Lillian Kuri grew up seeing firsthand what it means to create a community.
Kuri’s parents — a doctor and a teacher — emigrated to the United States from Lebanon, leaving behind a large extended family. The couple’s new home was on 40 acres of land in a township called Freedom in Portage County. It was a happy place for Kuri and her two brothers, filled with all kinds of fruit trees, as well as sheep, chickens, goats and lots of dogs and cats.
But what left the biggest impression on Kuri was the constant presence of visiting family and friends.
That feeling stuck with Kuri — and began to grow as her influence and power in Cleveland did.
When she was in her early 30s and at the helm of Cleveland Public Art, Kuri led the charge to connect downtown Cleveland with Ohio City via a pedestrian and bike lane on the Detroit-Superior Bridge.
“It was about putting a stake in the ground and community and how important our streets are for people,” says Kuri, who earned her master’s of architecture in urban design from Harvard University.
Kuri joined the Cleveland Foundation in 2007 as the program director for the arts and urban design, working her way up to chief operating officer by 2021. When the foundation began the search for a site to build new headquarters, it was Kuri who proposed moving to Midtown, halfway between downtown and University Circle.
For nearly a half century, the foundation had been tucked away on the 12th floor of the Hanna Building in Playhouse Square.
The new Cleveland Foundation site, which officially opened in July, is not just an office building. Like Kuri’s childhood home, it’s a place to gather people.
Between the time ground was broken and when the building opened, Kuri, who is also chair of the Cleveland Planning Commission, was chosen as the new president and CEO of the Cleveland Foundation — and that means more ideas for how to improve the community and the city she loves.
The work in Midtown, she says, is just getting started. “In 10 years, have we made things better and made significant progress for both Hough and Central?”
Beyond Midtown, her focus is on working with local public officials to tackle big issues. “There is a real willingness to work together in a new way,” she says.
She also knows the importance of setting up the Cleveland Foundation to thrive for another 100 years. “We need to ensure the growth and strength of the foundation,” she says, “to serve this community in new ways as the world rapidly changes.”
Kuri’s life away from work revolves around her family (she has two college-aged children) and an appreciation for the beauty of the world around her.
About 15 years ago, Kuri started collecting self-portraits, mostly by Cleveland artists, and they now fill her home in Little Italy. She also loves to explore Cleveland on foot. “I take the train and get off somewhere on the Red Line,” she says. “I like to go to every neighborhood in the city of Cleveland and experience something different in each. I don’t think there’s a recognition of how unique they are.”
It’s a long way from Freedom Township, but the feeling of that gathering place has never left her.
“It was a really wonderful way to grow up,” she says.