It starts with the planter beds along Waterloo Road. Perhaps our involvement in the story starts when we see the somewhat recent transformation to the bed in front of Collinwood’s historic “Gold Building” at 156th Street on Waterloo Road.
A low, wooden structure lines the interior of the cement edge of the planter bed adjacent to Michael Loderstedt’s contemporary photography gallery. This burnt umber box contains and frames the life growing inside it. On its closest edge (parallel to the gallery’s International Klein Blue window frames) a humble bench has been installed offering gallery patrons or community passerbys a place to rest, gather together, or ponder alone amidst the hum of the street’s life. Underneath its seating, the planter quietly exclaims its affiliation in bolded, monochromatic all-caps: “PHOTOCENTRIC”.
Centered on the expanse of the bench is a plaque with the engraving, “In Loving Memory of Stephen Bivens Photographer and Teacher.” Biven’s legacy as an artist and community-advocate in Collinwood is an important story for our neighborhood and our larger city. His life and work are quietly referenced here at an understated community site constructed from a simple wooden frame around a public planter bed.
As our eyes move down the roadway past our own Waterloo Arts building at 15605 Waterloo, we begin to notice, as if for the first time, similar planter beds punctuating the sidewalk. These are sites of public green space and, as seen at the bed at Photocentric, opportunities for community engagement and storytelling. From here our questions begin to take shape.
Who are the stewards of these green spaces?
What is growing inside?
What do these other beds commemorate or stand for, if anything?
We begin asking ourselves questions about what could be. In various conversations between the Waterloo Arts Executive Director Amy Callahan and community stakeholders, an idea takes form. We call it The Green Palette.
The Green Palette is a community engagement program where participants can acquire skills in horticulture and urban farming, contribute to dialogue around community-informed design of green public space, and transform planter beds along Waterloo Road into personalized growing plots. The objective of the project is to envision the planter beds as sites for community-led creativity to blossom and will serve as a model for how we can collectively take action to make positive change in our neighborhoods.
As Program Manager, I help organize a monthly webinar series (now through August 2021) to help supplement the knowledge toolbox of those interested in working with green space as a site of creative production. The slate of webinars represents a slice of the urban farming and horticulture ecosystem in Northeast Ohio. Topics to be covered range from the importance of soil health in urban environments, perennial plants native to the NE Ohio region, growing food and herbs, and the social impacts of urban agriculture.
In November and December of 2020 we launched the project with an invitation to 7 local artists to paint rain barrels that will be used to supply water street-level during the project’s inaugural growing season. Anitra Frazier, Scott Pickering, Christopher Pokes, Lacy Talley, Aaron Williams, Chi Wong, and Linda Zolten Wood painted one-of-a-kind designs on the barrels, which are currently being sealed and stored in preparation for semi-permanent installation on downspouts along the street.
With the return of spring and warmer months, we began to envision a growing season wherein community teams tend to planter beds with infrastructural support from Waterloo Arts and dedicated consultation from Master Gardeners of Cuyahoga County. In these early conversations with our Master Gardener partners, however, we realize that we are neglecting one important aspect of the planter beds: the trees already growing there!
Most planter beds have a tree at its center. Though it is winter right now, a stroll down the Waterloo Road of June 2019 is made possible with the help of Google Map’s Street View. This virtual time travel shows seemingly healthy trees. But applying a thick layer of soil atop the trees’ root system (as was our plan) would prove detrimental to these street trees’ health over the coming years.
Rather than simply applying a layer of soil to make room for the creativity of our green palettes, we recognize a need to open ourselves up to the complexity and challenges inherent in working in these public green spaces.
Over the next few months we are excited to work with community partners and our Master Gardener team to facilitate thinking through what it means to be creative stewards of the spaces we share. In addition to imagining what’s possible, we need to be sure that we are recognizing and nourishing the growth in what’s already here.
We want to hear from you! If you are interested in being a part of the conversation, please sign up for The Green Palette updates on our website.