a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
THE BUILDING BY THE SIDE OF THE ROAD: CLEVELAND’S NATIVE/GREEN RIGHTS MOVEMENT
for Audrey Jeter & Brad Will
Salon des Refusés East Boulevard, Cleveland, Salon des Refusés
There’s a corner to buy things, a corner to remember things, mostly beers. Bruised mulberry footprints lead off into the fall of the park, into the snow. Grasses that are not groomed, but hanging in the eyes. Well-trained, well-armed, well-fed grasshoppers. Fabrics and furnitures of unknown origin: yet of origin, this is known. Many of every elderly thing. Some can be stacked, leaned, others topple.
I didn’t plan on making over a place, this complex of playing house (with relative strangers), or babysitting milkweed, fireflies. A brick sky started falling and the “beautiful possibility” (to quote San Francisco-based artist Alison Pebworth’s elixir riparian words wort) emerged from the water shed—sharing conglomerate stacked in its budding dwelling tinkering alterity when I (and several other I’s) improvised the what nest of the first performance: saving a 1913 building, on Cleveland’s former “gold coast,” from destruction.
2001 was a dramatic year for sad, aging and haunted buildings. The Salon des Refusés is a four-story apartment building on Cleveland’s east side. It seemed to be stalked by a loud-walking poltergeist. Salt, sage and a verbal eviction notice took care of that.
Two ice-blue rectangles dipped in landfill (rumored to be former burial grounds of African slaves and “natives”) were stalked by “terrorists” in New York City—my home turf for decades. The hunters zapped themselves (along with whatever cool level-headed leadership was left in this boiling world), and put out the remaining lights and lives of thousands laboring under the roof of the doubled towers—all in a few heated moments. Ground 0. Who knows where the fenestrated body of a house ends and the spectre of who-knows-what be guns?
Visitors and residents involved with the Salon des Refusés periodically ask each other, “Who is doing this… making this up?” Part of a song comes to mind….”We’ve got the whole world in our hands…” That’s the spirit that gets the people of Salon des Refusés up and on the move (usually while running up stairs attached to a conveyor belt (Orion?)). Water, light, and air fill a void in the center of the building. Air shaft, star well…This is how angels get in. Who knows what else drops down into the space or moves up at night?
The building’s problems were deep and manifold. Aging plumbing, heating and structural units, funky storage bins (one with an overturned urn), layers of wallpaper, and drafty windows needed attention. Green maintenance and restoration strategies became manageable primarily through the dedication of Arcey Harton (he paints without a drop cloth and never drops a lick). His cleaning, sweeping, polishing devotion brings an energy all its own. Arcey Harton sees maintenance as an art form, a way of blessing a place, paying attention. Salon des Refusés is a zentellectual property. He cautions, “Detail the corners clockwise.” And don’t disturb the spiders. I think they are as well trained as the grasshoppers mentioned above. Arcey’s father, Art Harton, taught him that “there’s an art to everything.” Paul Van Curen was the first musician caught in Salon’s fragile web.
Shovel, drill, hammer, fork, screwdriver, wheel barrow, cup, hands, pots and pans constitute a humble movement. Buzz buzz. Salon des Refusés is very much a living sculpture of—time, the changing seasons, and community building its primary materials and reason for existing. Historical preservation and sustainable practices bee emphasized.
Salon des Refusés now houses diverse artists, an exhibition space, various kinds of gardens, studio spaces, a learning kitchen, laboratory, and classroom for neighborhood children. Its proximity to the vibrant arts and culture scene of University Circle, are augmented by personal memories of growing up in Glenville when it was a “place to be” amid close neighbors and family ties, recreational parks, museums and educational institutions.
The community of Salon des Refusés is a place of migration hosting artists, scholars, monarch butterflies, naturalists, poets, warblers, gardeners and international guests interested in cultivating and sharing knowledge as a form of wealth and exchange. The result is a series of site-specific projects reflecting the challenges and opportunities of repurposing a building and a funky lot— for two, four and six-legged folk to come and bee.
Some things never change. In Cleveland (and elsewhere on this planet), one can find plenty of lack— lack of imagination, lack of power sharing, housing, equitable food access, sense and cents, common unity. But there is no lack of affordable space for artists. The building views artists as community members rather than isolated individuals. Salon des Refusés is unique because the practice of art-making is something that can occur alongside the everyday acts of living, not only on a retreat to the woods or behind locked studio doors. Artists are not out of place, when they form a symbiotic relationship within a community. Hammering out professional careers is not enough. The Salon insinuates itself into the life of the neighborhood, patch-quilting neighbors one by one. Visiting and resident creatives establish informal links with the community (and not necessarily within communities that are accustomed to this arrangement).
I edit the magazine, ecopoetics (www.ecopoetics.org) and was invited in that capacity, as someone who works the edge between wild and urban ways of thinking and making. [The people of Salon des Refusés ] asked me to present my work to a group of neighborhood kids and adults, who had come bearing wild mustard greens from Rockefeller Park. I have to say that in few places will one see kids from low income housing projects mingling with adult intellectuals, as I did at the Salon des Refusés ; nor with less pretentiousness or with more good community spirit, around food, music and art. Later that night, I slept on a homemade nest in the exhibition space and the next day helped plant a native service berry “Poet Tree.” —Jonathan Skinner
As a corner building open to the street and views of the neighborhood on all sides, Salon des Refusés residents, guests, and friends and supporters from the west side of Cleveland, New York City and beyond, prove, whether planting in the garden or inviting the public inside for an exhibition, that “many hands make light work”. When new residents settle in, their ideas and elbow grease compound with those of current residents to reshape the physical environment, be it an adjacent lot, an uninhabited apartment suite transformed into a concert space or even and ancient coal room (used as an animation or recording studio).
In 2001, residents seized the opportunity to transform a trash strewn lot adjacent to Salon des Refusés into a lively green commons. This is how Let it Bee came to be.
Raindrops are spoken of as having “careers” from condensation to great lake upwarps. They careen from the sky; and now, thanks to Ian Charnas, a resident since 2004, a 500 gallon site-specific water catchment marries the garden to the building, gutters to brick and mortar escarpment, one season to another, and pennies from heaven. We know the who and what of this. Two new rain gardens anchor Let it Bee, capturing storm water runoff and quenching a thirsty earth.
An effective way to improve the appearance of any neighborhood as a beautiful, viable community is simply by picking up trash. Packing litter into 25 bags is a performance art in itself—especially if you dress up for the occasion or do it while “talking trash.” Being litteral is ecopoetic.
Ditto for talking leaves. Get enough of them into a room and you have poetry. Crunch crunch… Shhwizzle, chkle gas lkk
“Greenius” caretaker Arcey Harton and flower-child entrepreneur Sylvia Clayton patiently gathered newly-fallen fall leaves and shoved them into bags. “Well, I guess we won’t be receiving much-needed income from that English basement apartment after all.” They dumped the crimson, yellow, gold, teal and pumpkin colored contents onto the floor of Apt. 7 and layed it on thick. This ephemeral playground was installed for the Green Scouts—neighborhood children who participate in Let it Bee’s nature programs. The kids, some of whom were total strangers, started piling up at the door whenever school was out.
“I want to go to the Leaf Room”
“I want to go leaf around.”
O, what a bunch of leaves can do! Other worldly scents started climbing up the stairs on invisible legs. One pound at a time. Walnut, oak, maple, laurel, linden, tulip, sassafrass mingled into one heavenly scent that rose higher and higher. It reached the building’s top-most floor just in time for Christmas. The children were not as intrigued by the potpourri. That ghost left a more interesting body on the basement floor. The children raked the leaves into mounds, played “leaf ball” or sat in a pile watching movies with the leaves up to their heads—a crunchy side effect. The Leaf Room decomposed over time into a small brown mass—a rust belt of leaves. It was swept away the following summer. “All the leaves are gone and the sky is..”
Cleveland was once called the Forest City. It is now 4th in the nation for urban sprawl. My father, an electrical journeyman, worked in a plant for 46 years. I still wonder how he managed to find the time to take us to parks day in and day out. I imagine it was a form of solace for him—a quiet listening zone that shut out the sounds of clanging metal, booming voices, sizzling fire. The Salon borders Rockefeller Park. Talking bones, stems, and sticks. Who knows where the “Indian” in me (as taught by relative example) or in the soil, bloomstreams, ancient tendon seas combine colors, histories stirring people into neighborhoods, trees into elders and saving grace into places…re membering, remembering where we are, and how we got here… Earth… Only home we’ve got…
Arcey Harton complains that “we trash our planet as if we have somewhere else to go.” And what a waste to waste these once great majestic cities. Cry me a river…
“Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Youngstown, and Buffalo could have used a Marshal Plan instead of a throw-away culture outsourcing jobs overseas and corporations to the suburbs.”
“Leave it better than you found it.”
“Leave it to beavers, swallowtails, herons, bats, and monarchs too!”
“Stimulate a local economy. Keep dollars in our communities!”
“How about halting displacement by 21st century market forces. Greed, gentrification, and foreclosures!”
“I call it surreal estate!”
“How do you get rid of an entire city?”
“I missed it. Take another exit”
“It looks like there was a war here!”
“Black and middle class flight”
“What do we leave for the future?”
Leaves of grass, standing on one leg legacies, land, love, lakes and light. O, Liberty Oaks, obeah melodies, steep yard teas, flower pressings, jams, press for truth… Put the Green Scouts on the “money” (yea, get damn personal with it) and sell out the goods, not common-unities! The Green Scout Cooperative (ages 8 thru 16) created Def Jamz. Their faces graced a hyper-local “currency” as a form of exchange, sharing, trade, communication, barter— to keep local businesses, personal convictions alive.
“Do it yourself!”
They gleaned the woods for fallen limbs and used them to create the “Alphabet Fence”. Cleveland-based eco-artist Charmaine Spencer helped carry out this wooden vision. It stopped traffic. People got married in front of it. A vulture perched on the letter Z gnawed off the head of a squirrel. Bloody letters! The councilman requested that the fence be put to rest.
Death rode a fence. But that’s another story…
“Who bee rob’n hoods? Futile ism… CDC, RTA, NYPD, Ay ell ee c spells ALEC. Gee! Some acronyms suggest proxy governments, neighborhood progresses t’ urban renewal… Clearing houses, land, soil, people, resources, utility… Lines, lines up for state, federal, local and private eye… Photo opps “pass” as the truth. Looks good… But how real is it…What does it communicate about communities?
The death of poet, journalist and garden activist Brad Will and an article about the value of regarding the world from a bird’s eye view, stimulated the creation of the Greenway Project (one corner anchored by the preservation of Let it Bee). Land “taken back”… For the treeople in us—humanitree, nose to the ground.
The energy of this topoetgraphical project for Cleveland (all so alphabet-eco) also pops from an attempt to honor the ancestors. My father’s name was Cleve. Yes, Cleve. He was named after an uncle (not the city of his birth) who looked after a pear tree, made sure it blossomed (as if it was the child he never had). Pear with me. Bare…
What’s in a name…cleave…leave…’em bodies knew old convergencies (my mother’s name is Virgie), edges, building’s budding hosts. Cleve Walter tore at walls to get to higher wires. He was considered an “electrician’s ‘trician” (and was one of the first three “I Am a Man” black man Clevelanders toting a union card). Threats all abound. Subject to rust. He had too much he art to leave. Saving the refused his life was shored up, grieving mine was too. So cleave I do “adhere firmly and closely, loyally and unwaveringly” to shoring up this foundation—refusé with others who come to restore, take stock in the morrow. The building cleaves in half right where the service walls stand. Overhang. Wires protude. Eyes eave an I-beam. There—wing shafts, Virgie’s paintings, my creative life in New York City, and meditations on the past help ground Salon des Refusés’ vision.
“Hope City” was the name that slaves of the underground railroad called Cleveland… On the lake, where the ferryman wove passengers to Canada, real rays and moon-light guided slave prey to freedom. 46 years and a mule!
I sometimes refer to the black/native, known and unknown cosmic routes of Salon des Refusés as “blamish” (or blemish).
Cats collect around this building as if it’s their feline Mecca. They make a bee line to one door and one door only. What do they know that we don’t? By a nose, sharp eyes up, and their claws out, ears, tail, mouths and nose point various directions. Such other-worldy beauty is critical to the nesty building on the boulevard of watershed trees. Feature star shapes burst out in sane directions. Land. Taking…Liberte’! In the same place. Salon des Refusés is a rescue center. A Katrina refugee also sought cover here. And so did a Vietnam vet, a homeless couple, the entire Rude Mechanical Orchestra (36 people) and so forth. So many strays.
“In wildness is the preservation of the world…”
We see the protection and reclamation of the “wild” as a solace and as a radical- political affirmation to both the human and non-human communities within our borders. An open door policy persists at Salon des Refusés
“She’s trying to pull a fast one—take us for a ride,” or so we thought. A woman walked right up to the 4th floor suite on the south side of the building as casually as if she lived there. Her audacity surprised us. We were standing right there, on the other side of the kitchen screen door, wondering why she decided to approach a private residence from the rear instead of the front. I happened to be in town for an event.
Emotions are subject to flooding, being tided over when they can no longer be contained. Nature of the ebb and flow can spread for miles, filling volumes. Iron-bound waters don’t hold up right.
We were about to have a meeting when the woman suddenly appeared. Everyone was impatient to discuss more effective strategies for convincing the city councilman to let Let it Bee alone. Area naturalists and conservationists have been ecstatic about preserving the “wild” ecosystem and edible-forest we created over time. The councilman wanted to see a manicured lawn with “all season color and ornamental plants.” He also insisted on no bees. He pointed out that he would “shut us down if [he] ever saw a single bee in the lot.” A bee circled him as he spoke. No bees or noblesse oblige?
Actifists. Lay ley lines. In the nic of time. A little lace here, wire there. Vocal pipes drain all over the place until everything’s connected again, give and take a sense of play that lets some things go haywire. The Electric Tomato-Cage Ladies illuminate the Salon and serve as hosts for drying plants. The building as a toy becomes us. We can’t let it be or it will surely fall apart…
My late sister Lori’s house stood across the street from Salon des Refusés until last spring, 2011. I dreamed about honoring her restoration efforts. She put that humpty-dumpty back together out of sweat and blood. She died. I followed her path (as vocalist, event caterer, and fixer-upper). One building leads to another—the “Little Green School House” would mark the ascent. The councilman, indifferent to outcries to save it, had it knocked down in the spring of 2011. I watched it fall. We salvaged what we could, reclaimed stair tread, risers and newell post, then nailed her address to the top of the Reel Black Room. Cinematrix. No guns allowed.
According to former resident, creative artist/writer Nina Sarnelle, “the “Glenville Shootout” of 1968 is one of the most widely recognizable uses of the name “Glenville” in Cleveland’s history, an assertion of racial and socio-economic identity as violent, deviant, and wild accumulation.” I remem…err, ire, eerie nightmares and fright-flight. But was it all that? Grieve land embled’d in terre bowl images come black to haunt.
The National Guard was camped out on the other side of our backyard fence flirting with passersby. Polished boots, jeeps and armor. Nothing but a parade. The guards weren’t that much older than my upstair cousins. They acknowledged our curiousity about them by sending us to the store for chips and sweets. Their manners were informal, as if they had forgotten why they had come in the first place. Heat and sparks refreshed their memories…. of girls walking in window pane & fish net stockings. Rumors flew like fireflies. On the 3rd day, the neighborhood children got up with the birds and dashed outside. Smoke from the fire rose and pricked our nostrils. Women and children huddled around the lamp post while fathers took turns hosing down roofs. The streets were awash with Katrinas to come. “Just go in there and get what you like!” The guards rushed us inside. They said there were bikes galore and there were. We didn’t take them. The guards handed them out. Loot? “Who…who?” What property I ask now that the theaters and department stores and jazz clubs are gone. Particle-board townhouses now rise in their place. Liar ire, pants on fire. Or was it the insurance the innocent…Claims. Fountain pens and hoses extracted wealth. Lips buttoned, zipped tight. The unofficial story still grabs us.
“Who, who? Who did this?”
“Not I,” said the cookie from the cookie jar”
For 1 week in July 2011, I lived in Salon des Refusés, a garden, gallery and installation space in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood. During my residency there, I made song-art inspired by a constant dialogue with the current installation. I would begin the day foraging—for mulberries, blackberries, greens, surprises growing wild. Days there are a meditation on bloom and decay, harvest and sustainability—all metaphors for being a New York city-based musical theatre composer making work in the fast lane. Salon des Refusés gave me the gift of slowing down-of being and listening to the music of photosynthesis.
—Janice Lowe, Poet, Composer and Founder of Namaroon Theater, Brooklyn, NY
Who let that bee in?
Arcey and I had just mentioned Martin Luther King’s and Malcom X‘s visits to Glenville neighborhood churches “around the corner” when the “red-bone woman” appeared. She was also on a mission…to get inside. Three streets surround the Salon, a corner building. The stairwell sticks out of the mid-section of the building like a bunch of ribs. This is how they get in. For a cup of conversation, water, memories. Wood planks run parallel to the airwell. A leafless tree. Crop speeches, human plantations, stars to stair… Just follow the drinking gourd.
Cleveland is “Northern Alabama” in some spots, in some skin (and Georgia clay in others), but the geography depositing itself behind a screen still showed scant signs of ever having moved from black Cleveland’s mothership downsouth.
First time gardeners ask: “How on earth did the slaves do it?” The Salon’s wall of bricks is a thermal mass that radiates heat well out into the yard. Wise voices tell us that we are here because they managed to survive (they couldn’t just stop and relieve their thirst with water. Or drop the rake and go lie down when beat…by the sun or…)
Weather and resist, throw and displacement, beautiful earthenwear buildings have a mind of their own. Run off! Pointing.
But the bones are still there—housing stock. Wasp nests stop folks from settling. The old porch swings. Affordable housing rocks. Water elopes. Escape valves…
Words exposed to the action of hot humid air (breath) and watery emotion can rust in the mouth, stain the tongue ferrous red and erode a message. “You have no idea how far I’ve come to get to this place! It’s been years.” “O!” she gasped again and again, covering her mouth with a small hand. “I recall a sunroom. That’s where I read Emily Bronte and Charlotte’s web. This was my aunt’s place and she scheduled reading and tea time everyday at 4:00 pm. There was a very, very long hallway… Seemed like it would never end!” Such details made Francois finally relent. It was, after all, his dwelling space, “Are you sure this is the right building?”
“Of course I am. I’ve been trying to get back here since I was eleven years old. That was the last time I visited. My name is Jawana and my husband is here on a golf tournament and I took the opportunity to ride with him. He’s way out in…”
Francois demanded to see her driver’s licence. She went downstairs to retrieve it and came back with a book. I took no notice of the cover until a close look brought her face and Dr. Martin Luther King’s into perspective. She looked to be about 8 years old and she was sitting on Dr. King’s lap! The book, The House by the Side of the Road: The Selma Civil Rights Movement was written by her mother Richie Jean Sherrod Jackson. Francois, Arcey and I were discussing this “movement of movements” within minutes of her appearance.
The visitors presence, vibrant accent, and testimonies about her youth and her later adult work with Mrs. (Coretta) King made it seem as if King’s very own spirit filled the building. And blessed it.
Place can be as simple as soil and the life within it, or people meeting to change lives in a cleave land of Detroit, New York, Seattle, Cairo, o’ Selmalabama. The House by the Side of the Road was King’s haven. A host of leaders ate, drank and slept there. Building by the side of the road…
“Trusting an old spirit that was asleep and a new spirit that embraces the one which was dead and brings it back alive, is inspiring,” Arcey mentioned to me a few weeks ago. Hosts of people, beeople and other creatures have been hosted at the Salon des Refusés. The spirit of Dr. King is in the house!
The art that happens here is one of re-purposing, re-collecting. The discipline derives from living, and being lived-in. All materials are native, inexpensive or free, belonging to this place already–an artist simply borrows them for their stay. Place is built-upon, built-up and rebuilt. Nothing is knocked down or demolished but that notion of placeless-ness that effaces our bashful city.
And in a brilliant moment, the artist finds that there is truly nothing special about Salon des Refusés East Boulevard. It is a place, just like any other.
—Nina Sarnelle, co-founder of the Salon des Refusés and artist
Julie Ezelle Patton is a performance artist, poet, recycler. She is the author of Notes for Some (Nominally) Awake, and A Garden Per Verse (or What Else do You Expect from Dirt?). Her work has appeared in ((eco(lang)(uage(reader)), Critiphoria, and nocturnes. She lives in New York City and directs an artist’s salon and urban conservation project in Cleveland, Ohio. She has been honored with 2010 and 2012 Acadia Arts Foundation grants, and a 2007 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship (Poetry). Julie has taught at the Naropa Univeristy’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, Schule fur Dichtung, and New York University. She lives in New York City.