Pop Ups Bring Surprises to Cities’ Vacant Spaces

Leap Night
For more photos of Leap Night and other Pop Up City events, visit their Facebook page.

All across our region–and the country–cities are pockmarked with empty buildings and vacant lots. Some see this as a sign of blight and economic collapse. But others spot opportunity. Rather than wait for big, long-range answers, they are taking these spaces into their own hands and coming up with temporary ideas that could pay off down the road.


About three years ago, people came to Cleveland from all over the world for an exhibition about shrinking cities. Cleveland was a good example of what they were there to study.

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It has lost half its population since its peak in the 1920s and it has 35,000 vacant properties.

“People were really depressed by the exhibition,” said Schwarz.

Terry Schwarz was among those at the conference. She directs an urban design center in Cleveland that is run by Kent State University. Amid the doom and gloom, she got the idea for Pop Up City.

Pop Ups are literally popping up all across the country — and even in London. They’re temporary sites for restaurants, shops, and entertainment. They’re there for a bit and then they’re gone.

The idea is simple: try to draw a crowd.

“Our earliest pop ups were about trying to find a site that was ripe for development or on the verge of being developed and seeing if we could create some excitement,” Schwarz said. They were “almost a kind of low-key, subversive marketing plan.”

Schwarz’s team took an empty store front on Cleveland’s East Fourth Street, which has become an emerging restaurant district. They set up the Bizarre Bazaar: a temporary shop full of holiday crafts from local artists.

Then, the Pop-Ups got bigger. Schwarz and her team created a one-night only extravaganza on the East Bank of the Cuyahoga River.

“We had snowboarding. We had a little forest. We couldn’t afford actual landscaping so we used dead Christmas trees which worked pretty good. There were video games projected against a building,” she said.

It was February 29, so they called it Leap Night. The weather was terrible: snow, wind, hail.

“Virtually every kind of strange weather happened in succession,” she said. “But people came anyway.”

The experience taught her that people want serendipity and surprise. And she figured out how to cut through red tape. For instance, she learned how to get a bonfire permit from the city of Cleveland.

“If you need advice, just call me. I know how to do it now,” she joked.

Other cities are following Schwarz’s lead. Washington, DC has actually gained population in recent years. But development there has had stops and starts. Not every neighborhood has benefited. Rebecca Moudry is a business and economic development specialist in Washington.

“They’re not so dissimilar from what I’ve seen in Cleveland,” Moudry said. “You have an area where maybe there used to be a building but now it’s a vacant lot or it’s an old, dilapidated building.”

Moudry and a team from the DC mayor’s office have spent the last year experimenting. They call what they’re doing Temporary Urbanism.

And, as in Cleveland, they started small. For about a month, they turned a closed-library into a shop for local designers to sell their wares.

They called it the Temporium. Moudry hopes people are seeing another side to

“DC is known as a federal town,” she said. “It doesn’t get a lot of play for the really cool neighborhoods and the projects going on.”

Pop Ups come with risks and problems. In Cleveland, Schwarz found dead rats, dead fish, and faulty wiring. And, the organizers have to work with property owners and neighbors to make sure everyone is on board.

But, when done right, these temporary projects can have long-lasting effects. It’s kind of like staging furniture in a house when it’s on the market. It helps people see what a space could look like. Schwarz says Pop-Ups can have the same effect. It’s better than just showing plans.

“It’s hard to get them to envision the future if all you’ve got to work with is paper. But if you can do a temporary event that takes the ideas for the transformation of the neighborhood, and makes them real–air quotes, you can’t see those on the radio–but realish in the neighborhood, they can respond to it,” Schwarz said.

And maybe these pop-ups can lead to something permanent.