From the west-side suburbs, my commute to University Circle in Cleveland, Ohio takes me east of downtown through a maze of construction cones. I round Dead’s Man’s Curve and follow the winding road of Martin Luther King Drive. Lined by the Cultural Gardens, the historic road commemorates the history, art and architecture of peoples from around the globe. Often, we search for this connection to community and culture elsewhere, but what I discovered this weekend was that it can be found right here in Cleveland at the Hessler Street Fair.
For just two days each year, the Hessler Street Fair provides a communal environment of local music, art and business.
The full video interview with Michelle Sokol is coming soon.
During the first day, I sported my black Vindicator tee and a fanny pack, readily equipped with my camera, pad and pen, smartphone and business cards. I was a journalist on a quest to communicate with people, driven by a curiosity to more fully understand the roots and evolution of Hessler. I learned that in the 1960’s, University Circle Inc., a non-profit community development corporation, planned to demolish the area to build student housing and parking lots for Case Western Reserve University. In response, the Hessler Neighborhood Association was formed, and the fair originated as a block party to raise money for the street’s renovation. Over the years, the party grew into a festival, and in 1975, Hessler Road attained the status of a Landmark District by the City of Cleveland. The people who began the tradition in the ‘60’s embodied the mentality of the era, in which a nuanced wave of enlightenment washed over multiple generations, particularly the young people. I like to think of myself within the historical context of previous ages of great social progress and democratization. I want to hear and tell these stories.
The Hessler Street Fair brings together a community of affection, support and unconditional love. It is a place where you can be yourself around people who accept you as you are. Hessler is open to all, but the vast majority of people bring with them a thirst for human connection and a level of consciousness about oppression and injustice. These people fully acknowledge the common struggles that we all face. The underlying principles at Hessler are peace, love and harmony. Communal spaces like this are intended to expand one’s awareness of the love that saturates life, which is available simply by coming together. In these supportive, welcoming, nonjudgmental, open and accepting environments, we inevitably nurture the development of ourselves and others. In these spaces, we coexist, codependently, sustaining one another’s happiness and thus the happiness of humanity. In these spaces, we dance, howl, drum, hula hoop, hug, play and support local arts and businesses. When one finds communities of people who thrive on each other’s love, on creating art and music together, and on supporting and uplifting one another, one finds deep satisfaction. We all need these spaces to unbound ourselves, let ourselves be free and feel connected with all of the people and energy that surround us.
On the second day, I detached myself from my phone for the entire night. I was boundless. I couldn’t be restricted by the bulky technology and its incessant buzzing. I couldn’t be on-call that night. I didn’t want to bring my obtrusive, fragile camera because I needed to dance freely in unobstructed movement. I needed to fully connect with my surroundings and to saturate myself with the love that organically flourished from the synergistic experience. I wanted only to exist in that space and to immerse myself in the vibes that everyone was talking about. Vibes, short for vibrations, are certainly more than just a feeling. Vibes entrance you. They are unseen and unheard, yet we as members of the same species all experience them on some level, and often together. It was difficult to find the middle ground between my journalistic side and my free-spirited nature that needs to express itself in as many ways as possible. This weekend, I experienced the duality of being the storyteller and the story, the photographer and the person in the photograph.
By the end of Sunday night, the bottom of my feet were completely blackened by the dirt on the brick and wooden roads of Hessler St. and Hessler Ct. I danced barefoot for hours in drum circles and to the music of Carlos Jones and the PLUS Band, which stands for peace, love, unity and respect. Carlos is a Cleveland native and community leader whose songs have conscious lyrics like “apartment living is not the way for I and I to live,” and “Now we are killing the Earth with pollution.” He closes the festival every year and even has a song called Hessler Street. The energy radiating from the crowd in that cul-de-sac was palpable. Several hundreds of people gathered on that brick road, on rooftops and on porches to be a part of the euphoric and synergistic experience.
After the show, when most of the crowd dissipated, Carlos and George, a 75-year-old tambourine player from Jamaica, were standing on the stage. I’d met them a month or so ago at their show in Mentor, and they recognized me. A few friends and I walked up to speak with them. I thanked Carlos for providing such positive energy that conjoined the mass of us, and he replied, “I don’t create the energy. I just channel it.” I think he meant that we all contribute a piece of ourselves to create the experiences we share, and that music is the catalyst for that synergy.
This weekend I experienced a paradigm shift and an altered perspective. The Hessler Street Fair granted me the sweet freedom to explore my many shades. I am -as human beings are by nature- dynamic, diverse and complex. I do, as we all do, have the need for compassion, empathy and expression. Attending festivals like Hessler with like-minded individuals deeply satisfies those needs. My experience at Hessler truly heightened my awareness to the numerous gradients of myself: a journaLizt, a dancer, a communicator, an artist, a musician, a lover and a storyteller. We must not define ourselves solely by our job titles. We cannot simplify our complexities. Instead, we must find these spaces that allow for the introspection and expression necessary to find and nourish ourselves. The people of Hessler have grown together throughout the decades and continue to do so, witnessing the maturation and evolution of one another and the festival.
Love is the feeling of walking down the street, surrounded by people who care about you and who want to be around you. Love is knowing that you have a community of people at the same time in the same place every year who will uplift you, let you unwind and feel the vibes.
For more information about the fair, visit http://hesslerstreetfair.org/.
Check back to thevindi.com all summer long for more Cleveland summer arts and culture coverage!