It is hard to believe it has been five years since we lost legendary comics writer and Cleveland icon Harvey Pekar. He may be gone, but he's certainly not forgotten — especially in his hometown. To celebrate the life and work of Pekar, the Coventry Outdoor Courtyard (at the northwest corner of Coventry Road and Euclid Heights Boulevard) will soon be renamed Harvey Pekar Park.
"For a few years now, I've been asked to endorse the installation of a big, permanent 'Harvey Pekar' billboard on a wall in my neighborhood, one with an image of 'American Splendor #1' which was 'where it all started,'" says Joyce Brabner, Pekar's widow. "I've always said no. This year, I saw an opportunity and said I would cooperate if a nearby corner was returned to its earlier, youth/arts-friendly state by removing the big blocky 'people bumper' planters that were installed to discourage assembly, and by welcoming back young people, street musicians, storytellers, chess players, etc., to a communal meeting space and encouraging artists, storytellers and comics makers."
The "park" is the corner plaza outside the Grog Shop. Brabner hopes that Pekar's legacy will help preserve the space for a long time as a resource dedicated to the local creative community.
"The corner is where (young) Harvey used to try out material on the crowd, as a sort of standup comedian who later wrote and published his stories about neighborhood life in his 'American Splendor' autobiographical comic books," she says. "The spot had been a haven for nonconformist and creative youth until overblown anxiety about flash mobs and kids hanging around without money to support local business led to curfews and what many felt was repressive rezoning and redesign."
A special dedication ceremony will take place during an all-day festival in his honor from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday. The ceremony itself takes place at 12:30 p.m. Jazz performances will follow from 1 to 3 p.m., with storytelling from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
"It'll be complete with a tiny amphitheater for future 'Harveys' and small-scale performance," says Brabner. "I've designed permanent banners of a special 'American Splendor' story (illustrated by Joseph Remnant) that can be read as you walk from lamp post to lamp post."
The event culminates with a 9 p.m. outdoor screening of Pekar's biopic, American Splendor, in Coventry P.E.A.C.E. Park. Brabner will introduce the film.
"Harvey's Coventry hangouts and interactions often became part of his stories," explains Angela Hetrick, executive director of Coventry Village Special Improvement District. "We're excited to honor him through this special dedication. The area has always been a gathering space for the creative and non-conformists to share ideas. Through this dedication, Harvey will forever be a part of our Coventry story."
Harvey Pekar passed away on July 12, 2010, at the age of 70. During those seven decades, Pekar observed Cleveland from both an insider and outsider perspective. Eventually these observations began to impact the environment and events he was commenting on. Through his use of words and imagery, Pekar's opinion became one of the most respected and influential in the city.
He moved to Coventry Village in Cleveland Heights when it was still in danger of becoming "Cleveland's first suburban slum," and when rent for a large, clean six-room apartment was $150 a month. Pekar is remembered fondly by Coventry's small business owners, including Big Fun's Steve Presser, who pegged Pekar as a pioneer of the shop local movement.
"Harvey was ... Harvey," reminisces Presser. "He saw the world through a pair of unfiltered glasses. Harvey was a friend and a neighbor in Coventry Village. Harvey was a renaissance man, yet a common man, who embraced music, the arts and politics and was not afraid to say how he felt about each. Harvey influenced a whole generation of comic and graphic novelists. I am lucky to have known him."
Local artist Gary Dumm collaborated with Pekar on "American Splendor" for years, and even designed the iconic "American Splendor" logo. Asked about the ceremony, he jokes, "I'm happy to hear about the naming in his honor, but I have the feeling that Harvey would just give a little smile and a shrug and then say 'Okay, fine, but is this gonna get me another good gig?' And/or, 'Where are the doughnuts?'"
The park dedication is the second time Pekar's hometown has honored its "anti-hero." In October 2012, a two-and-a-half-foot-tall bronze statue of Pekar was installed on the first floor of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Library on Lee Road.
In case of rain, the dedication will be postponed until Sunday.