Twelve Literary Arts plays instrumental role in development of E. 66th St. project

The nonprofit organization led by Daniel Gray-Kontar has worked with adult and youth residents in Midtown and Hough to create a vision for a Black Avenue in Cleveland.

Daniel Gray-Kontar of Twelve Literary Arts.

Daniel Gray-Kontar of Twelve Literary Arts.

Cleveland’s MidTown and Hough neighborhoods have long been home to the Fatima Family Center, Chateau Hough Winery, Pierre’s Ice Cream and the historic League Park, to name a few. These areas have undergone massive change in the past decade, with much more on the horizon. Major projects currently in the works include a new public library, upgrades to the area immediately surrounding Dunham Tavern, and the construction of a new headquarters for the Cleveland Foundation – all part of the East 66th Redevelopment Plan.

The mission of the redevelopment plan is to “create a national model public space that emphasizes seamless connectivity and accessibility – promoting physical, social and technological links – with an overarching commitment to justice and equity.”

The Cleveland Foundation, which has been located downtown in Playhouse Square for nearly 40 of its 106 years in existence, is breaking ground on a $22M headquarters to be located in MidTown at the northeast corner of East 66th Street and Euclid Avenue. Among the amenities to be included in the 54,000-square-foot space will be an interactive art space featuring works of local artists, The Steven A. Minter Conference Center, indoor and outdoor event and meeting spaces, and a 250-kilowatt solar canopy atop the surface parking lot. The new building will also become the new home for Neighborhood Connections, currently located at 4415 Euclid Avenue.  A projected completion date is summer of 2022.

Also in the works is a new Hough library branch at East 66th and Lexington; Allen Estates, a six-home project headed by Frontline Development;  a Midtown Innovation Center; a park area expansion on the land surrounding Dunham Tavern; MAGNET’s new headquarters and manufacturing hub at the former Margaret Ireland School; an expanded baseball heritage museum at League Park; neighborhood smart parks, and a new linear park connected to Dave’s Supermarket. Project partners include City Architecture, Cleveland City Planning Commission, Famicos Foundation, LAND Studio, Lattimore Productions, NOACA, MidTown Cleveland and Twelve Literary Arts.

Rendering of the new Cleveland Foundation headquarters.

Rendering of the new Cleveland Foundation headquarters.

MidTown Cleveland’s recent Annual Report, “Faces of the Town,” highlights nearly 40 local movers and shakers, among them Daniel Gray-Kontar, executive director of Twelve Literary Arts, an organization that has been instrumental in the progress of the East 66th Street Transportation for Livable Communities Initiative (TLCI), which is funded by the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA).

Founded in 2016, the seed for Twelve Literary Arts germinated at the Cleveland School of the Arts in the University Circle neighborhood, where Kontar served as the Chair of the Literary Arts Department. The arts organization recently moved into its new home at 1484 East 105th Street in the Glenville neighborhood

Twelve Literary Arts serves as a nurturing ecosystem for young writers of color, helping develop their creative writing skills from age 14 until mid-career. Open mic poetry events, writing workshops, poetry slams and internships are among the offerings.

There is also the Baldwin House Urban Writing Residency. Named after esteemed African American author James Baldwin, Baldwin House is a three-month-long writing residency for adult poets and writers of color residing in Northeast Ohio to begin new projects or bring current projects to completion. Baldwin House writers meet once per week for two months with a lead writing instructor. The remaining month of the residency provides independent time for residents to work with a professional writing mentor from outside of Northeast Ohio. There’s also a $350 stipend given towards the end of the second month. Submissions are being accepted through January 8, 2021.

“What initially started as a way for me to provide formative education in my classroom and inside our building, has now become a way for us to think about Ecosystem Development,” said Kontar. “I use that term as a way to think about putting people first, filling the gaps in the way in which a community moves, so that it moves holistically, as opposed to economic development, which is more so about putting commerce first.”

Adapting to COVID

According to Kontar, the trajectory of Twelve Literary Arts in recent months was on a downward slope. “Initially, our emphasis was on developing writers of all ages and creating an ecosystem for writers of color, queer writers, and white abolitionist writers to evolve, while at the same time making Cleveland a destination city for the literary arts.”

While that is still the mission, Kontar speaks of the organization’s growth by changing the definition of ‘voice.’

With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing everyone to regroup or, in some cases, completely revamp their everyday normal, Twelve is still in the process of making changes: the website has been updated to reflect that all programming is being shifted to digital platforms.

Rendering of E. 66th St. in Hough and MidTown.

Rendering of E. 66th St. in Hough and MidTown.

“We worked with neighborhood residents to identify neighbors of all ages to participate in our development work, which has allowed us to grow some, by unpacking the stories that everyday people in the neighborhood have and using those stories to inform the greatest aspirations of those people. That’s important, because when you are able to engage people in a process of storytelling, you can code those stories for meaning, and that’s part of what we do,” said Kontar. “And we’re increasingly entering the domain of gathering stories and transforming them into policy. What’s largely powering Twelve Literary Arts now is story and voice.”

Those stories are shared with community development corporations, councilpersons, city architects and planners. Collecting stories and reflecting them back to the community at large can serve as a basis of activism. 

“If people keep saying, through stories, ‘Hey, what really damaged our community was the loss of the Salvation Army.’ If enough people in the neighborhood say that, then, clearly, what needs to happen? The Salvation Army needs to be rebuilt. This is the kind of work that we’ve been doing with MidTown Cleveland.”

Oftentimes, older generations look at younger generations as aloof and irresponsible. Regarding the TLCI Initiative, Kontar has noticed a growing respect and trust by the elders of the neighborhood towards the youth who are working together on the youth development council to create lasting, positive change in their community.

“I think the neighbors are really inspired by seeing the youth leadership.”

A vision for a Black Avenue

Despite the world’s ever-growing reliance on all things digital, Twelve used a combination of modern and old-fashioned methods to execute its canvassing efforts.

“We have a pretty extensive database of residents, so we typically text them to let them know about important meetings coming up,” says Kontar.  “We have also left fliers across neighborhood barbershops, beauty salons, corner stores, and gas stations, and the youth and adults have gone door to door to talk with residents.”

According to Joyce Huang, MidTown Cleveland’s Vice President of Community Development, a major goal of the East 66th Street TLCI project was to create a team that would be both versatile and community based.

“Daniel Gray-Kontar, with his background in education, arts administration, anthropology, and his own hip-hop practice, was a no-brainer,” says Huang. “We approached Daniel and another artist, Lexy Lattimore, with the chance to lead the community engagement portion of the TLCI project with funding from the National Endowment of the Arts. As a result, we had over 150 deep touches with community members, young people, and leaders for the project.”

Hough area youth participate in a design session for E. 66th St.

Hough area youth participate in a design session for E. 66th St.

By partnering with residents and gathering their stories, residents were able to articulate their desires on how the street should look. Their ideas have manifested into what they now call a Black Avenue.

“This came from a few of the people who said ‘You know where Little Italy is; you know where Asia Town is, and Little Arabia. So, where is our Black Avenue? East 66th Street needs to be our Black Avenue,’” says Kontar.

In addition to the productive feedback collected from residents, several civic organizations have sprouted from Twelve Literary Arts’ efforts: a youth development council focusing on public art and the potential rezoning of Hough; and a resident advisory board has been formed by a number of the adult residents.

“Daniel approaches this work with an understanding that youth need to understand the built environment that shaped them, and that they in turn need to shape the built environment around them, and we have learned so much from him and the young leaders that are speaking their truths,” says Huang.

Ward 7 Councilman Basheer Jones has known Kontar for many years and has been a strong advocate for Twelve Literary Arts’ efforts regarding the TLCI project.

“When I was made aware that Daniel was a part of this project, I became a champion for his vision.  He’s very dedicated and a man of his word, and the young people are lucky to have such a man listening to their concerns and giving them an opportunity to be the change.”

Kontar and his Twelve Literary Arts staff are proud to be a part of this game-changing project, one that literally serves as a reawakening for a community, largely designed by that same community.

“This is really an opportunity for us to think about city planning; it’s the best partnership I’ve ever experienced, and it is an absolute honor to be a part of it,” says Kontar.

MAGNET is an underwriter of The Land, helping to support stories about the manufacturing economy in Northeast Ohio.

Interested in learning more? Visit Twelve Literary Arts’ website and donate here.

Born and raised in East Cleveland, Nate Paige has contributed more than 25 years to local journalism. He got his professional start at the Cleveland Call & Post and would later get his foot in the door at as a copy editor. While there, he held a number of positions including entertainment reporter, community editor, hyperlocal producer, and social media coordinator. He currently handles social media for the city of Shaker Heights.

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