Friday, December 30, 2011

Street Art Project In Cleveland Plays On Local History

From a distance, the main focus of the Art Collective, known as Cleveland SGS has been to document historic signs, and the unrecognised locals that make the city unique.

A recent project, took things a step further by covering a large building's windows with cryptic signs that reference a forgotten part of Cleveland's past.

From Vandalog: Cleveland SGS pays tribute to a neighborhood icon

The widely held belief is that this area, didn't have much of a past, or any prospects, until the Cleveland Foundation and The Cleveland Clinic, came along. The signs bring back the much more complex story of a highly successful local entrepreneur and a decades long fight to save his property.

From the Wikipedia

Winston Earl Willis (b. October 21, 1939) is a formerly successful American real estate developer who first came to local prominence in Cleveland, Ohio during the early 1960s. At the time, one of the most successful business owner/operators in the country, he created and controlled a corporation, University Circle Properties Development, Inc. (UCPD, Inc.) that owned one of the most strategic and valuable real estate parcels in Cleveland and was the largest employer of blacks in that part of the country. Under his solely-owned UCPD corporation at East 105th and Euclid, upwards of 23 successful businesses were running simultaneously and exhibiting tremendous success.

Winston was quick to see the opportunity to create businesses in the area near University Circle.

The acquired experience of having operated several successful small businesses led to a quick assessment of the local college community that would prove to have been very shrewd. After securing a lease on a building that was previously an automobile dealership showroom, 19-year-old Willis opened The Jazz Temple, a liquor-less coffeehouse/night club, to immediate success. Situated on a small triangular lot on Mayfield Road near Euclid Avenue and adjacent to the Western Reserve University campus, his institutional neighbors were the Cleveland Museum of Art, University Hospital, and Severance Hall, home of the Cleveland Orchestra. The club also bordered the ethnic enclave known as Murray Hill/Little Italy.

Willis approached such legendary jazz artists as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dizzie Gillespie, Herbie Hancock, Cannonball Adderley, The Ramsey Lewis Trio, and Dinah Washington and convinced them to come to Cleveland to appear at his club. Not only did they appear and perform before standing-room-only crowds, but such notable acts at the trendy establishment also attracted visits from Malcolm X, and Stokely Carmichael, and booked performances from other notables such as comedians Red Foxx, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor and Dick Gregory. The popular night spot, frequently referred to as “the Jazz Mecca”, was hugely successful and became a regular hang-out for college students from throughout and around the State of Ohio. But that success was short lived. As is typical of jazz establishments – there was much race-mixing and numerous interracial couples in attendance. This triggered community wide resentment in the racially polarized community, and after months of threats and intimidation, a vanguard of vengeful racists planted a bomb in the club, thereby ending the brief history of one of the most successful jazz spots of the region.

So anyway, as you might guess, the major power players like the universities, foundations and The Cleveland Clinic conspired to take his properties away.

Having found no support in the courts from a campaign of fines and other harassment. Winston turned desperately to putting up billboards.

I like the way, this project subtly brings up this injustice without being just angry and bombastic. It's a tribute to the man.

More about the project on Cleveland SGS



Anonymous said...

Having been an interested observer for many decades of this David and Goliath-type situation, it's great to see the behemoth institutions named and called out for what they did to this man. The fact that he never gave up is a testimony to the fearlessness he exhibited as a young man. Winston Willis was one of a kind, and he was a formidable adversary for Cleveland's powerful establishment organizations. He gave as good as he got, and they were no match for him until in the end, they used every illegal device at their disposal to get rid of him. It is shameful that this happened in these United States of America in the 20th Century, but thank you for this acknowledgement of Mr. Willis' decades-long fight to defend his property rights.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a regular computer user, but when I heard about this article I could not let the opportunity go by. I am a former employee of the New Orleans restaurant and because of that job I was able to provide a very good living for my family and buy a house. Mr. Willis was a very good boss and a very caring man for his community. He was what you would call "hands on" in the operation of the restaurant and he always treated us very well and he greeted his customers politely too. I hope he will prevail in his efforts, and I hope he knows that there are people like me who remember all the good times and wish him well.