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Group turns to art to fight Bailey Avenue blight

There’s something happening on Bailey Avenue, where buildings abandoned for years are suddenly sprouting faux doors, windows, awnings – even flower boxes.

Bailey Fights Blight started last October when an army of volunteers barricaded dilapidated structures before painting them to look like thriving businesses. Organizers hope the concept that is credited for sparking reinvestment in 13 aging neighborhoods in Cincinnati, Ohio, will do the same for the struggling commercial corridor of Bailey, from Genesee Street to Winspear Avenue.

“This empowers the community to see what is possible,” said Darren Cotton, director of community development and planning for the University District Community Development Association. “It brings attention to what used to be viable businesses. Our goal is to get these buildings redeveloped.”

More than half of the 150 properties along Bailey are dilapidated, according to an inventory conducted in June 2014 by the Bailey Avenue Business Association. Some of the 78 abandoned storefronts have already been demolished by the City of Buffalo, said Ibrahim Cisse, president of the business association and owner of ABC Technology Services at 3163 Bailey.

Recently, Cisse walked down Bailey like he owned it, pointing out boarded-up storefronts, deteriorating signage and dirty and peeling paint. “No trespassing” signs vie for space with “Private Property” on many of the abandoned structures. It is just before noon and the streets are relatively quiet with little evidence of loitering, a common complaint of merchants.

“It is a business district in flux with businesses moving in and out. This building has been empty for years,” Cisse said, pointing to a two-story, mixed-use building across the avenue from his shop. “In spring we rehabbed it and, look, someone is living upstairs. There are curtains on all of the windows.”

The Bailey renewal process involves surveying buildings and then cleaning and securing broken or missing doors and windows to ensure that plywood can be installed prior to painting. The boards – which are cut to size to fit empty window and door frames – are primed before painting. Artists work in conjunction with volunteers and residents to design art for each targeted building.

Not all structures are painted to resembled buildings, said Cisse. Some structures are adorned with murals or floral scapes, but finding artists who want to volunteer their services can be a challenge, he said. Students involved in work-study programs at area colleges and universities fill the gap.

“Community development is important to us,” said Brian Emerson, vice president of enrollment management at Villa Maria College. “And since we have a fair amount of students from the Bailey neighborhood, we find different ways to collaborate.”

A group of 12 students from the color theory class designed the mural this spring, and another group of six painted and hung the mural as part of a service-learning project over the summer, said Emerson. Professor Adam Weekley supervised the project. The “Bailey Avenue” sign at Bailey and Berkshire Avenue includes the city skyline in one of its letters.

Donated signs, security cameras and lighting should be in place soon at nine businesses thanks to a local sign company, Cisse said.

One lucky business owner is awaiting a new door. Hair stylist Sheila Clency, who has owned Crowns of Glory salon since 1998, has conducted her business from at least five different locations. Her story gives an idea of the challenges faced by urban merchants in a struggling business district.

“It was raining inside my first shop on East Delavan, the roof was so bad,” said Clency, who is 56. “I moved to Bailey and Doat, but my doors were kicked in and all my equipment was stolen. At Bailey and Doris, the upstairs tenant robbed me. At another place, my insurance would not cover me unless the landlord fixed the sidewalk.”

“I came up doing hair, and I’ve had my license since ’85,” said Clency, who lives in Williamsville. “It’s a dream of mine, and I’m not going to give up on my dream. You do what you need to do.”

Cincinnati’s holistic approach to combating vacancy and abandoned buildings has painted 900 structures to date, said Claire Bryson, manager of Keep Cincinnati Beautiful Arts Program.

The program, formerly known as Future Blooms, launched in 2009 in a historic district north of downtown Cincinnati with a vacancy rate of 70 percent, said Bryson. Unlike the Bailey renewal project, Cincinnati’s project is dedicated to painting.

“We paint existing structures after we contact property owners of already barricaded buildings to obtain permission to paint,” Bryson said. “And we just paint first floors. We find it makes the largest impact for the cheapest amount of money.”

A critical element of the Cincinnati program is its ability to monitor the effect of its work.

“We track blight, litter and economic development in the areas we work in,” Bryson said. “We monitor the overall look of the neighborhoods by indexing abandoned vehicles, instances of loitering, graffiti and litter.”

As evidence of the project’s effectiveness, Bryson pointed to these statistics: crime, 18 percent decrease; blight, 24 percent decrease; litter, 26 percent decrease; economic development, 24 percent increase.

Since 1929, the Cohen family has operated United Men’s Fashion at Bailey and Midway Avenue. Founded by brothers Morris and Herman Cohen, it was passed onto Marvin and Joan Cohen. Today, grandson Robert Cohen, 61, operates the business. He attributed the store’s longevity to “simply adapting to different market conditions.”

Cohen believed Bailey’s commercial strip could benefit from doing the same.

“I think the area has personality, but a lot of the older structures in disrepair should be knocked down. A lot of them date from the late ’20s to early ’30s,” Cohen said. “Replace them with modern mixed-use buildings with retail and housing.”