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Climbing Up the Walls: A Rock-Climbing Couple from Tremont Wants to Bring Vertical Fun to an Ancient Church

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Niki Zmij and Chick Holtkamp climb on things — rocks, mountains, buildings, really anywhere they can find a foothold. You may have seen them scaling the walls of their Tremont residence. They now have plans to set up a rock climbing facility in the long-vacant Fifth Church of Christ Scientist on West 117th Street and Lake Avenue. Big developers have other plans. But for now, Zmij and Holtkamp are bringing rock climbing into the local public consciousness. We joined them at their spot in Tremont to talk through the details of their wishes.

Rock climbing in Cleveland: How does one get into that here?

NZ: I've been climbing now for about four years and I absolutely love it. It's totally something where, if the bug bites you, it bites you and you just want to do it all the time. I've learned a lot about climbing from Chick, and we've had a lot of climbing experiences together. We've traveled across the U.S. to climb in both indoor and outdoor locations.

CH: When I was going to college in New York state I started rock climbing. I went to college in 1972 and I've climbed ever since. I have a really long history with climbing.

And is our fine city a good place for that hobby?

CH: In climbing, lots of my friends and peers would always encourage me to live basically where they lived. If they lived in Boulder, they would want me to move to Colorado. But I always felt drawn back to Cleveland. Cleveland is just a great place to live, and we use Cleveland as a home base. We play with climbing here a lot. Climbing is very based on "play." Little kids climb trees, right? We're basically the same. We climb on our building. We climb inside our building. Any place where we see the opportunity to develop a climbing idea, we'll do that.

How does one go about selecting and then climbing buildings around town?

CH: Well, you have to have access. But we're pretty good at that and we figure out ways to do that. Part of it is just the improbability of climbing. Much of the response people have to climbing is that it's improbable to see a person climbing in that location. Whether it's halfway up El Capitan in Yosemite Valley or climbing on our building, that's something to seek out. And except for a Spider-Man movie, people just aren't likely to see that.

NZ: People end up being sort of amazed and inspired by that. One day we were climbing out there, and a guy who worked for the electric company pulled up in one of those big trucks with the little cherry-picker on it. He pulls up and he's like, "What are you guys doing?" He was so amazed, so he got on his radio and called all of his coworkers over to West 10th. All these guys were standing out there watching. It's a big, fun community event. Climbing is really community-oriented.

As you plan your own projects, are there other places in town already to get involved with climbing?

CH: There are two places here in the Cleveland area. You could go to the Cleveland Rock Gym in Euclid or you could go to Kendall Rock Gym in Peninsula. You can get started and you can meet some people there.

So aside from your building, where can Clevelanders climb?

NZ: Hinckley is a popular place — at Whipp's Ledges. You can actually get a permit to go down there and set up ropes and climb there. There are a couple places around here where people do bouldering, which is climbing up on rocks that are pretty short. But there aren't a ton of places to do outdoor climbing in the Cleveland area.

CH: That's just the nature of where we live, which is why the development of indoor facilities makes particularly good sense in Northeast Ohio.

Speaking of indoor facilities, what drew you two to the church and how has that process been going so far?

CH: What's cool about the Fifth Church is it's a location that's good because it's in a community. It's walkable and bikeable for thousands of people. Whether they're in Lakewood or Cleveland or Rocky River, you could get there on a bike with no problem. That's really nice, instead of it being located along an auto mile where everyone has to drive. Another thing that's nice about the church is that it's an incredibly beautiful landmark building. The neighborhood has been trying for 20 years to find something to productively occupy that space. They've just had so much trouble finding a potential use. As it sat there, it got run down, which makes it even harder to find a use. The climbing idea inside that space jumps over all those problems. It generates enough money to put the building back together and it leaves the space — the sanctuary space — intact as a big, open sanctuary space. Walls won't have to break it up the way they would if you were putting in apartments or offices.

NZ: We think this is a neat synergy of historic and modern, right? A lot of people really love this structure. What better way to commemorate than to create this opportunity to really engage with the building and experience it in a way that you never would have before. You can climb a wall up into the dome and experience the space that way. How cool would that be?

It's terrific that the church would still stand as it does now.

CH: And it would be restored, actually. We would embrace satisfying the requirements of the historic tax credit process. We would definitely renovate the building.

NZ: We like its beauty and its elegance. We would want the whole project to embrace that.

CH: It's a really beautiful building. If I try to make a mental list of the important buildings on the west side of Cleveland, it's hard to think of something that's more beautiful than that building. If we get to work with it, it gets restored to its original beauty. And whatever we make inside needs to be beautiful to go along with that.

What’s the timeline here? What happens next?

CH: The city is entertaining proposals for what to do with essentially that whole block along Lake Avenue. Within a month they’ll decide. Our idea is one of the things they’re considering.

If things don't go your way here, have you thought about alternative locations or plans?

CH: We're sort of gradually exploring other alternative locations. We really like the church and we would really like to see the church be there another 100 years. But if it doesn't go that way, our primary thing is really building — making indoor climbing facilities available to Cleveland. That's our primary thing. We're not interested in doing it in Chicago. We're not interested in doing it in some other location. We are Clevelanders. And we love climbing, so we want to put the two things together.

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Check out Neighbors in Action for more information about Fifth Church of Christ Scientist and this potential rock-climbing plan.

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