People: Jessie Mathews' passion for 'Placemaking'

Erica Thompson
Jess Mathews (center) poses for a portrait on Cherry Street.

Something has happened to West Cherry Street. The often overlooked Downtown alley, tucked between High and Front streets, is now a vibrant blue and peppered with yellow and red circles. This is the beginning stage of Columbus' first "pedestrian alley" project, which is scheduled to be completed and commemorated with a public celebration on June 9.

"The idea was to make Cherry Street memorable," said Jessie Mathews, who serves on the board of Transit Columbus. As the creator of the organization's PlaceMakes initiative, established in 2014, Mathews transforms public areas like parking spaces and low-traffic streets into communal destinations.

"We wanted to [make] it a pedestrian-preferred space, so it's a street that caters to people first and then cars," she said of the new Cherry Street. Car traffic will be kept to a minimum; one of the two blocks is completely closed, and the other is only open for 10 or so cars that access a nearby monthly parking lot.

The pedestrian alley will eventually include furniture - picnic tables and benches with decorative trees built in-constructed by Mathews and the PlaceMakes team, which includes volunteers from the community.

Mathews is also looking into partnering with Kobolt Studios to get seats for the space that resemble bright red cherries. Additionally, local librarian Bryan Loar will help create a miniature library for people to enjoy.

Mathews has secured funding from a variety of sponsors, including the Ohio Arts Council and Capital Crossroads Special Improvement District, and many helped paint the street. "I think it's really important that we have the community co-create the space," Mathews said.

The new gathering place will be open until August 4, but there is talk of making Cherry Street a permanent pedestrian public space, Mathews said.

Although this is Mathews' first pedestrian alley, she has had success with "parklets" that convert parking spaces into public spaces, including one formerly on Fourth Street, one currently in the Franklinton Arts District and the most recent on East Gay Street in front of Café Brioso.

"It's definitely [been] the talk of the last few weeks," Café Brioso Coffee Manager Michael Updegraff said of the funky wooden structure. "Everybody's really interested in what it's for … and they're excited about it."

The shop's general manager, Spencer Hackett, said the new parklet also provides extra seating. "We see people carrying their lunch out, sitting at the little bar setup," he said.

Mathews, who remembers playing in the streets as a kid on the North Side, had a unique path to "placemaking." She trained to be a professional tennis player but burned out by the time she reached college. Feeling like she didn't fit in at Ohio Wesleyan University, she moved to San Francisco to attend the Academy of Art University.

"I wanted to create music videos and CD covers," she said.

Eventually, Mathews moved back to Columbus and graduated from Columbus State Community College with a degree in nuclear medicine technology. "I wanted to continue into the world of cancer because my dad passed away from cancer [in 2002]," she said.

Changing course yet again, Mathews, an avid cyclist, became involved in bicycle advocacy, and now works as a public health policy coordinator for the Ohio Alliance of YMCAs. She has created many efforts to revitalize the city, including an annual Open Streets initiative, in which a street is closed to create an urban playground. This year's event will take place on Fourth Street on September 11.

Mathews even traveled to Copenhagen in Denmark for a workshop on "building life-sized cities," i.e. making cities more inviting to residents. "I got a taste of what real quality of life should be for everybody," she said.

Projects like the new Cherry Street makeover will help Columbus continue to "evolve as an innovative, progressive city," Mathews said, with interesting spaces like those in San Francisco, where she was first exposed to parklets.

"I don't want to go to other cities to be inspired, and I don't think people who live [in Columbus] want to, [either]," she said. "I think people want to be inspired here."

Name: Jessie Mathews

Age: 37

Day Job: Health policy coordinator for the Ohio Alliance of YMCAs

Hometown: North Side

Current Neighborhood: Schumacher Place

Currently listening to: Local Natives

Favorite Restaurant in Columbus: The Top

Favorite Movie: "Casablanca"

Favorite TV show: "Homeland"

What's your favorite patio hangout? My porch.