A group of IBEW electricians is working on a major redevelopment project that, when finished, could end up helping a Cleveland neighborhood bring some closure to one of its most horrific chapters.
Most Clevelanders recognize the Astrup Awning Company building as the backdrop for news photos about the nearby and notorious Ariel Castro house. A group of Local 38 electricians is working on a project to transform the shuttered factory.
“We always take pride in what we do,” said Cleveland Local 38 member Steven Sinko. “We’re putting just a little extra pride into this project, because it really will have an impact on this community.”
To the casual observer, their work is part of the complete revamp of an old awning factory building in the city’s Tremont neighborhood. But most everyone in Northeast Ohio remembers how the building served as a looming backdrop in countless news stories and photos shot on the front lawn of a house nearby: the nondescript yet notorious site where three local women were discovered to have been held captive for nearly 10 years.
In 2002, 42-year-old Ariel Castro offered to give Michelle Knight, 21, a ride home. Instead, he drove her to his Seymour Avenue house and hid her away inside. A year later, he did the same thing to Amanda Berry, 17, and then to Gina DeJesus, 14, in 2004.
All three young women endured Castro’s beatings and mental abuse for years, until one day in 2013, when he briefly left them alone in the house. Berry seized the opportunity to cry out for help, managing to gain the attention of some neighbors, who helped her and the 6-year-old daughter Castro had fathered escape. After a phone call to the police, Knight and DeJesus were soon freed as well, and Castro was arrested, later pleading guilty to the kidnappings and other charges — including nearly a thousand counts of rape.
Castro also agreed as part of his plea bargain to forfeit his house; it was demolished that August and the lot has remained vacant ever since. A month later, his life-plus-1,000-years sentence barely underway, he hanged himself in his cell.
Meanwhile, the three women have worked hard to move on with their lives. DeJesus and her cousin, Sylvia Colon, founded the Cleveland Family Center for Missing Children and Adults, an organization that helps police locate kidnapping victims and comforts families dealing with the trauma of a loved one’s abduction. The nonprofit will soon move its offices into the newly remodeled factory, an 80,000-square-foot building that had served since 1911 as the manufacturing center for Astrup Awning Company.
The Astrup family closed the Cleveland operations in 2007 and sold the building to local developer Rich Foran, who brought in the Snavely Group to turn the space into the Astrup Community Arts Center.
“It has a lot of historical significance, and it got funding for historic preservation,” said Sinko, who noted that a mix of union and nonunion labor has been working on the $13 million project, including himself and 10 or so other Local 38 journeymen and apprentices who work for Ullman Electric.
“We’re installing brand new service through and through to the last cover plate,” he said. “There’s no open cable — it’s all piped — and that means a lot of great conduit work for our apprentices.”
Sinko believes his crew may not have been the first from Local 38 to have ever worked on the building. “I found an old IBEW sticker on a three-phase gearbox,” he said.
But he also thinks non-IBEW electricians may have wired the facility at various times over the years. “Services were a mess,” Sinko said, with a mix of single- and three-phase power running to and through the building.
It actually took a lot of prep work to get the building ready for its new life, Sinko said. “There was woodblock flooring everywhere used to absorb cadmium,” he said. The element is used as an awning coating to prevent corrosion, and because it can be dangerous in large quantities, Sinko said the building had to go through an abatement process similar to asbestos removal.
The Astrup project is just one part of the recent renaissance of Tremont, a traditionally Latino neighborhood that’s just west of downtown Cleveland. “A lot of young people now want to live here,” Sinko said.
Nine separate suites are ultimately planned for the Astrup buildout, including a rape crisis center, a dance studio, a theater and other arts space.
But given the “Seymour Survivors” chapter of Tremont’s history, Sinko thinks DeJesus’s missing-persons nonprofit is the part that will have the most significance for the surrounding neighborhood. “It’s her way of giving back,” he said.