The man, they myth, the Senyak.
Henry Senyak, the feared Tremonster with encyclopedic knowledge of codified ordinances, has recently complained to city officials about permit violations by businesses in Ohio City.
These complaints are Senyak’s M.O. He was Loren Naji’s chief antagonist in 2014, when Naji’s Studio Gallery was shut down for various violations, and he is presumed to relish his self-appointed role as the near west side’s zoning authority and moral North Star.
Now, Senyak’s at it again. This time he’s badgering the city's building and housing department (on behalf of himself and, he says, other complainants) to enforce assembly regulations at Canopy Collective, a gallery on Lorain Avenue, and Weenie A Go Go, the hot dog spot on W. 25th.
Senyak has been vilified by neighbors and the press, characterized as a hostile element in a community happily marching forward and up. Responding to an email from an assistant fire chief in the wake of a complaint earlier this month, Councilman Joe Cimperman called Senyak's latest effort a “bullying, brazen, bellicose, and bizarre attack on the neighborhood.”
The prevailing thinking on Senyak is that he’s a curmudgeon, sort of Rottweiler-ish in mien and 'tude; that he’s an asshole; that he fails to grasp the organic magic of the community vis-a-vis extemporaneous concerts and so forth; and that he’s maliciously subjecting well-intentioned entrepreneurs to the quagmires of zoning law — a subject on which the well-intentioned entrepreneurs were never even briefed. (Scene chronicled
Senyak’s obsessive cataloging and reporting of burnt-out streetlights to Cleveland Public Power back in August 2010.)
Senyak’s nom de guerre, assigned by unfriendlies on Facebook, is the Fun Burglar.
Due to his latest push, Canopy has canceled most of its programming until proper permits are obtained. Dan Ball, from the City of Cleveland, said that Canopy owner Erika Durham submitted her application for a new permit on Feb. 22, and the initial zoning review should be completed this week.
The recent dust-up started in early February. Senyak, in emails sent to upward of 27 city and state officials, as well as some media members, complained about Canopy’s live entertainment and alcohol service. “They are even charging a cover charge tonight at Canopy. $5.00 a person. I wonder what comes with $5.00? Alcoholic beverages?” In other emails, he passed along a note from a “resident” named Ricky Dobesh who complained about Canopy’s transgressions and applauded Senyak’s efforts.
(A public records search revealed no one with the name "Dobesh" living in Cleveland. Senyak conceded that Dobesh might be a made-up online persona, but vigorously denied allegations that it was he.)
Durham, for her part, has attributed the predicament to some very old laws and a lack of understanding and communication. She told Scene
at a “cash mob” event Sunday afternoon that when she got the place, she was under the impression that she had everything she needed on the permits front.
With respect to Senyak himself, she said she couldn’t direct all her frustrations at him because what he’s doing is technically legal.
“It sucks that he chooses to spend his time this way,” she said, “but our efforts should be on changing these laws.”
Durham said she intends to work with Joe Cimperman’s city council replacement to help craft new, sensible legislation for business owners like her.
Jessica Johnson, who owns Weenie A Go Go, told Scene
she was dismayed by Senyak’s complaints. She said they felt personally vindictive and that she thought Senyak might even be targeting female business owners. At any rate, she didn’t understand why he was so focused on her open mic night, the genesis of Senyak's complaint.
“It’s like he thinks music is some festering, evil thing,” she said. “I’ve been to Portland and Seattle, cool places where open mics and acoustic nights happen all the time. We’re the rock and roll capital of the world and we’re not supposed to have any music?”
Facebook: Weenie a Go Go OHC
That's a mac and cheese hot dog, folks.
Johnson moved to Cleveland in March of 2015 and opened Weenie A Go Go in January of this year. She said she saw Senyak on the Thursday after the Super Bowl, when she hosted an open mic from about 7 - 10 p.m.
The open mic was the Thursday evening before
the Super Bowl, not after, and Senyak denies that he was ever there. He said he's never been to Weenie A Go Go; when he submitted his complaint, he sent photos that he'd found on Facebook.**
“He was there with his face in the window,” she said. “A few people were reading poems. I played the guitar. Nothing was plugged in. I just don’t get it — are we supposed to go after Mariachi bands at Mexican restaurants?”
If you ask Senyak (which we did), the answer is yes, assuming the theoretical Mexican restaurant’s A2 assembly permits aren’t in order.
But Senyak rejects his portrayal as a music hater, or even as a harassing antagonist of small business owners. He was on a committee that helped modify occupancy laws for four years and said he personally insisted, in 2011, on a stipulation that would permit coffee shops and galleries to have “acoustical performances.”
“Musicians went crazy,” Senyak told Scene
by phone. “They thought I was trying to ban entertainment when it was already banned.”
Senyak admitted that the laws on the books are “outdated and arbitrary,” but that if they’re enforced at all, they ought to be enforced consistently. “When you see businesses in a neighborhood doing something that other business had to jump through a legal hoop to do, and they’re not doing it, it becomes an issue,” he said.
After all, Senyak doesn’t only target artsy establishments; he helped rid Ohio City of Envy Nightclub, recognized pretty universally as a blight on the neighborhood, in 2011.
“But then these troublesome bars have argued with the City of Cleveland that they’re being picked on,” Senyak said, “because bars in trendy areas are doing the same thing and getting away with it.”
Councilman Joe Cimperman, who will remain in office for the remainder of March while he interviews potential replacements for his council seat, scoffs at that justification.
“If there’s something that’s genuinely hurting the community or causing pain for the people who live there, you absolutely understand the need to try to stop it,” he told Scene
by phone. “But these are people who live in the community who are making it a better place.”
Cimperman said he’s not even convinced the laws need to be re-written.
“Does it make sense for us to say, ‘This is building community, no one’s dying, let it be?’” he wondered. “[Senyak] is a person with a vindictive personal agenda creating a total headache for everyone at City Hall because these complaints legitimately take people off of viable threats and concerns. I’m sure as hell not gonna sit here and let these [business owners] be viciously attacked by someone whose agenda is to point out that they’re not perfect.”
Cimperman said he has worked with Senyak for 18 years (Senyak served on the board of Tremont West Development Corporation) and that they’ve agreed and disagreed on many issues in the past. They worked together to close down bars “where young people were getting shot,” for one, but Cimperman said he’s always baffled by these occasional neighborhood blitzes — brazen, bellicose, bizarre, etc.
“You don’t need your nuclear arsenal,” Cimperman said, “every time you see something you disagree with.”