What the Raid on Loren Naji's Studio Gallery Means for Cleveland

"Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy."

That's a startlingly relevant quote from H.L Mencken, who would be such a great addition to the local media landscape here in Cleveland. Yes, even as a rotting bag of carbon six feet deep in Baltimore these days, Mencken's input is a needed dose of reality against the brutes running things around here.

On May 2, state liquor agents raided Loren Naji's Studio Gallery on West 25th Street. It was a Friday night, and Naji was hosting a show featuring three local artists and a local band. There was a fine spread of beer and wine and food, as there tends to be at these sorts of things, to be given out freely to guests. The same scene plays out every weekend across galleries all around town but this shindig was singled out.

Cleveland police officers visited the gallery at the start of the reception and requested that Naji not accept tips for the alcohol. He said that he would only be accepting tips for the band, Yosemight, playing throughout the show. The officers then left. (The Cleveland Division of Police declined comment to the local press.)

In short order, plainclothes state liquor agents arrived and shut the whole event down. According to those at the party, the agents (all wearing matching black sweatshirts as to appear most mighty and dad-like) were insisting that it is illegal for galleries to give away alcohol. They herded everyone out of the gallery, some 150 people in total, refusing to answer questions and attempting to stop all attempts at recording their activities. More than $600 in alcohol was confiscated, along with the tin can of tips totalling some $53.

Naji, meeting with Scene in his gallery earlier this week, was still grasping for an explanation. He's owned his building for 11 years and helped anchor both development along West 25 Street and the city's burgeoning arts community as a whole. He remained cooperative during the raid, agents say, but he's still wondering: What the hell?

All lines of conversation lead to a "retired contractor" named Henry Senyak. He lives in Tremont and by all accounts despises fun and loves the governmental permitting process. He's a civic building code junkie, which is just about the worst kind. His Facebook page is pure theater.

Back in March, Senyak personally initiated a city inspection of Naji's studio. Records show only that Naji's property was being investigated for "illegal use." The two inspectors listed on the code enforcement record were unavailable for comment earlier this week. But furthermore, Senyak admitted to The Plain Dealer's Micheal Heaton that he initiated the Friday night raid, as well, saying only that it's his love of Cleveland that drives him to get all crazy about building code violations.

One attendee of the party backed up the widely reported claims of frenzy during the raid and told Scene: "After talking to a few different people, it was evident that a man named Henry Senyak was somehow involved in this whole bust. Everyone was just ripping him apart. The party drastically died down because of the alcohol being taken and the police putting a huge negative vibe on the night." Which makes sense: partygoers love booze and hate negative vibes.

No official has really been able to articulate what Naji did wrong. The Cleveland Enforcement Office of the Ohio Investigative Unit just let the phone ring and ring when Scene called in. An F-2 permit must be secured for a nonprofit to sell alcohol on the premises for up to four days (that'll run about $160), but Naji was not selling alcohol nor is he running a nonprofit. In those cases, the state claims that event organizers must seek some sort of nonprofit sponsor.

It's easier to follow the line that Cleveland police seem to have struck out on: For-profit gallery owners host shows and offer complimentary drinks. That's fine. Those sorts of events have catalyzed neighborhood growth from Tremont and Ohio City to forthcoming boons in Collinwood and Slavic Village. After Friday's raid and the ensuing silence from local leaders, it's unclear if Cleveland understands that.

At best, what the raid signifies to Cleveland is more of the god-forsaken same. Cleveland is a city that thinks it enjoys a cultured lifestyle, a creative tip of the hat toward the weirdness of America. And some in this city really do bleed artistic hope for the betterment of all. Naji is one of them, and there are many, many others. But Cleveland is a city helmed by puritanical elbow-rubbing poo-pooers.

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