A dream for a neglected corner in Cleveland is closer than ever to coming true as work commences on Ubuntu Gathering Place.
After 15 years of hoping and planning, Zulma Zabala, chief executive of East End Neighborhood House, is now sitting outside, following along as construction begins on the park, memorial, and multi-use space she and others envisioned for the corner of Shaker Blvd. and E. 103rd St.
“I’m bringing out a table and my computer and watching it happen,” Zabala said.
“This is something that’s just so exciting. This is our way of responding to the community and giving people something we all can enjoy. It’s a very energizing way of extending our Ubuntu spirit.”
Unlike many other such spaces, Ubuntu will be dedicated to an abstraction. It will honor not one person or group but rather the aura of an entire neighborhood, Buckeye, and promote the concept that no man or woman is an island. Indeed, one translation of the African Bantu word “Ubuntu” is “I am because we are.”
“I think it’s unique,” said Isaac Robb, vice president of planning and urban projects at the Western Reserve Land Conservancy. “I think it’s really interesting in that respect.”
When it’s completed in 2022, the lot formerly occupied by an auto dealer will be a complex site including three or four murals, an obelisk, a stage in the shape of the continent of Africa, green space, and a memorial to Buckeye-Woodhill residents lost to violence, COVID-19, and other woes.
Before any of that, too, the City of Cleveland is expected to install new sidewalks, and a federal grant will fund a rainwater mitigation system, to keep runoff from reaching Lake Erie and reduce flooding in an area still recovering from heavy rains associated with Hurricane Sandy, in 2012.
“We’re taking something that’s an eye-sore and making it into something that brings together the neighborhood,” Zabala said. “We know that there’s a heart in Buckeye. This is going to be a symbol of that heart.”
Zabala, whose East End Neighborhood House for children and seniors abuts the Ubuntu site, was the driving force behind the project. But she didn’t go it alone. Over those 15 years, Zabala bounced ideas off area residents and gathered support from organizations all over Greater Cleveland and beyond while funding the $550,000 effort.
One such partner was Robb and the Western Reserve Land Conservancy. He said his group gathered input from the neighborhood and concluded that more than anything else, locals wanted a place of their own, one that reflected their African-American identity. Along with the Akron-based Environmental Design Group, he then helped flesh out Zabala’s initial idea for a park into a “much bigger vision than a handful of trees.”
“We had good engagement in the immediate vicinity,” Robb said. “It truly has been a collaborative project. It’s a great group of people, all with different skill sets.”
Zabala’s skill, clearly, was bringing people together.
Her first priorities, in the planning process, were the patrons of her senior center, after-school offerings, and highly-ranked early childhood program. For them, she said, she pushed for a safe place to play and hold classes, even during a pandemic, and a pleasant area for adults to walk, gather, and reflect.
“My seniors are ecstatic about it,” Zabala said. “They say this is their park.”
But Zabala also looked to the streets around her, where green space is in short supply, 58 percent live in poverty, and the median household income is $15,000. For them, she thought of her hometown near Newark, New Jersey, a neighborhood similar to Buckeye, and recalled how beneficial a green space in that area would have been.
The vision only expanded from there. Soon, in Ubuntu Gathering Place, Zabala began to picture a source of work for local landscapers, a host or even employer of local artists, and a venue for Buckeye-based festivals. Through the lens of Ubuntu, she imagined East End not only as a potential beneficiary of neighborhood improvement but as a catalyst for it.
“We need to create opportunities that will bring us together,” she said. “It’s really important. If we only live in our homes and don’t know what we can do collaboratively, the neighborhood won’t thrive. We have to come together. It has to happen.”