It’s one of those buildings whose walls you wish could talk – an old house with wide windows looking out over a brick facade sturdy as the hills and a new unpainted plywood railing around the porch and leading up a few concrete steps to the front door. The unpainted wood tips you off that something is happening here.
And, in fact, something is happening here. This historic building at 1367 E. Main St. on Columbus’ Near East Side is the home of Streetlight Guild, a new nonprofit organization devoted to creating culture that is, in the words of Streetlight Guild Founder Scott Woods, “definitively Columbus.”
“In my experience, Columbus traditionally battles with its identity versus its culture,” Woods said in a recent interview. “I really wanted to create something that would answer the culture question.”
Woods has been engaging with that question – in his words, What is Columbus culture? – for 20 years as host of the weekly Writers’ Block Poetry Night at Kafe Kerouac. In March 2017, he created and organized Holler: 31 Days of Columbus Black Art, which showcased the talents of Columbus’ African American artists at venues around the city.
And for more than a year, Woods also has been presenting performances, art exhibitions and other cultural offerings under the Streetlight Guild banner.
Streetlight Guild’s official grand opening June 22 will feature performances by the Ogún Meji Duo, consisting of drummer Dr. Mark Lomax II and saxophonist Eddie Bayard. That opening will also mark the success of Woods’ decades-long efforts to give Columbus talent, especially underrepresented voices, a home of its own.
“There are so many good artists here and creative minds here – some really world-class talent that doesn’t really have an opportunity to do much of anything,” Woods said. “It would be really cool if we kind of put the effort to not only making people aware of that … but growing that and being an incubator for future people to do that and be that. And so that’s where Streetlight Guild kind of steps in.”
“An iconic building”
Streetlight Guild wouldn’t be stepping into anything were it not for the building at 1367 E. Main St. that now serves as the organization’s home. The idea came from Glen Kizer, a Columbus attorney who, since 1995, has served as president of the Foundation for Environmental Education.
Kizer met Woods years ago, when he first attended Writers’ Block Poetry Night. Kizer became a regular, and Woods and Writers’ Block even inspired him to start writing poetry.
“I loved all the people, and it was entertaining,” Kizer said in a phone interview. “And I loved the artistic side of it. I think it was even somewhat therapeutic – you know, all the honesty. It was just a really cool experience.”
The lightbulb really went on when Kizer attended a performance at the Columbus Museum of Art during Holler: 31 Days of Columbus Black Art.
“It was packed wall to wall with people,” Kizer said. “It was mixed races. It wasn’t all white or all back or all anything. It was just everybody getting together to watch and hear this art.
“So I went up to Scott’s wife afterwards,” Kizer continued, “and said, ‘Someone needs to help him set this up so it can keep going and not end.’ And she said, ‘Well, why don’t you help him?’ And I thought, you know, why not?”
Then Kizer took his idea to Woods himself.
“He asked, what would it take for me to do that all the time?’” Woods said. “And I said, “Oh, a venue.’ And so he said, ‘OK, what if I bought you a venue and you just did it?’”
Kizer and Woods considered various available properties for six or seven months before finding and deciding on the one at 1367 E. Main St.
“Finally, we were just about to stop looking for buildings and talk about maybe building something small, and then we found the place we have now,” Woods said. “And I said, ‘Yeah, actually, that building’s familiar to me. I know that building. Let’s do that.’”
Creating ‘Columbus-centric’ Culture
Woods says he “harps on culture all of the time” because culture is necessary for a productive and functional society, and because an authentic Columbus-centric culture has, to him, seemed elusive.
“Any place naturally has some version of culture,” Woods said. “But if you can’t really put your finger on it, it begs the question, Is that an actual authentic culture to that place, to those people? And I think the answer for us is, we don’t have that, not in any discernible way. Which is not to say elements or pieces of it don’t exist, but they’re not connected and they’re not aware of themselves as Columbus-centric culture. They don’t identify or represent Columbus.”
Streetlight Guild’s mission is to be a cultural incubator, to create a place where Columbus artists and thinkers can together create what Woods calls “definitively Columbus culture.”
“To me, the challenge was to figure out what (Columbus-centric) culture is now and what it could be,” Woods said. “And so I just said, Well, I’m just going to create it, whatever that is. And I don’t put a lot of parameters on what that needs to be. To me, that’s part of the fun – is to build it and let artist and people who are creative and doing things to define that. But you need to challenge them to do it with Columbus in mind.”
Now that Streetlight Guild has an official home, Woods says he will ramp up the cultural offerings there through various types of programming at the East Main Street space. Columbus artists can watch Streetlight Guild’s website for calls to submit their work and, Woods says, they can reach out directly to him for opportunities to get their work out there.
“The goal is to make you, make you contribute,” Woods said, “not feel like you’re contributing, but to actually be contributing, to actually be building culture.”