EVERY SO OFTEN, since Harvey Pekar’s death five summers ago, local officials in Harvey’s old Ohio neighborhood would ask the great graphic novelist’s widow and comics collaborator, Joyce Brabner, about the possibility of putting up a big Pekar billboard on these Cleveland Heights streets — some dedicated signage to celebrate this favorite son. And each time, Brabner would say no.
Until this time, when she got an idea.
“It came up again this year, and they showed me where they wanted to put it,” Brabner tells me, referring to where an “American Splendor” billboard, of Harvey’s first comic-book cover, would have sat in the Coventry Village neighborhood. “This time, I told them: ‘If you want to do something that matters, move out the people-bumper [planters] and welcome people back to this nearby park.”
“This park,” at Coventry Outdoor Courtyard (where Coventry Road crosses Euclid Heights Boulevard, if you go), was where Harvey used to hang out some four decades ago, Brabner says, when the neighborhood was gritty and artsy and rents were cheap. The neighborhood was run down, she says, but it had character, largely because it had characters.
“This,” his widow says, “is where it all began.”
This was where Harvey turned rejection into literary confession. The more he was spurned, the more pages he turned.
“Harvey would hang around and try to impress the girls, but he didn’t impress girls, so he would write down his stories,” says Brabner, who some years later met him and was impressed. “He might have ended up a bon vivant if he hadn’t been rejected by the girls.”
Instead, as of Saturday, the park where Harvey could barely get a woman’s name, let alone number, is now named for him. With Brabner guiding the event over the weekend, the open space became Harvey Pekar Park with a dedication and daylong festivities, concluding with a heartfelt video from Paul Giamatti, the actor who so brilliantly portrayed Harvey in the feature film “American Splendor” (in which Hope Davis plays Brabner), and then an evening screening of the movie itself.
“It was a glorious day,” says Brabner, as old friends of Pekar’s shared memories surrounded by towering cartoon banners that reflect the neighborhood and celebrate the “seasons” of Harvey, the Cleveland street bard who died in July of 2010. Hundreds of people packed a park that now features a small amphitheater, amid a new look designed to welcome back the types of visual artists and musicians and chess players and young people who Brabner says had been discouraged away.
“There was a scrubbing-down and sterilization of the space that went overboard” in recent decades, Brabner says. “There was a bizarre curfew that was selectively enforced. It was a dead zone — they cleansed and they cleansed. But in a hip area, the mushrooms [of art] pop up anyway.”
And on Saturday, Brabner says, she was “astounded” by the turnout, as young people showed up to see Pekar Park — including two girls, one with a purple Mohawk, whom Joyce went and bought supplies for so they could create their favorite chalk drawings. And there were old pals reading his comics, some rare issues of which were selling at a flea market in this merchant area.
“It took the power of comics to restore a once-beloved public space,” graphic novelist “Derf” Backderf (“My Friend Dahmer”) tells The Post’s Comic Riffs. “That this matters only to Clevelanders, and really only to the denizens of Harvey’s [and my] neighborhood, that’s really the most fitting part.”
Indeed, Pekar and his autobiographical comics are celebrated the globe over — Brabner says she received park congratulations from the world over — and his numerous lively appearances on the “Letterman” show only elevated his celebrity. But in Cleveland, he is beloved as a hometown “antihero” turned hero — as authentic as he was loyal, as kind-hearted as he was curmudgeonly.
This park, though, isn’t ultimately about Harvey, says Brabner, noting that he already has a Cleveland library desk statue as monument to his work created right here. Rather, it’s about providing a space to cultivate the next generation of artists.
“We have a lot of little Harveys and Harvinas and Harveyettes hanging around here who need to be encouraged and welcomed,” she tells me. “It’s a safe place to be strange.”