During my extended visit to NE Ohio this summer, I have visited many markets, some farms and also met some excellent people thinking about their place constantly. Here is one of them.
Parking my truck on Jefferson after turning off Professor, I was lost in thought for a minute about the changes I was seeing in my old neighborhood of Tremont. Not that closed up storefronts or broken sidewalks should remain, but the saturation of shiny and new crowding this tiny corner of Cleveland was troubling. (For those who are unfamiliar with Cleveland or this part of it, Tremont is right next to what was the industrial Flats, and as such, had gone through some tough times in the latter part of the 20th century. Since the late 1990s however, its proximity to downtown and the city’s eagerness to think of the future as largely post-industrial in terms of infrastructure has meant this area has been transformed almost completely into an apartment and entertainment district.)
As I looked up from my musings, I noticed a healthy fig tree peeking over a beautiful, clearly handmade stone wall. I crossed the street to see it more closely and said aloud, ‘oh look at these figs! How lovely!”
A voice amid the greenery said, “please help yourself.” I looked over and saw a smiling face working on wall repairs just a few feet away. I carefully selected a few ripe figs and walked over to meet my benefactor.
Jeff Chiplis has lived on this corner with his wife Cynthia since 1980, and has seen a parade of people, ideas and development, across the spectrum of good to bad to ridiculous and back again. As an internationally known artist working with recycled neon signs, he believes in adaptation. So when he mirrors the best and protests the worst of developers’ and municipal whims in his work and yard, it should be noted by the powers that be.
For example, the utter lack of interest in reusing what was already here and the crowding of overly tall and architecturally bland buildings onto each redeveloped lot is clearly a source of frustration with Jeff. That wall that the fig tree reclines on is an example of how he honors the past while offering his neighbors beautifully framed access to the green space he owns. His dad and he originally built it, using discarded bricks and stones. Regular repair work is necessary because vandals push over the top stones or pull the flat stones to bash against the sidewalk. As we chatted, he finished his small repair job, carefully scraping the rest of the mortar from his bucket, then offering me a tour which I gratefully accepted.
The figs and grapes line the sidewalk next to the small house “painted Superman blue” he offers (assuming I understand the Cleveland connection; I do) allowing anyone to feast as they go by. While there, I notice one 20-something ignores the bounty as she passes by twice with her large dog and smart phone at eye level.
Walking up the driveway between the Superman house and the larger brick one, he stops in his ground level studio to drop off the brickwork tools and to offer me a flyer from one of his latest installations around the city. The studio is floor to ceiling full of odds and ends, but somehow one can see that it is set up well for his use and offers comfort for anyone invited to stand among the signs, tools and materials.
As we walk the garden, I see that is organized the same way. The garden beds are bordered with found and made art, and plants are allowed to define their space as they see fit during growing season. Still, well-tended space is prominent between the areas of plantings and large trees on this corner lot.
The Harry Lauder’s walking stick tree was marvelous but unfortunately, was ailing while I was there:
although allowing him to adorn other borders with its cast-offs:
Greens were doing well alongside flowering plants.
Raspberries and currants overshot rusty fences and repurposed rebar:
The burr oak was not only resplendent in the middle of the yard, but allowed him to place this frame that another artist had no more use for once the art piece had been completed. So Jeff found another use for it and slipped it over the much smaller oak clearly just in time:
The horseradish was added for no particular culinary reason but turned out to be a good neighbor to the other plants, anchoring this corner:
I could have easily stayed longer. I almost did, but felt I needed to let him finish what is likely a long list of tasks in the studio and garden and home and neighborhood.
Just in time, that fig tree reminded me that resident’s homes like the Chiplis’ place are as necessary and as important as markets and community gardens in serving their communities.