Even before Land Studio took the lead on the redesign of Irishtown Bend, the overgrown, weed-choked plot that slopes east of West 25th Street down to the Flats was often on Greg Peckham’s mind.
“In no other city across the country will you find a 23-acre abandoned piece of land with both waterfront and skyline views,” he says. “It just doesn’t exist.”
So when he took over as executive director for the public art nonprofit in March, the challenge of redesigning the undeveloped space was irresistible. Peckham, who previously worked as the organization’s managing director, could envision the land as a user-friendly park with waterfront access and walkable paths to Gordon Square Arts District and Lake Erie.
It’s also personal. Peckham lives in Ohio City with his wife and two children. Land Studio’s West 25th Street office overlooks the sloping hill.
“We’ve been looking at it outside the back window of our office for the six years that we’ve been here,” he laughs.
In February, Land Studio, along with the Port Authority and Ohio City Inc., started the transformation of the space by acquiring 7 acres on the top of the hill from the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority. Within the year, Peckham hopes to have two of the crumbling CMHA buildings razed to create the first patch of open green space in the area.
“Our goal is to get them down as soon as we can, to show people that this is for real,” he says. “That’s when people start paying attention.”
Peckham, who started his career at University Circle Inc. before heading up Cleveland Public Art, has always been good at getting Clevelanders to notice the beauty in public spaces. “He’s never the one standing on the podium yelling,” says Mark Reigelman, an artist who has worked on many projects with Peckham, including the installation of the large, concrete flower planters along the Euclid Corridor in 2008 and the creation of the 30-by-12-foot Reading Nest at the Cleveland Public Library in 2013.
Peckham effortlessly blends between the art and civic worlds, asking the right questions to help the seemingly impossible projects, like the completion of the Lake Link Trail, get done.
In fact, those are two of the things Peckham likes best about public art: its ability to spark dialogue and to cause people to look differently at their surroundings.
Land Studio’s newest installation on Public Square called Protest, which runs through the spring, does both. A collection of colorful, oversized steel sculptures by Olalekan “LEk” Jeyifous, a Brooklyn-based artist, it depicts people engaging in forms of civic protest from handing out leaflets to yelling into megaphones. It resets the original purpose of Public Square as a place for public discourse.
“The fact that we are positioning something that’s so topical in the center of our city will get a lot of attention,” he says.
Peckham, who says he cannot even draw a circle, never expected that he’d spend his career in public art.
“When I graduated from college, I took a career placement test,” he recalls. “It suggested two career paths: One was in structural engineering and the other was floral design. I thought, Oh, my God, what am I supposed to do with this?”
But that combination of structure and creativity is what Peckham does every day.
“I make beautiful, enduring, strong places,” he says.