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Community arts and cultural center inside the former Astrup Awning Company brings new identity to Seymour Avenue

Posted at 7:16 AM, Jan 03, 2020
and last updated 2020-01-04 08:10:38-05

CLEVELAND — When Clevelanders celebrate the seventh anniversary of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight escaping from a home on Seymour Avenue after being held captive there for years, construction work a few feet from where those women were held will be forging a new identity for the community.

While the world was learning about the horrors the women endured on Seymour Avenue, the building that the Astrup Awning Company was housed in from 1883 through 1995 stood in the background.

The factory has seen better days.

Wood blocks that made up the machine shop floors are damaged by some small flooding that happened after developer Rick Foran says people broke in to strip the building of its copper pipes. Paint is peeling off the wall next to occasional memories, like old envelopes, from a time when the Astrup Awning Company turned out finished products from the corner of West 25th Street and Seymour Avenue.

In the 80,000-square-foot building, Foran saw a huge opportunity to bring positive attention to an area known mostly for what had gone wrong there.

"What can we do to make this area turn around, because what happened there was not Cleveland," said Foran.

His answer ended up being an arts and cultural center in the old Astrup building. Art exhibits will be just around the corner from a working theater, theater company, dance company, and many more organizations.

Astrup Facade.jpg
The brick wall along West 25th Street is going to get a new design, seeming to pivot the brick wall, welcoming in the surrounding community and symbolizing the "pivot" developers hope the project allows the neighborhood to make.

"Even from bad, good can come," said LatinUs Theater Company Executive Director Monica Torres.

Her company is just one example of the "Cleveland" Foran wants to show off.

In what's now a huge garage for storage, LatinUs will have the first Latino/Hispanic Theater in Ohio. They'll use it to feature pieces written by Latin artists, performed in Spanish, with English subtitles.

The unique performance spreads their culture without leaving anyone out.

"We want to include everybody who doesn't speak Spanish, including the new generation of Latinos that most of them, sometimes, they don't even speak Spanish," said Torres.

The Boys and Girls Club of Cleveland has been in the Clark-Fulton Neighborhood for 40 years but their new location in the Astrup building will be the first arts-centric club, using a new approach to help kids in class.

"It's really the impact that arts have on a young person's life," said Boys and Girls Club of Cleveland President Ron Soeder. "They tend to be more focused in school."

What used to be a machine shop will house Bill Wade's Inlet Dance Theater.

It'll be the first time in Inlet's 18-year history that the whole company will be under one roof. The space in the Astrup building made sense because Wade was looking for a community that could benefit from this company's performances and its mission of helping people build themselves up through dance.

"This part of the city, on a professional arts and culture sector, has been a bit of a dessert," said Wade.

Instead, the $13 million project will do it's part to make the neighborhood lush with culture and a new feeling on the block.

That's why Gina DeJesus' organization, the Cleveland Family Center for Missing Children and Adults, is intentionally located right next door to where Gina was held captive.

At first, DeJesus' cousin and co-founder, Sylvia Colon, was against picking that location.

"I said, 'Are you sure? Are you sure?," said Colon. "And [Gina] said, 'I'm already decorating. This is where we have to be."

"If we do something like this, then we bring hope to people on the street," said DeJesus.

"There is something very redeeming about coming into a place where somebody tried to take life and be part of what's happening in this building, to give life back," said Wade.

Foran says construction is expected to take up much of 2020, but the center is expected to be open near the end of the year or in early 2021.

A few years after the project is off the ground, Foran says tenants will have the opportunity to buy their space and not just rent it out. He says that will help these artistic institutions build equity and not have to fight rising rents when the rest of the neighborhood gets more expensive.

RELATED: Charles Ramsey opens up about life five years after famous rescue of three women on Seymour Avenue

This story is part of A Better Land, an ongoing series that investigates Northeast Ohio's deep-seated systemic problems. Additionally, it puts a spotlight on the community heroes fighting for positive change in Cleveland and throughout the region. If you have an idea for A Better Land story, tell us here.