Riverview Welcome Center opens with a vision of building community
by Colin Murnan
(Plain Press, July 2019) “I noticed that Riverview Towers has a community building,” Delores Procter, part of the Benjamin Rose Institute staff at Riverview Towers in Ohio City, said in a video produced by architect and videographer Clifford Benjamin Herring and shown at the soft opening of the Riverview Welcome Center on June 19th.
Proctor went on to say, “I know back in the day, they used to do parties. They could rent it out to the residents, AA meetings, NA meetings, bridal showers. You know it was just something that brought the community together. And the building hasn’t been utilized in a while . . . I would love to see something done with that building, you know that’s going to help the community. It really would.”
Social architect Malaz Elgemiabby has partnered with LAND studios to do just that. The goal is to turn the former Riverview Community Center, for years being used as a storage facility, into a new welcome center for all of the citizens of Ohio City. The center is located at 1701 West 25that the corner of W. 25thand Franklin Boulevard.
Born in Sudan, Malaz has had extensive education from around the world, studying architecture in London and receiving a master’s degree in design from Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar. From there she began designing community buildings internationally, winning more awards along the way, but always keeping her values from Sudan in mind.
“My father comes from a Sufi village in south of Khartoum,” Malaz said. “Part of the Sufi culture that I grew up with is very entrenched in community service andwe grew up watching my grandmother cook for the whole village, feeding the whole village – the house was always open.You don’t just live, trying to serve your own dreams. Your own wellbeing is connected to the wellbeing of your community.”
Malaz is hoping to bring these same values to her most recent project – creating a welcome center that unites all the people of Ohio City. She talked of a building in her childhood village that everyone in the community gathered, every day.
“They eat together, they celebrate together, they solve their problems.”
It was a way for people to interact and become familiar.
Creating a building like this in Ohio City is a large task, as the range of socioeconomic classes are vast. The city houses many senior citizens in the Riverview high rises while, at the same time, there are young families moving in. Despite gentrification projects, the city still struggles to create a central bond for all of the varying neighborhoods.
“If we don’t do anything about it, it’s just going to continue that path of keeping those communities segregated and isolated,” Malaz said. “and eventually it’s gonna break.”
In order to know how to unite the people and what they wanted from their community center, Malaz set out to truly get to know Ohio City residents. “When I came here, I didn’t know the community very well. I’m an outsider, so how am I going to get to know the people?”
Luckily, Malaz had previous experience in immersing herself in projects like these. She once spent a week homeless on the street to understand the importance of personal space. During the economic crisis, she lived with a single mother struggling to provide for her child. She did these things to align her community buildings with the needs of the people she was building them for. When she was a kid, Malaz’ mother would constantly remind her of the power of empathy.
“She would regularly take us to the orphanage for us to see the children there and to help them, understand them, to understand that their struggle is part of life and that everyone is destined with a different sort of struggle; even though you feel you are struggling, there is something in you that can help others, and that is what you can focus on”
Malaz spent four months talking to residents of Ohio City and gathering information. She attended dozens of events ranging from AA meetings to personal dinner parties. Malaz said one of the most revealing experiences was when she became an Uber driver for the Ohio City neighborhood.
“Just driving people around . . . what happens is you trust people into your own personal space. You’re vulnerable because you allow them into your car, your space. In exchange, they trust you and so that sort of exchange of trust allows for a lot of stories and information to be learned.”
After hearing what the people had to say, Malaz and her team came up with four values to base their project on: community, inclusivity, diversity, and dignity. She highlighted dignity as perhaps the most important.
“Dignity is a place to be, to exist, without having to pay, without having to do things, you can just be who you are, and you feel welcome.”
This theme of dignity has been put into action with the Out Print/In Print project. For the In Print half of the project, citizens are given cameras to photograph people and spaces to explore the theme of dignity. These photos will then be developed, and some will be exhibited inside the Riverview Welcome Center on opening day, August 1.
Portraits of citizens are being taken as well and these photos will be pasted on the outside of the Welcome Center to represent the inclusiveness and diversity of the building itself thereby representing the Out Print portion. The project is Cleveland’s first experiment with Inside Out, created by renowned artist JR to help engage the world in a global art project.
In the future, Malaz hopes to expand the Riverview Welcome Center into a large park overlooking the Cuyahoga River. The future design includes a walkway to a rooftop overlook covered in grass. In order for the project to be set in motion, additional funding is needed as well as the stabilization of Irishtown bend and the straightening of Franklin Boulevard. Malaz says if they can bring enough attraction to the welcome center and keep the momentum going from there, good things are sure to come.
“I don’t want to settle. If this is what my team can do with this limited budget and in a short time span, imagine what we could do together as a community when we think big. We know we can get there. I know it’s hard for people to have hope when they’ve been broken so many times, but you know what? Give me chance. That’s what I want to tell people. I will do my best.”
The Riverview Welcome Center is hosting the Cleveland Common Ground on June 30 as well as the annual AA Cleveland anniversary. The OUT Print/IN Print exhibit is scheduled to open at the Riverview Welcome Center on August 1st.