrant gathering place for the community.

To do so, we worked with Slavic Village Development, a nonprofit that has been leading the way in revitalizing the area for two decades, and our community Block Captains, Melissa Khoury and Penny Barend. The Better Block also served as a kick-off for Rooms to Let, a community event Slavic Village Development held Saturday and Sunday. The Rooms to Let program takes vacant homes in Slavic Village and uses them as art installations. Attendees gather at a center hub and take a walking tour of the homes. Much of the Wikiblock materials created for the Better Block were reused within the community at the hub.

A band performing on the Wikiblock Band Shell at the Hub.

To achieve the vision for the street, we needed to create a place where the community could gather, and recruit businesses that community members wanted in Slavic Village to pop-up over the weekend. And we needed to do it all in a pedestrian-friendly environment.

For the gathering place, we worked with a parking lot at the Slavic Village Market. We brought vendors out to bring the market outside, added a bandshell and stage for music, painted the street mural, and then at the request of the community, designed custom long tables and benches through our Wikiblock library. The new public place and marketplace were a hit with community members as local DJ and record shop owner Brittney B provided the music.

Just as important as the public gathering space was creating the feel of a vibrant street with businesses that the community said they wanted. In the surveys, the community said they wanted restaurants, a coffee house, craft beer, and spaces for artists. We worked with our local team to identify entrepreneurs and businesses owners who could pop-up those types of establishments. And then worked with a local property owner who had several vacant storefronts across from the marketplace to house the entrepreneurs.

Community members enjoying the Better Block.

For craft beer, with worked with Karl Spiesman of Brick and Barrel Brewery to pop-up a beer garden. We worked with Peter Brown of Six Shooter Coffee on a coffee house in another space. We worked with local artists, namely Victoria Politowicz, to create an art gallery in another store front. And, lastly, we worked with our local Block Captains on a pop-up restaurant. Penny and Melissa, whose day job is running Saucisson in Slavic Village, popped-up an Asian Fusion restaurant complete with sticky pork ribs and Vietnamese cold noodles. Two days later, they packed up their supplies and cooked at the James Beard House in New York. Though they rarely do pop-ups, the team said they wouldn’t miss the Better Block. “We’d do anything for this community,” they said.

To finish the concept and create a pleasant pedestrian environment, we created bump outs and a mid-block creative crosswalk. We also brought out trees, plants, and cafe seating to improve the streetscape. We also created on our own “two-toned” piano parklet.

When it all came together, people danced to Brittany’s beats, they sang and played piano in our two-tone piano parklet, and they ate and drank (two of our pop-ups businesses sold out). Despite the rain and other setbacks, the community came together to showcase what they wanted Slavic Village to look like and what businesses and places they want within their community. Many, including council member Anthony Brancatelli, attributed this to the resiliency of the Slavic Village. In his remarks to the crowd at the Slavic Village Better Block, council member Brancatelli said Slavic Village is “…full of people who get the job done regardless of how hard it is. We stick it out as a community to accomplish great things.”

Case in point is Donna, one of our volunteers. Donna showed up to help move the trees and plants onto the sidewalk. After she did that, she went home to get a watering can because the plants looked like they could use it. Then, after remarking that they needed more color, she went home and brought her own potted plants to the Better Block. 

Donna watering the plants.

As revitalization efforts continue, it’s important to showcase and harness the efforts of people like Donna, Melissa, and Penny to create those great public spaces and recruit the businesses the community wants in the neighborhood. The community should also continue with the events and pop-ups they currently do, like the Rooms to Let program. It should also explore additional pop-ups as a way of generating interest in possible locations for businesses they want, and to showcase the possible market for those businesses. Slavic Village Development now has the bandshell, long tables and benches, cafe sets, and more from the Better Block to help with the future pop-up events. Future events would also benefit from workshops that bring property owners together with would be pop-up vendors and businesses as well as representatives from the city to understand how everyone working together can make Slavic Village a truly vibrant community.

#BetterBlock #Cleveland #SlavicVillage