Sculpture Center show by Black artists helps Cleveland remember ‘forgotten’ neighborhoods

Artist Shani Richards is part of a movement to revitalize the Sidaway Bridge. With her work in “Crossroads: Still We Rise,” a new exhibition at The Sculpture Center in Cleveland, she hopes to draw new attention to the structure. “Crossroads,” the first in a series of related exhibitions, features 11 other artists, each of whom also hopes to unveil a forgotten corner of Cleveland and push for its revival.

The Sidaway bridge in Slavic Village today.

The Sidaway bridge in Slavic Village today.

Though she is from Akron, metalsmith Shani Richards knew the troubling story of the Sidaway Bridge in Cleveland.

She knew that it was built in 1909, and that the 675-foot wooden walkway was meant both to span the Kingsbury Run ravine and connect the then mostly white Kinsman neighborhood with what is now Slavic Village.

She also knew of its failure as a bridge over Cleveland’s racial divide. She knew that during the Hough Riots of 1966, vandals damaged the bridge and attempted to burn it, and that it has sat idle and ignored ever since.

Now Richards is part of a movement to revitalize the Sidaway Bridge. With her work in “Crossroads: Still We Rise,” a new exhibition at The Sculpture Center in Cleveland, she hopes to draw new attention to the structure and enable it to fulfill its racial-bridging destiny.

She’s not the only one engaged in the effort. “Crossroads,” the first in a series of related exhibitions, features 11 other artists, each of whom also hopes to unveil a forgotten corner of Cleveland and push for its resurrection in the Buckeye, Central, East Cleveland, Glenville, Kinsman, or Slavic Village neighborhoods.

A model bridge

Richards works primarily in metal but chose to construct her 9-foot-tall model of the Sidaway Bridge out of cardboard and wooden sticks for ease of adjustment and repair.

She installed the sculpture at Elizabeth Baptist Church (6114 Francis Avenue) in an effort to locate near the real Sidaway Bridge, highlight the work of Pastor Richard Gibson, and honor a facility that contributes to the area with a homeless shelter and food distribution center.

Artist Shani Richards’ replica of the Sidaway Bridge.

Artist Shani Richards’ replica of the Sidaway Bridge.

The COVID-19 pandemic complicated work on this and most other projects in “Crossroads.” With help from Slavic Village Development, Richards was able to canvass the neighborhood and meet key players in the broader effort to restore the Sidaway Bridge and Kingsbury Run.

“I just wanted to show the bridge in a place that is central to the community,” Richards said. “There is a beautiful garden across the street, and the whole block just has a hopeful feel…I hope people don’t feel a negativity about the piece because the bridge is closed due to racial tensions.”

Indeed, the artist’s aim with the sculpture isn’t to call out the bridge’s current state of neglect, the way it’s covered in vines and branches, or to conjure bad memories, but rather to underscore its original beauty and stress its potential to instigate racial harmony.

“She took it upon herself to re-create the bridge as a symbol of uniting communities,” said Grace Chin, executive director of The Sculpture Center, noting that the work is not only “a performance, but also a hope for the future.”

“It’s a beautiful structure, so it’s a shame,” Richards added. “The city hasn’t made any attempts to fix it, [even though that] would symbolize bridging the division.”

Examining socio-economic changes in these neighborhoods

This is exactly what Sculpture Center curator Robin Robinson had in mind when she organized “Crossroads: Still We Rise.”

Robinson is native to Philadelphia but has observed the decline of several Cleveland neighborhoods firsthand over several decades, and so wished to celebrate their stories and do her part to help revitalize them.

Her first visits to the area were in the 1960s. She then returned in 1989, and moved to the area permanently in 2010.

“I have witnessed the resilience and fortitude of the residents,” Robinson said, noting the “systemic erosion” of once-thriving African-American communities and her desire to “showcase and empower Black artists to bring the viewer face to face with these sites, their proud legacies, and the challenges that confront them today.” 

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Another beautiful take on the neighborhood

Cleveland Heights artist Hilton Murray is another in “Crossroads” with an eye on Slavic Village. His sculpture, “Slovak Village in Motion,” celebrates the wide variety of people who’ve called the neighborhood home.

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He celebrates the original residents, the Czech, English, Irish, Polish, and Slovaks who came to the five-square-mile area in Cleveland in the early 20th century. He also honors later and current residents, including African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Americans from Appalachia, and documents the decline in population from 67,000 in the 1920s to about 28,000 today.

“I thought about using words,” Murray said, but concluded “the better way to represent [the area] was through a mix of black-and-white and color visuals of the neighborhood, [of] families, priests, storefronts and prominent places like Fifth Third Bank, and so on.”

For Murray, there’s a personal dimension to the art. Born in Alabama, he moved to Elyria with his family after World War II. There, he studied advertising art and graphic design at Kent State University, and ended up enjoying a long and distinguished career in Cleveland media before launching his own advertising and marketing agency.

Now he’s finding his art serves a different purpose. It’s helping him connect to his longtime home and better understand its origins in the steel industry.

“This project gave me the opportunity to learn about Slavic Village and why it was so important,” Murray said. “Like many cities, neighborhoods come and go, so it’s easy to see how [they] rise and fall.”

“Crossroads: Still We Rise” runs July 16 through September 25. The works therein can be viewed in-person, at various sites around Cleveland, or virtually at The Sculpture Center (1834 E. 123rd St.), using an augmented reality smartphone application called 4th Wall App.

ALSO OF NOTE: On Saturday, July 17, The Sculpture Center will provide shuttle service to all 12 sites in “Crossroads: Still We Rise.” Artists will serve as tours guides and offer background about their work. On Thursday, Aug. 26, from 4-6 p.m., Richards will moderate a panel discussion at Elizabeth Baptist Church with Slavic Village notables and experts in the area of neighborhood revitalization.

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