Cleveland Public Theatre is the founding anchor organization of the Gordon Square Arts District and we now appreciate a lively community with great restaurants and intriguing retail stores. And with the historic, newly-renovated Capitol Theatre cinema and the upcoming arrival to the neighborhood—Near West Theatre’s new and permanent home on West 67th (Spring 2015)—the neighborhood is thriving. But the neighborhood has not always been so vibrant.
In 1983 James Levin came to West 65th and Detroit to launch his newly-formed company, Cleveland Public Theatre (CPT). James’ vision was an arts-infused urban neighborhood whose residents would connect through theatre, and whose economy would be sparked by new visitors. Rather than start in University Circle, or another locale known for elite arts, James was looking for a neighborhood that might benefit from a resident professional arts organization with a community focus. At the time, the historic Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood—with its beautiful buildings and history as an early 20th century hub for live theatre and cinema—was challenged by blight and crime. And yet, the neighborhood was on a path of transformation.
As CPT grew, it was able to expand from its small upstairs theatre—a former Irish Dance Hall–now known as The James Levin Theatre, and purchase the building. In doing so, they added the downstairs area for a shop and a small storefront theatre. In 1994 CPT purchased the Gordon Square Theatre, Cleveland’s oldest theatre, which had fallen into disrepair and had been condemned by the City of Cleveland. By the late 90s, James had enlisted Detroit-Shoreway Community Development Organization in his vision and he and DSCDO Executive Director Jeff Ramsey were beginning to refer to the neighborhood as Gordon Square.
CPT needed to find a creative manner to raise funds to get the Gordon Square Theatre operational. After an effort to join several west-side arts organizations into a partnered capital campaign, James and Jeff led the formation of the Gordon Square Arts District by inviting Near West Theatre to move to the neighborhood and enter into a joint capital campaign. In 2003, after stepping down from CPT’s leadership position, James became the founding director of the Gordon Square Arts District.
In 2007 Gordon Square Arts District formed into a separate non-profit organization with Dick Pogue, Tom Sullivan, and Albert Ratner as its honorary chairs, and Joy Roller as the Executive Director. Attorney Larry Schultz worked out the founding documents which defined the five primary projects of the campaign:
- The first phase of renovation for CPT’s century old buildings
- Renovation of the Capitol Theatre
- Construction of a new streetscape
- Three additional parking lots
- The construction of a brand new home for the Near West Theatre.
The campaign had a challenging and rough start and complex negotiations related to the founding agreements began almost as soon as they were signed. The challenges of the recession, a multitude of competing capital campaigns, and concerns about organizational stability added pressure to the partnership. And for several years, the key executive directors Joy Roller, Jeff Ramsey, Raymond Bobgan (CPT), and Stephanie Morrison Hrbek (NWT) met on a weekly basis. They were often joined by Councilman Matt Zone who led the campaign for the streetscape and parking. Bringing four boards together around a radical idea of sharing fundraising efforts was a huge effort and many did not believe the campaign would succeed.
In 2009 the campaign deadline was approaching and it was possible that GSAD would close having failed to reach its goals. After complex negotiations between NWT and CPT who were the remaining incomplete projects, the GSAD founding documents were extended. Dick Pogue and David Doll led the campaign as Co-Chairs for the GSAD Board and in 2013 Judi Feniger became its Executive Director.
In 2014 GSAD announced it had reached its goal, having raised 30 million dollars.
Though we have received accolades internationally including incredible citations from The Economist the New York Times, and the National Endowment for the Arts, we do not lose sight of our purpose. This campaign has always been focused locally. We are seeing a neighborhood transform while retaining long-time residents and a mixed income population. Businesses thrive while people’s lives are changed by their experience in a theatre.
It has been a long journey and it’s far from over, but James Levin’s vision is becoming a reality. Though many people have played a critical role in the success of the district, without James there would never have been a Gordon Square Arts District. We honor and thank him for his vision and commitment.