Historic building has been
'a hot bed of civic activism'

Green groups to occupy former bank building

The following article about the current green renovation of the Lorain Street Bank Building the future home of the Cleveland Environmental Center and EcoCity Clevelandappeared in the Plain Press neighborhood newspaper in September 2002

By Chuck Hoven

The Lorain Street Bank Buildinga building that once played a major role in the lives of many Near West Side residents is getting a new life.

The historic building at 3500 Lorain Avenue is under rehabilitation through a joint effort of the Cleveland Green Building Coalition, Cleveland Urban Properties and Ohio City Near West Development Corporation. When completed, the building will serve as an environmental center housing a number of activist groups involved in improving the urban environment.

In the 1960s and early 1970s the bank building housed a number of anti-poverty and social service organizations and agencies on its upper floors. Terry Klima, president of the board of the West Side Opportunity Center when it was housed in the building, said the building, "was certainly the heart of the community for a long time."

Near West Side resident Chris Warren, who as economic development director in the Michael R. White Administration played a role in supporting the rehab of the bank building, described the building as a "hotbed of civic activism" from the late 1960s through the mid 1970s.

Warren, who organized Welfare Rights meetings held in the building in the early 1970s, noted the rehab is reviving not only a historic building but also an "organizing legacy."
Before being closed by fire marshals in the mid 1990's the building was last occupied by Antiques in the Bank.

When the rehabilitation is completed the old bank building will once again house nonprofit community activist organizations. The building will provide a home for a number of Cleveland environmental groups in what will be called the Adam Joseph Lewis Cleveland Environmental Center. Tenants currently signed up for the building include the Clean Air Conservancy, Cleveland Green Building Coalition, EcoCity Cleveland, Enterprise Foundation, Environmental Health Watch, Green Energy Ohio, League of Conservation Voters Education Fund and Parkworks. The environmental groups will share a conference room and other parts of the building.

According to the developers, the $3.4 million project, financed through grants, loans and tax credit programs, "aims to demonstrate that green building can be done affordably in a historic building, while building capacity for Cleveland nonprofit organizations." Green building is defined as "the design, construction and operation of buildings that reduce energy consumption, save money, reduce the use of natural resources, and create a healthy, comfortable living and working environment."

John Wilbur, executive director of Ohio City Near West Development Corporation, called the project a "capstone of a decade of work" referring to efforts to rehabilitate and build new buildings along Fulton Road from Franklin to Lorain Avenue. Wilbur also noted that the neighborhood in which the building is rehabbed has a strong tradition of "neighbors getting together to preserve historic structures."

He noted that one of the first historic preservation efforts in Ohio City came several decades ago when the Cleveland Public Library announced plans to tear down and replace the Carnegie Branch Library across Fulton from the bank building. He said, "Neighbors got together to save the historic structure." Wilbur said members of the Ohio City Near West Development Corporation Board of Trustees wanted to preserve that tradition and the organization works hard "to preserve the heritage and diversity of the community."

The tenants of the new building will also help preserve another neighborhood traditionthat of civic activism. Ward 13 Councilman Joe Cimperman said the environmental groups sharing the building will be putting pressure on public officials and policy makers to "make the world a better place. The human interaction of different organizations will create so many relationships and positive efforts."

Community activists during the late 1960s and early 1970s remember when a multitude of civic organizations took root in the building. Cleveland Trust Bank owned the building and had a branch office on the first floor during that time. The Council of Economic Opportunities of Greater Cleveland leased the second, third and fourth floors which were filled by the West Side Opportunity Center and by various activist organizations.

The building was an established site for social service organizations even in the early 1960s. The Near West Side was one of the target areas for the Lyndon B. Johnson administration's War on Poverty dollars. The building housed those federally funded programs on the Near West Side.

Ward 7 Councilwoman Fannie Lewis remembers working in the building in the early 1960s for the Neighborhood Youth Corporation. She says her job was to recruit neighborhood youth to receive job training for jobs with various City of Cleveland departments. She remembers the atmosphere being good and working with a number of leaders in the Hispanic community, particularly Raul Vegas of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico whose offices were housed in the Old Arcade in downtown Cleveland at the time. Lewis remembers the building as being "full of social services."

Terry Klima remembers when neighborhood residents assumed the task of running the West Side Opportunity Center, taking the reins from the Council of Opportunities of Greater Cleveland in 1970. Klima says the neighborhood board was formed to take advantage of a federal Neighborhood Facilities Grant Program designed to help house all anti-poverty programs in one building.

The Near West Side Multi-Service Corporation was formed to serve as the neighborhood governing body of the West Side Opportunity Centera requirement to get the funding. Klima served as president of the 25-member board of trustees from 1969 to 1979. Klima says the board received funding and assumed operation of the building in 1970. CEOGC became the organization's fiscal agent paying the rent on the building from the grant.

Also in 1970, Klima says the newly formed board joined with other neighborhood organizations such as the Spanish American Committee to apply for Cleveland Now money during the Carl B. Stokes' administration. They purchased the building next door to the bank building to create the Cleveland Crisis Center, which operated a 24 hour, 7 day a week hotline to help people in crisis. Rev. Bob Begin, now at St. Colman's Church remembers that the West Side Opportunity Center's Outreach Worker Sister Martha Fox and the Catholic Worker organization were heavily involved in scheduling volunteers for the West Side Crisis Center. Begin says before the days of call forwarding, the center required volunteers to answer the phone 24 hours a day.

When the West Side Opportunity Center (now the May Dugan Center) moved to 4115 Bridge Avenue in the mid 1970s the West Side Crisis Center went with them. Legal Aid, a long time tenant in the bank building then moved next door to occupy the Crisis Center's former offices. The Legal Aid Society still maintains its West Side office in that location.

The West Side Development Corporation headed by Shirley Smith also had offices in the bank building. The predecessor organization of the Tremont West Development Corporation, the West Side Development Corporation was responsible for starting a number of organizations including the All Peoples Credit Union and the Cleveland American Indian Center. Klima, says with CEOGC taking care of the rent for the Neighborhood Opportunity Center, the organization was able to provide free rent to community people forming groups to serve the neighborhood.

Becky Toney, began working in the building in 1968 at age 17 as part of a youth program run by the Neighborhood Youth Corporation. Toney says her first job was to run the elevator in the building. One of Toney's biggest thrills as a young elevator operator was seeing Russell Means in full Native American traditional attire taking the elevator up to the office of the Cleveland American Indian Center in the building. Toney says Means, who was later instrumental organizing the protest at Wounded Knee, was always very serious looking. Toney also ran the telephone switch board where she placed various lines into holes in system like that Comedienne Lily Tomlin used on her Saturday Night Live skit.

Toney later worked in the building as part of the staff of the West Side Opportunity Center which did outreach work on the second floor and food distribution on the third floor. Toney remembers many of the individuals and organizations that worked out of the building or were formed through meetings in the building. "A lot of people worked together. They had to support each other," she said.

Lilian Craig organized around health care issues with West Side Citizens for Better Health Care in the time period right before McCafferty Clinic was created, said Toney. West Side Citizens for Better Health Care was instrumental in creating the Near West Side Peoples Clinic, which remained in operation until the early 1980s, and the Tremont Health Center, which is still in operation today. Marge Grevatt, who now runs the Joining Together to Stop Sexual Abuse Program, worked at Legal Aid. Shelby Holmes, who recently retired from Merrick House, ran the All Peoples Credit Union in the building. Hector Suarez ran the Puerto Rican Economic Development Corporation. Another organization housed in the building, the Domestic Workers of American, worked to get decent wages for cleaning women.

Toney said that workers from the West Side Community House distributed vouchers in the building to help those in need. Toney says, Iris Cuevas, the mother of the current Second District Commander Hector Cuevas, was involved with this program. Goldie Bratsch ran the Youth Program in the building where many youths from the neighborhood received their first job experience. Toney also recalls that Neighborhood Housing Services started out in the bank building.

Larry Bresler, now with Organize Ohio, recalls a number of the organizations in the bank building had Volunteers In Service to America (VISTA) workers assigned to them by the West Side Community House's VISTA coordinator Gail Long, now executive director of Merrick House. According a history of the early years of the Plain Press written by Bresler and Warren, a number of those VISTA workers and a group of neighborhood residents held a meeting at the West Side Crisis Center in January of 1971 to create a newspaper to help people in the neighborhood "become more aware of the news, issues and services available in the area." VISTA volunteer Joann Abraham thought of the name Plain Press.

Two months later, in March of 1971, the community published the first edition of the Plain Press. Bresler says the Plain Press's first office was at the YMCA on Franklin Boulevard.


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Copyright 2002-2003



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The historic Lorain Street Bank Building will continue to house community activism when it reopens as the Cleveland Environmental Center in early 2003.


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