community development lessons from rough rider, James Levin

Submitted by Susan Miller on Fri, 06/06/2008 - 09:07.

James Levin (seated) with the Brew Crew at Carnegie Hall - photo by Sandy Kish

After graduating from CWRU with his juris doctorate, James Levin did not begin to practice law right away. He traveled and explored and ultimately wound up spending three years at La Mama in NYC. There he found a concept that would inspire him to begin a venture that is now a $24 million community development on Cleveland’s west side – the Gordon Square Arts District.


As many will recall, eastsiders first traveled west to the Cleveland Public Theatre to check out the shows that sometimes were great, sometimes not, but usually provided a theatre experience unlike what could be found elsewhere in Cleveland. But the Detroit Shoreway was not home to the first incarnation of Jim’s idea.


The theatre’s original home in 1981 was the Walker Weeks building (recently renovated into loft town homes) just west of the innerbelt trench. It was first called “Theatre 55” as James had his eyes on the old WHK Theatre at Euclid and 55th Street; that is until Hank LoConti’s East 24th Street Agora burned, and Hank grabbed the WHK. The downtown location was affectionately called “Carnegie Hall”. “The space had its drawbacks”, said Levin, “for example, there was no running water there”. But more daunting, it turns out, was the fact that there was a gay bar called Chaps also occupying the space.


Levin knew he planned to practice law, and had taken and passed the Ohio Bar, but had never gotten around to being sworn in as an official “lawyer” in Ohio. His Dad, however, pushed him to make time for the swearing part, and that proved a good move in regard to what was about to transpire at “Carnegie Hall”.


Back then, Jim sported an outlaw look as he sat astride his motorcycle; he was a sort of a rough rider. He had just hung out his discount lawyer shingle and won a couple of cases making him a magnet for reprobates. The first clients he served often worked for him at the theatre. These were some bad dudes. He affectionately referred to them as the “brew crew”. Some paid their legal fees by providing “in-kind services” to the fledgling theatre. They also apparently rode their motorcycles into Chaps and called some of the patrons “sissies”. Oh, dear… The owner of Chaps decided to retaliate by blocking the entrance to theatre as opening night of the first production neared. Levin had no choice but to sue the Chaps blockaders, and the judge who had recently sworn him in as an official “lawyer” in the State of Ohio (Bernie Friedman), was the judge who would preside in the trial. Levin won his case and the door was opened, but not until after a show of force took place involving numerous motorcycles, and pickup trucks with chains attached to the door of the building threatening to rip that sucker and the façade right off the building if access was not granted. Levin refers to this confrontation as “the story of the OK Coral”.


Shortly thereafter, in 1984, Levin went on a hunt for an old theatre in the city – (remember that WHK had been snapped up by LoConti) something perhaps more suitable, more theatre-like and with less contentious neighbors. He looked at the LaSalle in the Collinwood neighborhood and the Olympus in the Broadway neighborhood and then ventured with friend Sandy Kish over to the Detroit Shoreway to visit the Capitol Theatre. The Capitol Theatre was not appropriate; the proscenium made the space inflexible, and the shallow stage had no wings – not what Levin had in mind for his experimental theatre plans. But after leaving the Capitol Theatre, he and Kish went for a walk. They walked east on Detroit Avenue from 65th Street. As they strolled along they spotted a man that Levin describes as a Santa figure with white hair, long beard, and a pot belly. He was sitting on a stool in front of what is now dubbed the James Levin Theatre (like Levin died or something). The Santa guy asked Levin and his companion if they were the people looking for a space in the neighborhood. He was the owner of this dilapidated building, and he had been waiting for them. They took the tour and found the upstairs theatre that some of us remember fondly as the Cleveland Public Theatre (pronounced by Jim as Thee-ay-ter). Santa had been expecting the Boy Scouts of America, but was happy to sign a lease with this snappy dresser (Levin was wearing a pin-stripped suit and his companion was dressed in more or less “corporate” attire). The deal was struck. (Incidentally also in 1984, Levin was struck in the face by a bottle thrown at him from a passing car at the corner of 65th and Detroit – just outside what was a RiteAid drugstore and is now the swanky Gypsy Beans and Baking Company. He showed me his gold tooth as he told this story. As I recall, there wasn’t much to call swanky in this area in the early 1980s.)


Jim signed a ten-year lease for the space. For the first 5 years, the space cost $145/month, and later the rent went up by about $20/month. But that wasn’t all Levin put into the building. There was a new roof to keep the rain out, plenty of repair on water damage already done and a boiler so that performers and audiences could have their water hot. There was heating (AC was out of the question, so we sweated along with him during the summer productions) and better electrical access for the stage lights. There were stage lights and seats and a bar and a box office (does anyone remember “Box Office Bob”?). In 1994, when the lease was up, Santa announced that he was ready to sell the building. Whereas Levin could have purchased the building at the time of his original lease for about $60,000, with all the improvements he had made to the space, its value had inflated to $160,000. Still, he agreed and paid $60,000 in cash and financed the $100,000 mortgage as a loan with the City of Cleveland (the Campbell administration later forgave the $100,000 loan). CPT owns the space.


Productions at CPT continued to grow and education programs, annual vaudeville productions, collaborations with local dance companies and the Performance Art Festival brought ever larger crowds to the Westside to see what all the fuss was about. Anyone who needed to show their fearlessness, their pioneering spirit and their cutting edge taste would venture to the corner of 65th and Detroit and hope that their car would be there (intact) when the production was over. The really courageous (or were we just artists?) visited the City Grille across the street, or if it was very late, ventured east on Detroit to greet the morning over breakfast at the “Big Egg”.


In 1995, Levin purchased the Gordon Square Theatre (just next door to the upstairs Irish Dance Hall that he had finally sort of secured). The space was filled floor to ceiling with mattresses and box springs and other junk leftover from the previous owner’s White Elephant business. The Gordon Square Theatre is Cleveland’s oldest theatre, built in 1912, and its boards had supported Bob Hope, but by the time Levin made the purchase it resembled a white elephant. The deal looked like this - $15,000 in cash, $30,000 in legal services and a 2-3 year mortgage of $25,000.


All along Levin had managed to get money in small sums from local foundations and the Ohio Arts Council for his theater programming, but as he put it, he could never quite break into the “inner circle”. Someone had mentioned to him that the State of Ohio gave Biennial Capital grants, but you had to lobby for them. So beginning in 1992, he began to lobby for funds for the Theatre (soon to be a theatre complex). He managed to get funds from the state, sometimes up to $150,000 at a crack. Then someone told him that he might get a better result if he lobbied for an arts district. He invited Stephanie Morrison-Hrbek of the Near West Theatre, Susan Channing of SPACES (which had moved from the Warehouse District to the Superior Viaduct) and Sheryl Hoffman (who had launched ArtHouse in the Archwood Denison neighborhood) to go in with him as part of the district – he called it the “Westside Arts Consortium”. Again he traveled to Columbus to gather funds for the arts on Cleveland’s Westside. Though it sounded good to legislators from other regions of the state, local legislators recognized that these neighborhoods were not geographically contiguous – at all. Securing state funding for the Consortium proved to be more rather than less difficult. Realizing that his efforts on behalf of the other organizations were not feeding his own neighborhood family, Levin decided that he had to uninvite these “not contiguous” neighbors.  They had enjoyed their volunteer lobbyist in Columbus, and each had gained about $50,000 from their brief affiliation with this state funding champion. (According to Levin ArtHouse still retains this unspent $50,000 chunk of state funds.)


At this point, Levin changed the name of the Westside Arts Consortium to the “Gordon Square Arts District”, making it geographically a true “district” and even paid himself a salary to direct the organization in 2004. But he still had not “broken into the inner circle” – the inner circle of funds that is.


James Levin, with his broad smile, acerbic wit, long hair,  and always just-a-bit-off-the-latest-runway-fashions attire, with his history as a criminal lawyer, a community activist, co-founder of Ohio’s Green Party, the guy who organized the “Die in” on Public Square during the first Iraq War… well, for some odd reason this guy just couldn’t get the bucks from the banks, the law firms, and the other “old money” corporations and family foundations that control what we (they?) see as development in NEO.


Then, in 2006, he did something miraculous and selfless – I think it would be very safe to say he did something else miraculous and selfless – he resigned his salaried position as director of the Gordon Square Arts District and recommended they hire his intern. His intern, it turns out, was just the ticket. She had what James did not – the tenacity and detail orientation to make lists of potential donors, build a database of their particulars and then proceed to ask them for money. Oh and one other thing – she had no history (“baggage” was the word he used) in Cleveland except that she is the sister-in-law of the director of the George Gund Foundation, David Abbott.


Now what began as a deal between a dubious landlord who resembled Santa and a Shaker Heights leftist with big dreams has become the anchor in a “Neighborhood of Choice”, with an infusion of powerbrokers on board and a $24 million budget.


Oddly James Levin’s name is nowhere to be found on the history of the Gordon Square Arts District webpage. His work has been documented at CPT’s website in a recap of the Theatre’s history.


At Gordon Square Arts District’s groundbreaking for the renovation of the Capitol Theatre – the one that first brought him to the neighborhood – the one he passed up, James Levin was in the crowd. He said it was a little odd. Cleveland City Councilman, Jay Westbrook and one of Councilman Joe Cimperman’s aides asked him why he was not onstage, and he could only shrug and say, “It’s a small stage”.


Jim is not bitter, or sad. He is just a little bewildered. He has moved on to launch and maintain the Ingenuity Festival. But I think it is good to remember these “artist as urban pioneer” stories. Perhaps one day we will realize that James Levin has taken neighborhood development to the regional level.


In 2007, he was awarded the Governors Award for Community Development in the Arts. (2007 Governor’s Awards for the Arts in Ohio - short video – wmv file). As he collected the award, after telling the story about how he had asked if there was cash involved, he said, “Nothing erases the hopelessness of poverty quicker than the arts. Let’s send out an army of artists to minister to the despair of the impoverished and create a new frontier of creativity.”


James Levin, the visionary, radical, pioneer, criminal lawyer, husband, father, serial entrepreneur, outspoken, tireless, bewildered, (and still a) developer is someone who understands the wallop of good the arts can bring to an individual, a neighborhood, a dying city. He’s not invested in happiness – he says this is not something to expect. “Just keep working and notice the irregular moments of joy”, was how he put it. And then we walked down the street, so he could offer legal advice to his longtime collaborator, architect David Ellison, who is developing a new center of commerce at Lorain Avenue and W41st Street… it’s ongoing for Mr. Levin.


So we ask ourselves if artists can contribute. “What”, we ask, “can they contribute to the vitality of a dying city?” Rust Belt to Artist Belt? Well, duh… If you want to know how it’s done ask James Levin. He has even more stories to tell.

James Levin with Brew Crew at Carnegie Hall 2.JPG289.63 KB

bravo! encore!

nice work--encore, une fois

more on artist as developer

Jim is not good at archiving and others have managed to uninvite him or name his space the James Levin Theatre to sort of emeritus him (acknowledge him while letting go of his “baggage”), I hope that we can collect more stories here and begin by listing some media opportunities that tell the story – maybe this is a beginning for the Wikipedia entry.


Cleveland Public Theatre in the Wikipedia This article about a specific theatre building is a stub. You can help Wikipedia by expanding it.


Now that the Theatre has been named for him Google searches often bring up events that have taken place or will take place at the theatre, so a little tenacity is required to find citations. Here are a few:

Meet The Bloggers Interview 2006 with James Levin


New, redone theatres to anchor Gordon Square Arts District December 29, 2006 Joe Guillen, Plain Dealer Reporter


Energizing Detroit-Shoreway June 24, 2007 Steven Litt, Plain Dealer Architecture Critic

(you’ll have to search here in this archive offered by

Twenty-one-year-old CPT is the theatre Cleveland looks to for innovative productions and approaches. It began as a grassroots group that engaged audiences in wild and wonderful rides, albeit some of dubious quality. By 1998, when artistic director Randy Rollison arrived from New York, CPT was employing professional actors, directors and designers. Rollison has continued to push the theatre in that direction, working to elevate the quality standards further. This past summer, founder and executive director James Levin resigned to guide a capital campaign that will enable CPT to enhance its West Side complex in a historic but struggling urban neighborhood on the way toward revitalization.


From Crain’s Cleveland Business – this nod: In addition, plans are to refurbish Cleveland Public Theatre, which has been in the neighborhood for 20 years and whose founder, James Levin, helped breathe life into the dream of a neighborhood arts district.


CWRU Magazine - Fall 2000 | Theatre on the Edge by David Budin - Portrait Of The Artist 6.02-6.09.04

Changing of the Guardians Michael Gill FreeTimes  


Side note: This past month CWRU awarded Ray Shepardson, the gentleman who saved Playhouse Square from the wrecking ball, with an honorary degree. Playhouse Square is “largest theater restoration project in the world and the second largest performing arts center in America”.

How might we recognize James Levin one day for his pioneering efforts to infuse the arts into a struggling neighborhood, city, and region? Let’s please not treat these artist pioneers in this way – as Bill Withers sang – “Just keep on using me until you use me up”.

infusion of powerbrokers

If James was not on the "small" stage, who was?

Disrupt IT

Strike party

Cool photo and a reminder of a time when it was cool to be a non-conformist.   Curious about that still unaccounted $50,000, but around here (Archwood-Denison aka Brooklyn Centre), the lies and the deception only seem to get worse and no one seems to care.