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January 21, 2017 : Cleveland SGS

Thank you to Cuyahoga Arts & Culture and Community Partnership for Arts and Culture for making 2016 a great year. Tweet ...

St. Clair’s Finest

Stories anchor our memories. They are linked to street corners, small businesses, playgrounds, and homes. Our neighborhoods are born from them and die in their absence. The artwork affixed to the front of 7206 St. Clair is a tribute one of the greatest contributors to the story of Cleveland.

Winston E. Willis, born October 21, 1939 arrived in the city of Cleveland, Ohio in 1958 by way of Detroit, Michigan. In the late 1960s the Hough and Glenville riots gave way to white disinvestment in the East 105 area of Cleveland. Willis, already having operated a handful of successful businesses, seized the opportunity and purchased a number of properties along East 105 and Euclid. Over the next decade he formed a real-estate empire that spanned from East 105 to East 55 on Euclid. In the 1980s, after years of legal disputes, Willis’ properties were eventually seized and demolished to make way for the expansion of powerful corporations.

When Willis’ story was told by news outlets it was largely one sided: he was an obstacle to progress, a troublemaker, and at worst a criminal. However, when you speak to the people of his community the story is quite different. He is described as a human dynamo, a savvy businessman, lover of the arts, and a character of great tragedy. Willis was a prophetic man who foresaw the dissolution of one the last locally owned business districts in the city. Once a source of pride for the community, East 105 and Euclid has now been erased of its colorful past.

After months of conversations with Mr. Willis, Cleveland SGS developed the concept for this project. Its intent is to remind the community that an exciting city can be had once again through local ownership of small businesses. Each of the panels on the front of the building relate directly to stories told to us by Mr. Willis about his business ventures.
Mr. Willis is a quiet man who over time opened his heart to us and shared some of the stories that made him the person he is today. These stories were the inspiration for the panels on the east side of the building. The panels are more personal in nature and may only be discernible to those with direct knowledge of his private life.

This project is meant to honor people like Mr. Willis and their stories. These are the stories of our neighborhoods, overheard in restaurants and often whispered person to person. They are the lifeblood of our city and the source of our pride. It is our opinion.