Founded in 1845, Cleveland’s National City Bank lasted through the Great Depression, two world wars, the Civil Rights Movement and the uprisings it brought after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, oil embargoes, and the dot-com boom and bust. It was the housing crisis that finally did the institution in and it was acquired by PNC Bank in 2008. Although the acquisition led to layoffs by the thousands, PNC wanted to do something to add value to the Cleveland’s Fairfax community where the National City was a neighborhood institution. In that vein, PNC launched PNC Fairfax Connection in 2012, a member-based community hub that saw over 16,000 visitors last year across their programming that ranges from financial and technological literacy to college preparedness classes.
“National City Bank was a 100-plus-year-old staple in the community,” says Brian Williams, the executive director of PNC Fairfax Connection. PNC tasked themselves with coming up with “something that would change the relationship between the bank and the city,” Williams adds, and they settled on the idea of a resource center that would be a bridge between Fairfax residents and the growing number of corporations and organizations around the neighborhood, like the Cleveland Clinic.
Today, the center, a former dry cleaners, offers everything from literacy programs and book clubs in conjunction with the Cleveland Public Library to professional development — all without ever marketing PNC banking services to its members.
A central element of PNC Fairfax Connection’s success has been its accessibility. The only thing required to become a member is filling out a short informational “application” that offers a rundown of how things work at the organization and asks only for basic contact information. Once signed up, members have free access to the space, public computers, and the space’s community.
PNC turns to the community it serves to direct its offerings. “We didn’t want to come in and dictate what we thought people needed. We did interviews and had conversations with community organizations,” Williams says. Since Williams took the helm of the organization three years ago, he’s taken to holding Breakfast with Brian, one hour-ish conversations with members “to see what needs to be tweaked and added. “If it’s feasible we want to see [community ideas] come to fruition because we want them to have the ultimate say,” he adds.
Recently, senior citizen members were reminiscing about the community’s rich art and music scene (Langston Hughes graduated from a Cleveland high school). Members were curious about what could be done to celebrate that heritage, so, through connections and partnerships, PNC Fairfax Connection hosted a music week in late January complete with classes on everything from desktop recording to music as a business. The culmination was a concert at the Fairfax recreation center headlined by local artist Frank McComb, which over 400 local residents attended.
ESI Design, a New York-based design firm, designed the space. Alexandra Alfaro, principal at ESI, was on the PNC Fairfax project and describes it as an exercise in community-focused design. “In terms of co-creating, we didn’t have the wealth of tools eight years ago that we have now, so it was many people’s first experience creating content together.” From the over 30 hours spent working with and learning from community groups, Alfaro and company heard that the space had to be inviting but also speak to the wealth of history tied to the Fairfax neighborhood.
The result was a space that Alfaro describes as a “beacon”. The space boasts large windows that give passersby a glimpse into what goes on within. “We made sure that there was evidence that it’s a lively community. Right when you enter it opens into the social area that’s warm and welcoming,” she says. “It has to feel like it’s there for you and here are things you can do.” To put the community’s history front and center, Fairfax Connection contains a large map of the community that tells the history of the community through pictures, words, and video.
Although the center is temporarily closed because of COVID-19, it’s accessibility and acceptance that has allowed it to make a difference in the neighborhood. Williams tells a story about how the Cleveland Clinic had openings for parking lot attendants. PNC Fairfax Connection worked with eight formerly incarcerated applicants that were referred to them by another community organization and helped them configure resumes and prep for interviews during the course of a few hours in order to meet the same-day deadline for applications. When all was said and done, six of the eight applicants got jobs and are still working, according to Williams.
“You never know who you’re affecting and how you’re affecting them,” he says. “Each and every day, everyone is welcome without pretense.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: We’ve corrected Alfaro’s title.
Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared National Geographic, U.S. News & World Report, Rewire.news, and more. She holds an MA in Social Design, with a specialization in intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Art from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.