20th annual Waterloo Arts Fest to bring music, art, food in vibrant street fair

Patrons at the 2019 Waterloo Arts Fest. (Photo courtesy Waterloo Arts Fest)

Amy Callahan, executive director of Waterloo Arts, says the Waterloo Arts Fest in Cleveland’s North Collinwood neighborhood is not only about showcasing the area’s art, music, food and shops, but also what it can become. 

The festival, which takes place on Saturday, Sept. 9 from noon to 7 p.m., features 40 different bands on stages on the street; art vendors and activities; a kids’ area; and food trucks and other merchants. She said the festival, which is now in its 20th year and attracts thousands of people every September, has been designed to have the look and feel of a diverse urban street, with activities mixing in and blending with each other, giving people an urban experience. 

Unlike other festivals, she said, there’s no headliner or main stage for the festival, and that’s intentional. 

“Some of that is designed to try and make you feel how you feel when you’re on a really great urban street in a really busy city,” said Callahan. “In a lot of ways, we are an empty city, and the east side feels more like that. But for those seven hours, the idea has been, could you model what makes a great city street so people could see that and start to feel differently about the neighborhood and be inspired to make changes happen on a regular basis?”

A kids play area at the 2019 Waterloo Arts Fest. (Photo courtesy Waterloo Arts Fest)

Rooted in Collinwood

One of the things that makes Waterloo unique, she said, is that many of the business owners live in the community, so they have a vested interest in the area. The festival is an extension of the district with lots of people lending a hand. “We’re situated in a neighborhood with a lot of different people living here,” Callahan said. “Maybe we’ve kept our grassroots feel.”

There are also several new businesses on Waterloo to visit this year. In addition to mainstays like the Beachland Ballroom, the Millard Fillmore, Citizen Pie, Praxis Fiber Workshop, and Brick Ceramics, just to name a few, there are also newbies including Doinks Burger Joint, which just opened last month. The Treelawn is another newer establishment that is located in the historic Slovenian Workmen’s Home on Waterloo. Part social club, part comedy and music venue, it will be open during the festival. Other newer ventures include NEAT, which does estate sales out of its storefront on Waterloo, and Pop Life, a juice bar, yoga studio, and zero waste market. 

Although Callahan said Waterloo Arts as an organization and Waterloo Road as a street are still battling back from Covid, she finds inspiration in the resilient, dedicated people of North Collinwood that have committed themselves to this area. Starting out as a volunteer, she eventually graduated to helm the small nonprofit organization, which organizes arts programs on the street, including maintaining a storefront gallery and organizing the annual arts festival. 

“It reminded me of my mom’s stories of being in New York City and the activism going on then,” she said of being on Waterloo. “It felt like people were getting together and asking questions about what makes a good neighborhood and how do we make changes? I got sucked in and never left.”

This year’s Waterloo Arts Fest will feature 40 bands on seven stages. (Photo courtesy of Waterloo Arts Fest)

Music, food, art, and more

The festival includes 40 local music acts on seven smaller-sized stages dispersed throughout the district. (See the whole schedule at www.waterlooartsfest.org) The stages are positioned low to the ground in an effort to erase the separation between performer and audience, Callahan said. Although the area is known for rock music – “If Cleveland is the home of ‘rock and roll’, then Waterloo is the basement rec room where we turn the music up,” goes one tagline – many genres will be featured during the festival. “Then they’ll be standing together and you start to have the sense that this is an interesting place with a lot of people,” Callahan said. “And that’s what makes a great city.” 

The festival will also feature art vendors and activities for all ages, including make-and-take crafts and other interactive art projects. For the kid’s area, there will be a natural “playscape” playground which will allow children to imagine and create their own worlds. For example, kids will be able to use sketch pads to create their own still lifes and build with Legos. Praxis Fiber Workshop will even bring a loom onto the street to show people how to weave. The point of all this is to “expose people to different mediums and different professionals,” said Callahan. 

Visitors can expect a range of food vendors and food trucks interspersed throughout the festival. Although there may be a small food court this year, in the past, Callahan said she has resisted separating out vendors by category. She prefers to mix together the art, food, and community booths so they feel like storefronts. Street performers will be on hand to entertain people as well as to encourage them to explore all of the different businesses in the diverse Waterloo district. 

One of those businesses that has brought new energy to Waterloo over the past 20-plus years is The Beachland Ballroom and Tavern. This year, they will have a stage in their parking lot, along with a beer garden sponsored by Tito’s and Miller. The tavern will feature a special festival menu and will be open for people to sit down and relax between activities. The ballroom will be turned into a ‘green room’ for the bands playing the festival, along with a supervised area to drop off their equipment so they can just enjoy the festival without worry. The sponsorships they obtained will provide beverages to all the musicians on all seven stages. The Beachland is going to keep their stage open until dusk following the end of the festival while everyone cleans up.

Cindy Barber, owner and founder of the Beachland, has been in the Waterloo district since the beginning. “The first festival was very small and it was just in the Beachland parking lot,” she said. “It wasn’t very kid or family-friendly, and only about 50 people attended. Now we highlight the whole street and added features, such as nonprofits, the co-op Brick, and art galleries. Now it all ties together.” 

The festival will also showcase Waterloo Arts’ new green roof and green wall. The adjacent alleyway will be used for “Dally in D’Alley,” featuring seating, live acoustic music, games, and kids’ books. In addition, the current exhibit at the Waterloo Arts gallery, “Mobile Home,” will also be open. The show was created by local artists Krista Tomorowitz and Tim Callaghan, who wanted to do an exhibit focused on the closing of the Euclid Beach Mobile Home Park in Collinwood, which has been there since the 1970s. The Western Reserve Land Conservancy is planning to close the mobile home park in August 2024 and help relocate residents so that it can become part of the Euclid Beach lakefront metropark. 

“When Krista and Tim presented this to me at first … Tim put it this way: ‘I think of artists as bearing witness, and this is an important space in our neighborhood that we’ve always been fascinated with, and so that’s how we want to invite artists to participate,’” said Callahan. Organizations such as the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless and the Euclid Beach Mobile Home Tenants have been organizing to try to prevent WRLC from closing the mobile home park and also to advocate for just compensation for residents who have to relocate. 

Callahan wanted to do the exhibit so that it would be open during the 20th anniversary of the festival. She wondered, “When things start to change, how do they change? I don’t think art is responsible for the injustices or the ways in which people are not included. But I do think we have to be conscious of neighborhoods and how we affect them. I really feel that art has the ability to play a role in activism. You can create an emotional connection to something through art.” 

The 20th Annual Waterloo Arts Fest takes place in the Waterloo Arts and Entertainment District on Waterloo Rd. between Calcutta Ave. and East 161st Street on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023, from noon to 7:00 p.m. The street will be closed during that time, and visitors are directed to park on adjacent side streets. More information can be found here. 

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