The genesis of Cleveland, America! came in 2004 with a picture of the SWIFT Cleaners clock at E. 82nd and Carnegie Ave. My intention was a project that would document Cleveland as I remembered it from my childhood. As a fourth generation Clevelander, I explored Cleveland with my parents and grandparents, all the while hearing the stories and adventures of their youth. I wanted to show my son the same buildings and locations that I saw, while I whispered the stories of my childhood ghosts. Having driven Carnegie for over 45 years, the SWIFT clock was always my favorite icon of the city.
On a whim, I pulled into the parking lot and was surprised to find that a friend of mine was the current owner. While asking him to move a couple of cars that blocked a clear shot of the clock, I looked past his shoulder and saw Marie Jackson, framed among the white starched shirts that hung with military precision above and behind her. I photographed the clock, then returned inside and asked to photograph Marie. The project was born.
For the next two years, I traversed the city randomly looking for odd, interesting, and unusual Clevelanders. Some of the people in this project I knew and asked to photograph, others I met and asked to photograph, but I encountered most of the people while out and about, and asked to photograph them. My rule was that the photos had to be taken in Cuyahoga County . Knowing that I could easily do this project between my home in Shaker Heights and University Circle , I put a county map on the wall of the studio and inserted a pin at every location I had photographed, forcing myself to explore throughout the entire city.
Several months after I began the project in earnest, I called Ed Pershey at the Western Reserve Historical Society (WRHS) and asked him for a casual meeting. I explained to him what I was doing and suggested that the WRHS might have an interest in exhibiting the project when finished. Much to my surprise, half of the Society staff was waiting for my presentation; the upshot being that they would clear an entire gallery for the exhibition and exhibit it for a year. Due to the incredible response from the viewing public, the show was extended for an unprecedented almost two-year run. In an offhanded conversation, Senior VP Kermit Pike said to me:
“This is the kind of work we should be doing more often: A Cleveland show by a real Clevelander.”
I liked that. A real Clevelander