Ohio gets featured a lot in political coverage as a traditional bellwether state, and it seems to be a good microcosm for the current plagues of the US: The coronavirus is raging, the opioid crisis has cut deep, racism is rampant, and many industries have disappeared overseas, all of which paints a pretty bleak picture of the state from the outside.
However, like most places, Rust Belt cities tend to be fascinating, vibrant locations to live, that are not captured fully by headlines. Cleveland is no exception. The city's library commissioned a photo exhibition about the Cleveland last year, which focuses on the experiences of locals and explores the depths and complexities of a community that continues to surprise even lifelong residents.
"There were certain places I didn't know existed, because growing up in Cleveland I stayed in the areas I grew up in. Cleveland is very diverse but it is also very segregated. As I photographed, I found that most people had the same experience," said Da'Shaunae Marisa, a local freelance photographer.
After discovering that many of the city’s photo archives were incomplete or had ended decades ago, Aaron Mason, the director of community engagement at the Cleveland Public Library, developed the exhibition, titled Cleveland 20/20, which includes the work of 25 photographers and seeks to capture the city in an intimate way. "2019 was our 150th anniversary, and we hadn’t really done anything before that showed the people," said Mason. "I thought that it was a great way to profile the people that have made us who we are today."
He worked with Shari Wilkins of the Cleveland Print Room to find photographers, who ranged from well-known professionals to students. Wilkins was already working with Ruddy Roye, a documentary photographer who eagerly agreed to be involved and work with some of the others. One of the few instructions given for the project was to document life in a real way and to not be exploitative. Mason said this was an easy ask. "Online media tend to favor the extreme, but when you commission photographers...who are from neighborhoods, you see a very different picture of what life is like," he said.
Marisa's work for the exhibition focused on downtown, which encompasses Case Western Reserve University, mansions built by 20th-century industrial barons on Millionaires’ Row, and the divergent neighborhoods of the East Side and the West Side, which offer an example of the long-lasting effects of redlining and gentrification.
"The East Side is still an old-school setup because not much has changed since it was founded, as opposed to the West Side, which is rapidly growing and changing," said Marisa, who grew up in the East Side and noted that local residents she spoke with say that it's a good place to raise children, while the West Side tends to lean younger and hipper.
"There is a really cool skater community (of all shades and ages) that primarily hangs out downtown and on the West Side that I didn't know existed,” Marisa said. “Discovering things like that was truly a joy."
Other participants consistently emphasized both the challenges and the diversity within the city. "If there is one thing that I could communicate to an outsider, it would be that Cleveland is a mirror into the humanity of America. The beauty and tragedy of our country are all on display here," Adam Jaenke, one of the photographers, said.
Jaenke grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland and has worked with the Photograph Collection at the library for the past six years, which is how he became involved in the exhibition. He feels that it is important to have a visual record of the city for the benefit of its current and future residents. "Cleveland is huge, but a lot of the imagery of the city that's out there doesn't quite communicate the full scope of what it's like here," he said.
The project took most of 2019 to complete; the photographers documented the city for most of the year, and the curation process began last fall. All of the photographs would become a part of the permanent collection at the library, while some images were selected for an exhibition in Brett Hall, the main library branch in a historic building downtown, in early 2020 (the show can also be seen online).
Mason said the show has received overwhelmingly positive feedback from local residents, especially younger people. Inspired by the response, the library produced a companion neighborhood writing series, which will release an anthology of stories soon.
"They're all so passionate about their city; it was really an indication to me that this is the type of thing that [the next] generation wants," he said. ●