The easy choice would have been a liquor store, cell phone shop, or beauty supply business, all of which came to him with attractive offers over the years.
Jimmie Woody, though, had a different vision for his dad’s old corner store and dairy business in Cleveland’s Lee-Harvard neighborhood. A multi-talented theater and film artist with substantial acting credits, he foresaw a place that would improve the area, a place that would lift up the neighborhood as his dad’s old shop once did but where he and others also can ply their artistic trades.
“All I know is, I don’t want to go into business like my dad did,” said Woody, a film educator at the Cleveland High School for Digital Arts and a theater instructor at Cuyahoga Community College. “I’m a creative person.”
Thus was born the Woody Restoration Arts Incubator Project. Fueled by a successful and newly expanded GoFundMe campaign, Woody is now converting a worn-down home and retail property at Harvard and E. 138th St. into an artistic multiplex potentially housing everything from a black-box theater and artist lofts to a café, hybrid art gallery, and yoga studio.
He sees it being a place that, using his own background in education, prepares Black and brown artists for real-world careers and social activism, as well as a catalyst that leads his old neighborhood the way of Tremont or Ohio City. He looks out the window, sees a playground not unlike Tremont’s Lincoln Park, and imagines his arts-starved sector of the city becoming a cultural haven.
“You just don’t have this kind of place in African-American neighborhoods,” said Woody, a resident of Cleveland Heights, noting the encouragement he now feels as his GoFundMe campaign nears $15,000. “It’s definitely changed my scope and made me realize that I am valued and that there are people who support this. I didn’t think I’d ever see this day happen.”
He had good reason to think that. The project has languished as little more than an idea for a long time, and still has a long way to go. After graduating from Orange High School and returning to Cleveland after earning a master’s degree at Columbia University, Woody spent years wrangling with family to take possession of the property and suffering a series of break-ins at the site. One incident, during which he caught the thieves in the act, even made the news.
His proudest achievements inside the space of late are themed, New York-inspired parties and benefits during which artists from all walks of life have roamed the mural-lined hallways on the winding second floor and spent whole nights bouncing ideas off each other. He calls the gatherings labyrinths.
“You can always get lost in here, but you can’t truly get lost,” said Woody. “I wouldn’t ever advertise them. After a while, people would just show up.”
At the moment, flush with an initial wave of GoFundMe support, Woody is stabilizing the foundation, applying some of the first love the structure has seen in decades. Out back is a large hole in the ground revealing a capacious basement. Behind that is a separate house, which Woody also owns and plans to knock down to create a large backyard perfect for outdoor theater presentations from a balcony he hopes to restore.
Indoors, where more substantial work remains to be done pending a campaign now set at $150,000, Woody aspires to partner with local architects to build a black-box space theater troupes could use to broadcast shows to patrons anywhere, relieving the pressure to maintain spaces and sell physical tickets. It’s a model Woody says he would then share with others, to create similar spaces elsewhere. Currently, the building has no heat, electricity, or plumbing.
At this early stage, little of Woody’s vision for the center is firmly fixed. For the time being, while he shores up the foundation, Woody said he’s still open to suggestions and awaiting support from local leaders and donations. More than anything, he wants the project to elevate and fulfill the needs of the community.
“Right now, it’s a balance between my sensibilities and other people’s sensibilities, what they want,” he said. “I just want to bring that New York aesthetic to Cleveland.”
Want to read more about the Lee-Harvard neighborhood? Check out our recent piece about the area’s high census response rate.
Zach Lewis is a former arts journalist, fitness columnist, and birding writer at The Plain Dealer. In addition to being a writer, he’s a serious runner, birder, cyclist, pianist, scuba diver, and CrossFit athlete.