Upcycle St. Clair

St Clair Superior Development Corporation

Funding Received: 2013
Cleveland, OH
Funding Period: 1 year and 5 months
August 15, 2014

By Nicole McGee

So much momentum!
• In May a small team of colleagues traveled to the Sign Museum in Cincinnati to spend the day learning from their Artplace’s CoSign project. We were blown away. It’s exciting to discuss neighborhood revitalization with other design-minded urban optimists. Plus we learned so much about sign history, materials, techniques, and trends. We toured Cincinnati’s Northside neighborhood and we could barely pull ourselves away for the four hour return trip home.

• In June we began our upcyclist fellowship program. We recruited applicants with a request for proposals that explained our Upcycle St. Clair project and put a large emphasis on community engagement. Our first fellow is designing modular tables from pallet wood, a custom design with three surface levels for ‘Art Bar’ crafting. The work surfaces can accommodate adults at bar height or with a removable top, counter top height, and with a shelf that pulls out, sitting for adults, children, or anyone in a wheelchair. Each modular table seats two people working across from each other, a detail that furthers community building by encouraging conversation while crafting/creating.

• Here comes a giant size update: In July we opened Upcycle Parts Shop, our creative reuse center. Maybe it hasn't been as long in the making as we feel like it has, but considering we have been scoping the right location since last summer, we are so thrilled to finally have our shop, regular hours, and an exciting selection of reused materials to play with (and offer for sale). The work of shop-launching has involved a lot of donations (residential, industrial, commercial) and we’re grateful to our colleague in the commercial/industrial end of work at St. Clair Superior Development Corporation. He hands out a flyer we made to all local manufacturers when he meets with them, explains how we work to divert interesting non-toxic waste from the waste stream, and connects us if they have some waste we might like. “They don’t have anything for you, they recycle all their scraps” is something we’re hearing more and more, which reminds us how sustainability and smart business practices are natural bedfellows. But there are companies that can’t avoid generating excess and we’re happy to partner with them where it makes sense.

Recent Wins
One of our wins is the growing relationship we've developed with 4Walls, a neighborhood wall-covering designer. As a national company, they process a lot of vinyl wall covering and the occasional misprint, color or ink imperfection is unavoidable. Every month or two we pick up a generous pile of leftovers from them and we’ve been thrilled to use this ongoing source in new and engaging ways.
Below is a photo of a fence we beautified with the hands on help of kids at a free-to-the public community workshop in June.

Upcycle St. Clair image A (7.15.14)

The opening of Upcycle Parts Shop and the collective enthusiasm we've been getting from the community both local and regionally has been tremendous and affirming. People are excited to see the happy space we've created and are eager for the workshops we plan to start in two weeks. Media-wise, just this month we’ve had an article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, a blog post in Cleveland Magazine (with an article to following in August’s print magazine), and just this week two television interviews.

Another win that feels good is the development of youth leadership around upcycling. Beginning last fall we’ve led an ‘upcycle ambassadors’ after school club at our local high school. Meeting weekly most weeks of the school year, the club culminated with a trip to the Heidelberg Project in Detroit, which we wrote about in our last blog post. This summer we were able to hire three of our upcycle ambassadors to work at Upcycle Parts Shop. In partnership with our local Youth Opportunities Unlimited (YOU) organization, they’re in middle of a six week summer job where they’ve helped us clean, sort, organize, price, decorate, and craft. Their role in launching our shop added a tremendous burst of capacity right when we (a staff of 3 part-timers) needed it most. Right now, as we write this blog post, the three youth interns are leading an upcycling workshop with ten-year-olds in the summer camp of an elementary school in our neighborhood. (Literally, while this is being written. They asked me  to sit in the hall “since this is what you talk about all the time it would be kind of awkward for us to talk about it with you in the room”). Leadership development. We’re swelling with pride.

Upcycle St. Clair image C (7.15.14)

Lastly, we’re thrilled with brand new collaborations that are knocking on our doors from all over Cleveland’s own non-profit community. Organizational leadership is seeing the value of what we bring from an art perspective and team building opportunities. Currently we have on the shop calendars: workshops in parks (we call this travelcraft), a welcome event for high school exchange students to meet their host families, a nametag decorating station at a conference on the intersection of medical and arts sectors, and an upcycled centerpiece-making workshop with the City of Cleveland’s Department of Sustainability.

We’ve learned that deconstructing pallets to turn them into usable wood takes triple the time that actually building with it does. We’ve learned that when time is limited, merchandising a shop to look awesome is more important than putting prices on everything (well, this isn’t ideal and wasn’t the plan, but at our Opening brand new customers were surprisingly patient as we realized we forgot to put a price on that. And that. And this thing-a-ma-bob).

We also have really appreciated leaning from the best practices of other creative reuse centers. It was nothing short of completely perfect to ask our friends at The Scrap Exchange in Durham NC, (where our project manager attended a 3 day boot camp for creative reuse start-ups last summer), for their price lists so we could figure out how to price wine corks, wood scraps, plastic end caps from giant printing rolls, and so so much more. When you’re dancing at the intersection of sustainability, creativity, and community, the key component is accessibility and our prices reflect that. A child can come in with $.50 and pulling from our penny jar to cover tax, they might leave with new paint brushes, fabric patches, a small vinyl scrap roll, two beads hand-picked from bead dishes, or their initials in plastic letters donated from a hardware store. Our best sellers have been wood scraps from our friends at A Piece of Cleveland, a neighboring company that reclaims good wood from an era when it was used in construction throughout the rustbelt region. Their scraps are beautiful and small enough for an artist or woodworking hobbyist to dig their teeth into. Rare purple heart wood scraps have been especially popular and at $4 a pound, it’s accessible too.

We recently attended a workshop on social enterprise incubation called SEA Change. We’re feeling fortunate that this collaborative effort is starting up in Cleveland exactly at the time that we need help building our business model with longevity in mind. At the workshop we heard about many of the concepts and challenges we discuss and contemplate daily. Especially insightful was a short discussion on audiences–one that helps generate revenue and one that is targeted for social impact. Sometimes these audiences overlap, but it’s useful to consider them separately and plan programming with the unique interests of both in mind. We move forward with thoughts and plans for our multiple audiences in mind…!