Murray Hill Galleries, a renovated school house in Cleveland’s Little Italy neighborhood, is home to multiple artists.

In Little Italy, a confluence of factors – established galleries, walkability, the rise of nearby Uptown and (of course) dining – is ushering in a new wave of art and commerce

By Kristen Mott

Cleveland’s Little Italy neighborhood has long been known as a food lover’s destination – and for good reason. Take a walk down Mayfield Road or Murray Hill Road and you’ll experience the intoxicating aromas of homemade cavatelli, pizza, tortellini and cannoli floating through the air.

But don’t let the East Side neighborhood’s cuisine distract from its other attractions.

For decades, Little Italy also has been home to a vibrant art scene. Scattered among restaurants are galleries, studios and boutiques showcasing works of art from around the world. And in the past several years, the area has experienced a resurgence as new artists and merchants flock there to make their mark.

Long-time residents

A look inside Deb Lawrence’s NOCA Gallery inside Murray Hill Galleries.

A look inside Deb Lawrence’s NOCA Gallery inside Murray Hill Galleries.

Hallmarks of Little Italy’s art scene are the places that have been there for years – places like Tricia Kaman Art Studio & Gallery, Verne Collection and Pennello Gallery.

Pennello Gallery co-owner Sue Cahn opened her space on Mayfield Road about 12 years ago and says she always knew she wanted it to be in Little Italy.

“We wanted to be in this neighborhood because it was an art community,” she says. “It really is an authentic neighborhood. The Italian community still lives in the neighborhood as well as many Case Western Reserve University students. That’s also what makes the area so interesting – the mix of the young and the old who really care about each other.”

Cahn, who has a background in social work, previously worked at the Mandel Jewish Community Center in Beachwood. While there, she helped coordinate a fine art craft show and eventually realized she wanted to open her own gallery.

Cahn co-owns Pennello Gallery with Jacquie Meyerson and Howard Koverman. Sally Hirsh, an assistant, also has played a central role.

It specializes in American, Canadian and Israeli fine art and craft. Cahn says she and Meyerson have always been very involved with Israel and artists working there.

“I have always realized that the Israeli artists are probably the finest artists in the world,” Cahn says. “I enjoy traveling to Israel. I have relatives living in Tel Aviv and friends in Jerusalem.

“Through my relatives and other artists, it’s just been so easy to establish relationships with these artists in Israel. When you meet them in person, they trust you and understand you and are willing to let you sell their art.”

New artists and shops recently have been popping up in Little Italy, says Cahn, crediting the resurgence to cooperation between artists and gallery owners – as well as the expansion of University Circle’s Uptown district and the Greater Cleveland RTA’s recently remodeled Little Italy-University Circle Rapid Station.

“Little Italy really is an authentic neighborhood,” Cahn says. “It’s not a mall or a neighborhood that had to be rejuvenated. We’re surrounded by two wonderful hospital systems, and the connection with University Circle is an enormous bonus. We all hope that more and more artists will come to Little Italy and open their galleries or studios here.”

New wave of merchants

Rising Star Coffee Roasters is one of the relatively new businesses calling Little Italy home.

Rising Star Coffee Roasters is one of the relatively new businesses calling Little Italy home.

Cahn says there has been a “tremendous effort” to bring a more diverse collection of merchants to the neighborhood. That effort has paid off, as Urban Orchid, Rising Star Coffee Roasters (both in Ohio City) and Blazing Saddle Cycle (in the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood) have recently opened East Side locations in Little Italy.

Rising Star has flourished at its flagship location in Ohio City’s Hingetown district, so it seemed natural to open a location on the other side of town, says general manager Robert Stockham.

“We like to find places that are a little more unusual,” he says. “We don’t want to find a bright, shiny new development and put a coffee shop in there and be Starbucks. That’s never been our plan and that’s not how our company works.

“The thing that was really exciting about Little Italy is it’s very walkable. People who live there have a tendency to know each other and support each other. That’s the kind of community we like to be involved in.”

Rising Star opened at Murray Hill and Edgehill roads during Columbus Day weekend in 2014. With extensive wall space, the store features rotating art shows, including work created by students at the Cleveland Institute of Art.

Although Little Italy has long had a vibrant arts scene, Stockham says the different types of merchants who have recently moved to the neighborhood excite him. He adds that several restaurants have changed management, which helps bring a different vibe to the neighborhood.

“I like that there are so many arts-based businesses and a lot of new additions to the area,” he says. “It’s always been a great arts community. Some of the restaurants have been around for years, but there are also younger people starting stuff up now. It’s always good to shake things up and bring things into a more modern age.”

Contemporary touches

When Deb Lawrence was looking to move her studio from the Tower Press building, on the outskirts of downtown Cleveland, to a more vibrant neighborhood, she was drawn to Little Italy.

“One of the prime reasons I moved to Little Italy is it’s walkable,” she says. “Little Italy is kind of this bridge between the Heights area and Uptown. We have so many people who walk down Murray Hill, stop in the gallery and poke around, get a bite to eat, and then carry on their journey.”

Inside Murray Hill Galleries – a former school house that was renovated in 1985 and features three floors of galleries, studios and shops – Lawrence owns two spaces: a studio on the lower level and NOCA Gallery (No Ordinary Contemporary Art) perched on the building’s mezzanine level.

NOCA features a curated selection of handcrafted jewelry, contemporary art, mid-century ceramics and Lawrence’s paintings. A bonus: The gallery’s Little Italy locale allows Lawrence to more easily work with students from nearby universities. Her gallery even carries jewelry created by a recent Cleveland Institute of Art graduate.

“I want to support younger artists who are just starting out,” she says. “When I moved locations, I was really excited about being close to the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland and the Cleveland Institute of Art.”

Like Cahn, Lawrence says she too has noticed a resurgence in Little Italy, as more stores and galleries continue to move to the neighborhood. She also enjoys the synergy among the artists who reside in the area, and is hopeful for the future.

“I think everyone has a very positive vision for the future of Little Italy,” she says. “We’re beginning to really see things percolate here.

“We want this area to be a destination. Whether you’re a local or from a different state or even a different country, we want one of the first places you want to visit – because it’s such an intimate, authentic, interesting place – to be Little Italy. That’s what I really hope happens.” CV

*Lead image: Murray Hill Galleries, a renovated school house in Cleveland’s Little Italy neighborhood, is home to multiple artists.