It was a big night for artist and gallery owner, Loren Naji.
His studio had been gaining attention and popularity throughout Tremont as he prepared to host one of his most anticipated openings to date. Unlike past events held at his West 25th St. studio, this one was preceded by a visit from the Cleveland Police Department.
“We understand you’re having an event tonight. Mind if we look around?” one of the officers asked.
After a cursory lap through the gallery, the police noted the beers Naji had prepared in a large cooler for his guests. They left, reminding Naji that he was forbidden to sell alcohol at his studio. Naji agreed and explained that it was complimentary to patrons of legal age, but not for sale. Seemingly satisfied, the police left Naji to finish preparing—but not before one of the officers made sure to catch his eye, passing along a telling wink. Now, just over two years later, Loren Naji looks back on that night from the same studio. “At the time, I didn’t know what that meant. Later it occurred to me. They knew something was going to happen. The whole thing was a setup.”
Hours later, shortly after his event commenced, Naji could tell something was off. “It was still early, really quiet. People were holding a beer, looking at artwork on the walls. Undercover police were there, at least I thought they were undercover.” Moments later agents from State Liquor Control raided Naji’s studio, ejecting everyone while prohibiting photographs and video from being recorded. The agents quickly seized all of Naji’s alcohol and confiscated the live band’s tip money, their only revenue for the night. After a year in court, Naji was sentenced to pay a fine of $700 and lost another $600 in confiscated property.
Two weeks after the initial raid, Naji’s studio was hit again. During the alcohol-free release party for the debut of Michael Gill’s Cleveland Arts Network literary magazine, the Cleveland Fire Department paid a visit to the studio. Naji was hit with an occupancy violation which saw him have to make expensive alterations to his studio before he was permitted guests again.
Naji says the same man was responsible for both incidents. His name is Henry Senyak.
“He was definitely trying to shut me down,” Naji confirmed. “He targeted everything I do.” Senyak’s targeted persecution of Naji extends beyond the confines of his Tremont studio and any pretense of safety concerns. Senyak has repeatedly trolled Naji on social media; recently alerting the world to an unpaid speeding ticket Naji has yet to pay. When asked why Senyak has targeted him, Naji can only scratch his head and smile, “I don’t know.”
If the voodoo dolls fashioned in Senyak’s likeness following his involvement in the raid on Naji’s studio are any indication, it is easy to consider him the foil to the local arts community. Naji recalled, “He was very much mocked for what he did to my place.” Following the raids on his studio, Naji arranged a sit-down with Senyak at a local coffee shop to clear the air. Nothing was resolved, but Naji walked away feeling that Senyak was more a man feeding a personal fixation than one on a warpath. He determined that Senyak “doesn’t hate me” but was nonetheless “unemotional.”
Their stilted interaction plays as a suburban rendition of Brando and Sheen’s scene from Apocalypse Now.
Cpt. Willard: “They told me that you had gone totally insane, and that your methods were unsound.”
Col. Kurtz: “Are my methods unsound?”
Cpt. Willard: “I don’t see any methods at all, sir.”
The portrait of Senyak as something approaching a pedantic Spock-like figure, obsessed in his knowledge and pursuit of code violations, was shared by CAN Journal’s Michael Gill. Even after Senyak’s interference interrupted the release party of his publication, he finds it hard to take Senyak’s crusade personally: “[Senyak] absolutely believes in what he’s doing.” Gill speaks highly of Senyak’s previous activism that led to the repair and installation of numerous streetlights throughout the Tremont. “In that case, he got the Westside illuminated and made it much safer.” While Senyak’s current interference may fall short of malicious, the motivations behind his neighborhood activism became muddied somewhere along the lines. As Gill describes, “He has this other realm in which he will set his sights on some business and work the details of the code to interfere with what they’re doing.”
Canopy Studio owner, Erika Durham, recalled a similar encounter. While never actually visiting Canopy, Senyak did surveil Durham’s Facebook account until he found a picture of someone drinking something outside of her studio. Senyak then used Durham’s photo without her consent as an invitation to accuse her of serving alcohol at the studio, despite the picture depicting none of his allegations. Durham was initially unaware that she had been targeted until WOIO Channel 19’s Joe Pagonakis ambushed her at the doorstep to her studio. During an interview for the same news station later that night, Senyak claimed that Durham and Canopy were hosting parties and serving alcohol, both completely unfounded accusations. These unabashed and aggressive falsehoods are nothing new for Senyak’s modus operandi. Similar to his fixation with Naji’s studio, Senyak’s abusive interactions lose all pretense of civic concern when accompanied with such constant vitriol.
“Mind you, Henry has never walked into my business once,” Durham noted. “I’ve never met him face to face. He just posts stuff like that online. He’s claimed in the past that I don’t have insurance, which is not true.” He has since sought to smear Canopy Studios by comparing it to the recent Ghost Ship warehouse tragedy in Oakland that saw 36 people dead. He is also not above farming his harassment out. “His internet buddies have harassed me and my business online in the past. I’ve kept screenshots of it all. … It’s really emotionally draining and stressful to have to deal with all that stuff.”
While Durham was able to address the violations Senyak brought to the attentions of local authorities, the unwarranted hassle forced her to cancel several events in the interim and provided a costly layover. Canopy’s hiatus affected not only Durham but the multiple artists she features within her studio. “I make the space affordable for people. So if somebody has something they want to do but they don’t have the space and don’t have a lot of money, I make it affordable so they can use it. I’m giving people motivation to be creative and to produce something they enjoy producing.” Distilling Canopy to its essence, Durham remarked, “Basically it’s almost like a community center that leans heavy on the arts.”
During our conversation, Durham mentioned similar “Henry” troubles for Sean Watterson, owner of the Happy Dog. Correcting the minor violations Senyak reported snowballed into what Watterson described as an “expensive process.” Even still, he is reluctant to return fire, content to remain off of Senyak’s radar. Like Durham, Watterson’s concerns were not with having to address violations, but in the antagonistic manner with which they were raised. A manner that has become all but pattern. Watterson reflected, “It’s starts with a confrontation. It starts on the wrong foot.”
Everyone that PressureLife has spoken with attests that Senyak is every bit as proficient as he can be pernicious. During our talk, Durham went as far as considering an alternate reality Tremont, one in which someone with Senyak’s awareness and dedication worked with an already understaffed City Hall, helping Tremont’s citizens with his vast knowledge of codes and ordinances instead of harassing them into compliance.
It’s not like it hasn’t been tried.
Senyak was briefly elected President of the Tremont West Development Corporation in January of 2012 until he was forced to resign in August of that same year. While Senyak claimed in an interview with Plain Press that he was stepping down due to health reasons and the “disrespect shown [him] by a couple of [then] board members,” the fact that it came the day after several board members walked out of a meeting in protest of Senyak cannot be understated.
Local councilman, Joe Cimperman, who worked with Senyak through the Tremont West Development Corporation, has also voiced criticism. In a public letter released on Facebook after the raid on Loren Naji’s studio Cimperman said, “Loren is not only a friend but a great advocate for the neighborhood I live in and represent,” and “I will keep working for and with people like Loren to make this better.” While Senyak would later claim that he colluded with Cimperman in the raid, alleging on Facebook, “I have the saved text messages between Councilman Cimperman and myself,” Cimperman has remained publically opposed to Senyak’s antagonism. A recent interview with Cleveland Scene has him describing Senyak as “a person with a vindictive personal agenda creating a total headache for everyone at City Hall.”
When asked what Senyak’s vigilance has cost the local art scene, Naji reflected, “I had a momentum going. I was popular. Every month I had a new opening. Then all of sudden it stopped [following the raids].” While Naji allows that Senyak’s pestering may have accelerated the process, he’s mindful of the larger forces at play. He likens Tremont to New York’s Soho and Chelsea of the 1970s, which were artistic hotbeds that toppled from the weight of their own popularity. “The art galleries helped the economy. Art is what made Tremont exciting in the first place. …Then the bars, then the restaurants came. Now I guess the arts disappeared and the restaurants still exist.” Naji concluded, “Tremont will never have the same scene it used to.”
If Naji’s candid take on Tremont could be considered fatalistic, his is not the only view from the gallows. “I just couldn’t afford it any longer,” Dana Depew, former owner of the Asterisk art gallery remarked. While not personally affected, Depew is familiar with Senyak’s suffocating presence throughout Tremont. He was, however, quick to remind PressureLife that there are larger economic issues at play affecting the local art community. “It just didn’t become feasible with the rents raising. I tried keeping [Asterisk] open as long as possible because I felt obligated because I was doing something good. A lot cool stuff was happening, but I just couldn’t financially do it.”
To consider one man responsible, let alone capable, of sabotaging an art scene in addition to an entire community would be too reductive and only serve to validate petty obsessions. Art will always find a way. While Henry Senyak will remain a perennial nuisance to the very entrepreneurs and artists that are trying to revitalize his city, he’s proven an impotent stand-in to the actual problems local citizens face, like gentrification and a general lack of empathy for the artists and small businesses that carry Tremont on their backs.
Tremont’s perception as a leader in Ohio’s art scene is not by accident. Men and women like Loren Naji and Ericka Durham bear the same independent spirit and creative integrity that is the bedrock of any strong community. They do so, not in spite of people like Henry Senyak, but regardless of him. A community currently facing a crisis of identity, Tremont desperately needs to determine which of its neighbors they want shaping its future because their paths could not prove more divergent.
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Content Strategist, novelist and prolific roustabout who drinks entirely too much coffee. You can find him on Twitter @therealadamdodd