Giving Vacancy Another Look by Marc Lefkowitz

In 2007, the sub-prime lending fiasco lit a match to a powder keg. Urban centers like Cleveland

have been emptying out from sprawl and job loss for decades. But, the foreclosure meltdown

threatened to blow the lid off. Cleveland led the nation that year with more than 10,000

homeowners walking away from toxic loans. Down I-71 in Columbus, foreclosures hit but not as

hard as the damage done decades earlier by that very highway slicing through city


Highways like I-71, or I-90 in Cleveland, cut a wide swath through the heart of many American

cities in the 1960s. Built by the federal government, who took property with eminent domain,

highways helped speed the emptying out of cities and created a host of fiscal, environmental,

transportation, and social problems.

Compounding it all, Ohio is still trying to make sense of the tsunami of foreclosures that swept

over it. For most suburban dwellers, foreclosures and the crater left from neglect and

abandonment hasn’t cracked their consciousness. The cancer of vacancy seems to be fairly well

contained in the city, but in the last two years, it has even spread to the suburbs.

What to do? How do we begin to come to grips with what this means for our cities and by

extension our little piece of the American pie?

Artists have long weighed in on the social ills of their day, and foreclosure is one of the biggest

to come down the pike in a long, long time. A home is rife with meaning and purpose and when

it loses both, and on such a broad scale, the loss is collective. What role can art play in piecing it

all back together?

These questions are certainly at play in Curb Appeal, a project led by a group of artists from

Cleveland (disclosure: the author is one of seven) who will address vacancy through on-site

installations at an abandoned house in Columbus. It is part of a larger effort, Rooms to Let, led

by Melissa Vogley Woods and Jaclyn Little. Columbus natives, Little co-founded City Center

Gallery at the OSU Urban Arts Space in 2010, and served as director until 2011. Woods is an

exhibiting artist whose work on vacancy was recognized by Ohio Arts Council Individual

Excellence Award in 3D (2013).

“When the function of a house is disrupted, it feels dead, like a ghost,” Vogley Woods says. “We

connect to the house like we connect to the function of the body. Particularly, the American idea

of home and how this ideal is manifested and ordered by our culture.”

This is the third round of Rooms to Let, their temporary exhibitions with abandoned buildings.

This project centers on homes in the once-stable and bustling African-American neighborhood

just east of downtown Columbus known as King-Lincoln. It kicks off with a Neighborhood

Crawl on May 18 from 2 to 10 p.m.

In the late 19th century, as King-Lincoln’s population exploded, blacks migrating from the south

found poor living conditions. The neighborhood struggled to find adequate health care, but it also

became home to Columbus’ first black physician and the first hospital for African-Americans.

Housing conditions improved as African-American businesses and night clubs featuring the jazz

stars of the age were established in the 1930s-40s. “At the time, segregation actually fueled the

commercial and cultural development of the area, as African-American consumers could only

patronize the African-American businesses in the neighborhood. As a result, a thriving, selfsufficient

community developed,” writes Homeport, a non-profit developer working in the area.

In the 60s, after the highway sliced through the neighborhood, residents gained a new sense of

mobility and the tight-knit, walkable neighborhood slowly started losing residents and local

business. Known for its mom-and-pop shops and solid middle class housing, both started a

decades-long decline mirroring the rise of the suburbs.

In recent times, Homeport has taken on infill development projects including 60 new green-built

homes. According to WOSU’s Columbus Neighborhoods Project, King-Lincoln is “poised for

rebirth. The restoration of the King Lincoln Theatre was one of the most anticipated projects in

the city. Now completed, it joins the King Arts Complex in shaping and developing this historic


Curb Appeal refers to a term used by the real estate profession to describe the extrinsic value of a

property. It is emblematic of the starry-eyed transactions that inflated the housing bubble of the

early Oughts.

Homeport’s Nicole Papa Odegaard sees a connection between art and vacancy. “Art builds

community. Artists spark conversation and bring people together. All kinds of people with

different backgrounds and interests who may otherwise never have the opportunity or reason to

interact. With the Rooms to Let project, abandoned houses will become gathering places, places

of contemplation and even joy.”

Foreclosures are like the Wizard of Oz coming out from behind the curtain, says Liz Maugins,

one of the artists. Maugins will let loose some salesmanship of her own.

“My mother is a realtor, and one of their strategies for getting people to

come to an open house is using brightly colored balloons by the door,” she describes part of her

piece called, THIS HOUSE IS UP IN THE AIR. “A message and address of the house is attached

to each balloon. I ask people to text or email me when they find the deflated balloon with ideas

for its future.”

Painter and printmaker Corrie Slawson will explore the friction of a home’s transitory state of

occupancy and the ideal of its value both at a personal but also at the community level. In her

piece, Gilt House I, she plans to “gild” areas of and around the home in gold metallic paint. She

will also collaborate on written word wall paper with her husband, writer Marc Lefkowitz

combining text, gold wallpaper and Day-Glo words over the boarded up windows.

Photographer and sculptor, Michael Loderstedt, will do a site-specific installation of paper-andink

magpies. A common bird throughout Europe, magpies are attracted to shiny objects and will

often add coins to their nests, he explains. “This behavior of ‘stealing’ is, of course, without real

moral significance to them. They become allegorical figures who build, plan, scheme and act in a

more human-like manner. Used as a playful yet dramatic foil, the birds are intended to be a

metaphor for our current economic condition.”

Cleveland-based illuminated artists Jeffrey Chiplis and Dana L. Depew will collaborate and

connect the vacant house with work that deals with resurrecting reclaimed signage, neon and

incandescent lighting. Mely Barragan, Mexican native and Cleveland Foundation Creative

Fusion artist-in-residence at Zygote Press, will contribute a piece title, HeMan / Chain-Link

Fence. Wallpaper with graphic images of the cartoon character, HeMan, form a chain link fence

that challenge the boundaries between public and private, but also the symbols of poverty.

Curb Appeal and Rooms to Let are a pathway for artists living amongst the angst of a mounting

social problem in their hometown. Cleveland artists will travel to Columbus, bringing with them

an inside-outside viewpoint on vacancy. The challenge will be in taking a concept wrapped in a

thorny and evolving problem to a real house in a neighborhood imbued with a rich past but an

uncertain future.

“We think the neighborhood has a very certain future,” says Papa Odegaard. “The residents have

created a strong fabric of community and look out for each other. They want to know each other

and they come together to care for, and advance, their neighborhood. This project gives people

who may not be familiar with the transformation happening in the King Lincoln District a reason

to come and spend a few hours there. This project will create excitement and have people

looking at what is happening next in NoBo.”ImageJeff Chiplis assists Dana Depew in putting a new house on an older house-for future inhabitants in King Lincoln


CURB APPEAL project, is, in part, funded through the Creative Workforce Fellowship received in 2013 by Liz Maugans.