Core Values: C to C, The Commitment to Community Podcast Series from Oswald
Joyce Huang leads community development for MidTown Cleveland, which quite literally at the core, exists to unify downtown and surrounding neighborhoods, businesses, innovation districts, food, arts and culture, and so much more.
Hear from Huang on how their work takes on personal meaning for community members through balancing history, values, and a powerful vision of innovation and equitable growth for the future.
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SCHMITZ: Hi, it’s Christina and we are here today for the C to C commitment to community podcast from Oswald companies today. I’m here with Joyce Huang, and it is so great to be here, Joyce with you… virtually … but great to have you here.
HUANG: Thanks, Christina. It’s really an honor to be invited. So I’m looking forward to our conversation. Thanks.
SCHMITZ: So I came across Joyce…I had been familiar with you from different things around the community, but the first time I heard you speak was at the City Club panel event last July. I believe our CEO, Bob Klonk, joined Joyce and some other community leaders to discuss high stakes and new leaders, assessing what Cleveland needs. It was an amazing panel, and it was very timely and captivating. What struck me about you, Joyce, is the humanity of what you were sharing regarding the connections of the residents and businesses to the Cleveland neighborhood that we are going to talk about today.
So I had to hear more. I looked you up and you said yes. So thanks so much for doing this.
HUANG: Yeah. Let’s do it!
SCHMITZ: Would you mind just opening with telling us a bit about yourself and your story?
HUANG: Sure. So I’m a Cleveland transplant. I grew up in the Rochester, New York area, and I came to Cleveland after College 14 years ago. It’s kind of hard to believe that sometimes it’s been that long. And maybe some people consider me a Clevelander, although I don’t root for the Browns yet. But regardless, I came here. I worked with Case Western and Oberlin College students for the first seven years that I was here. And then I switched my career.
Because I was here in Cleveland, I became really interested in how Cleveland grew and developed as a city. Over time, I became really interested in the neighborhoods. So when I first got here, I lived in the Shaker Square neighborhood and was at a really interesting cross section of different communities. I began to become very curious about how Cleveland grew, went to school for urban planning at Cleveland State University and then came to Midtown Cleveland. That was my first job out of grad school after graduating with Master’s of Urban Planning. I’ve been here for five years and now the overseer of community development work.
SCHMITZ: That’s great. And we were talking about Midtown. For those that may not be familiar, there’s a really good chance that they’ve actually spent time, whether it was in Asiatown, visiting a business there or a special interest destination. Talk a little bit about Midtown, where it’s located and some of the main features that people today may come to have known Midtown…
HUANG: So you’re very right in that most people have actually been through Midtown, if not in Midtown. We are primarily known for some of our corridors, like Chester Avenue and Carnegie Avenue that connects downtown to the University Circle area, or generally the east side of Cleveland. And even though we have been sort of known as this passthrough, we’re really working on trying to become more of a destination and a place that people really connect with. But just in terms of the boundaries and borders of our service area, we cover the area where the interval starts just east of Cleveland State University. Then we go to east 79th street, which is just before the Cleveland Clinic. So we’re sort of sandwiched in between these large institutions, and we cover the corridors of Carnegie, Euclid, Chester and Payne Avenue.
SCHMITZ: I guess my question would be as it relates to neighborhoods and developments, what is the key area that you focus on as Vice President of Community Development?
HUANG: From my background, as an urban planner, we’re often thinking about the future of the neighborhood, the neighborhood identity, and then also very practically, how does land become used as an urban planner? So you’re thinking about the future of land use and we’ve heard a lot of news about MidTown, with the Cleveland Foundation moving their headquarters from downtown to MidTown. The Agora and the Masonic Theaters have had pretty large renovation projects. We have an emerging innovation district that we’re currently working on. But I think when it comes to this sort of land use, our philosophy is that we want to be very attentive to the history of the land and the people…
Some people might look at a vacant piece of land and just say, oh, that’s great, it’s a blank slate opportunity. But given the history of Cleveland, we know that there was a lot of history in our neighborhood and especially for our residents. It’s actually not a far memory. For example, we first really started this conversation when we had a planning meeting and some residents from the nearby Hough neighborhood came. This is the neighborhood to the north of MidTown, north of Chester, and they were all giving feedback saying, we want to see more activity that feels very neighborhood friendly.
For example, there used to be this jazz club named Leo’s Casino, and maybe some of the listeners of this podcast may even remember it. I didn’t know about it. It was this Motown club that was famous. The Supremes performed there, Otis Redding performed there, just these amazing acts that went right in our backyard. And it was just really important Black history and culture to our residents… to see it kind of erased was really challenging. It’s very painful. I think through that conversation really emerged this idea that land really isn’t a blank slate.
We want to be mindful about including everybody in our commercial development or commercial corridor… how do we make sure that there’s a sense of belonging for everybody and not just the next wave of development is here. And really the question is for whom? So we are consistently asking that question, like, who are we developing this neighborhood for? And how can we be more knitting people together rather than handling change in the neighborhood where everyone feels like they belong?
SCHMITZ: Joyce, Would you mind going even a bit deeper into how you collaborate or connect to the surrounding neighborhoods?
HUANG: In Cleveland overall, certainly we connect on the institutional level. So if there are organizations that work closely with us, whether they’re community based or more institutional, we love to work with them. But we’ve been driving to become much more grassroots, mostly because residents are eager and they’ve actually reached out to us. Many stakeholders and residents in Asiatown, for example, reached out to really get us going and some direct work in Asiatown, and then also the same with Hough. So we love to collaborate. We try to be as personal as possible.
Besides our titles and our organizations and all these things that professionalize us, I think it’s really about how am I connecting just as me as Joyce, with neighbors and friends to really build a place together that we can all sort of call and call home and be proud of? We’ve been really excited to work with several elders in the last five years of the community who have sort of upheld the culture and the history of the neighborhood, bringing forth the history and kind of reminding us and keeping us accountable to that.
But then also young people and just their fresh energy, their fresh ideas of what it would mean for them to feel like Cleveland is just like a cool place to be, especially on the East Side. So looking at more arts and culture within the neighborhood that is accessible and reflects our neighborhoods and actually getting more local artists and these young people who actually are artists themselves, like much more involved in the work that we’re doing to you. Definitely.
SCHMITZ: I don’t want to say it’s a sore subject, but it’s just the undercurrent of everything that any conversation you have today. The pandemic…it certainly has not affected everyone equally throughout these last 18, well going on almost two years here soon. What have you experienced as far as your interaction with residents, business owners, what have you learned or what have maybe even been some positive aspects that have come out of such challenges?
HUANG: Certainly the pandemic impacted us all in terms of our economics, our own personal mental health. It was very clear in our communities, specifically in Asiatown, MidTown, and Hough, that there were not opportunities for being outside safely many times. So no common spaces, no green spaces or nature. I think that on top of fears, especially in Asiatown, around anti-Asian discrimination and sort of the years around Asiatown at the time was really challenging for folks to be really honest. It was a tough time for our staff because we had just started to do community engagement, and then we suddenly couldn’t be outside or be in a room with people anymore.
So thankfully, our team is super innovative and super adaptable, and there were actually a lot of positives that came out of the pandemic. So in a situation that kind of started off a little bit. On the sad note, there were four moms in Asiatown that had lost their jobs through the pandemic. They were laid off. But like many people, they discovered these gifts of baking during the time, many people, like experimenting with baking. And they created these amazing, delicious Asian desserts that were like professional and they tasted so good. And so our community organizer, Xinyuan, had just started three weeks before the pandemic, but they were able to organize these moms who had never met each other to begin banking for the community. Community members could request a care package that included census information, voter registration information, and our staff team went out to deliver them to folks. So not only did we get to sort of give these little gifts to people, not only were the moms paid for it through a Neighborhood Connection grant, but we were able to really connect with a lot of people.
We learned where people lived. We got some phone numbers. We got people connected through online chats in a very similar situation in Hough, lots of people, even though we couldn’t meet in person anymore, we had neighbors helping their neighbors sign up for new meetings and got involved immediately through virtual meetings, which we call block parties to help everyone stay connected to all the initiatives that were going on. Sort of the silver lining is that with Zoom, you could be anywhere. And if you had other obligations, like if you were a parent like me, I’m a parent.
If you were watching your grandchildren or had to go to the grocery store for your family, or if you were just a young person who can’t travel easily with no car or didn’t want to walk, you could enter the meeting as you are without having to change your clothes without having to try to get comfortable in someone else’s space. What happened was all these residents began to connect together in a time when there was so much disconnection. That was just like a really amazing moment to see residents rallying together because they’re proud of their neighborhood and other street and to see connections happen where, like during their day to day without the pandemic, they hadn’t really known each other.
And now we see a more resilient community because of that. Wow.
SCHMITZ: Thank you so much for sharing that. That’s very inspiring. And certainly you’ve seen so much over the five years that you’ve been with the organization, so much growth and change what’s happening now, or maybe in the near future that we should know about, or that we should be following and taking note of.
HUANG: Great question. Certainly. We just completed one of our hugest projects to date, which is Cleveland wWalls. We installed 20 murals in the neighborhood from local and national artists, but it was kind of a capstone of all of our partnerships with many different arts and culture organizations that really sort of brought life to a place in the neighborhood that needed some activation. But some other things that we’re really excited about is this innovation district concept, which will be located in the same area as The Cleveland Foundation, as well as the Dunham Tavern Museum, which is about to have adopted a new master plan.
It will be sort of like a new giant park in MidTown. But I think one of the really interesting aspects of this innovation district is that we really want it to be the most racially equitable innovation district, where it’s not just an innovation economy, kind of dipping in from the outside and sort of generating a lot of wealth and activity without sort of neighborhoods in mind. But really from the beginning, what does it mean for residents for young people in the area to really participate in innovation, very broadly defined.
We think about technology as innovation, but instead, what it would look like if we redefined innovation to be a broad meaning of any solution, any creative solution to a problem, and opening the doors for more people to be able to be involved in innovation activity and then hopefully the innovation economy. So that’s stuff that we’re looking forward to, and we’re constantly working towards and driving towards, that sort of equitable growth.
SCHMITZ: That’s great. And on your website, there’s so many ways that people can get involved through programs, events, membership, general support. Certainly, we’re still under some pandemic restrictions here. What do you suggest to people to take the first step? I’m looking forward to the day that I can come meet in person and get out there. But what would you suggest for those that want to get involved?
HUANG: Great question. So certainly you can find more information on our website. We just had our annual meeting a few weeks ago, actually, and the annual meeting is really exciting. It’s more like a TED talk where we talk a little bit about the ideas that have been churning and a lot of our accomplishments. So that is something you can find on our website to learn more, much more beyond what I’ve shared today. You can also find out information about the murals. So if you wanted to go on your own mural tour and get familiar with the neighborhood, you could go to clevelandwalls.com which will lead you to our website. And then, yes, absolutely. Memberships. We are membership funded organization, and that allows us to do the work that we do in the community. So we are always looking for more partners, people who are excited about what MidTown is doing and want to be a part of the action. So those are three ways you can get involved and start to learn more.
SCHMITZ: Well, thank you so much for your time today, Joyce, spending this afternoon and sharing both what you learned, but also the vision for MidTown Cleveland can’t thank you enough and we look forward to sharing this podcast.
HUANG: Thanks, Christina, and thanks for having me as well.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and web formatting.
Introducing the C to C podcast, an oscast by Oswald production
Commitment to Community is a core value of Oswald; it’s the foundation of who we are and the purpose behind all we do. The CtoC podcast provides a platform for nonprofit partners to share their stories and discuss the critical issues facing their clients. Our goal: create a halo effect of service and support, inspiring our audiences to align with causes that speak to them and take action in their companies and communities.
Hosted by Christina Capadona-Schmitz, VP and director of marketing communications and leader for community engagement, this podcast series features in-depth interviews and highlights the good works happening throughout our communities.