An employee hired by mortgage companies to protect foreclosed homes around the country told me that Cleveland was on the fast track to becoming a Detroit. After my first three-day trip to the city I felt certain he was right. It is a city spiraling into an economic nightmare. I'd seen so many boarded up homes that I could not imagine how it would pull out from the tailspin without national funding. It was too big for the city to save and too big for the state. So I returned for a second three-day trip to take a closer look.
At dawn I entered the car of detective Robert Kole, an eviction policeman for the Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Department. He packed a sidearm and a shotgun in the trunk for protection. But I was surprised when he told me he traveled alone. I was certain he would need a backup for something so intense as an eviction. But no, he was one of three officers overseeing the dozens of daily foreclosures in the area. As we drove to the first home he told me that he had to be ready for anything. An elderly woman had cried on his shoulder the day before, sending him back to his car in tears. But the threat of violence dominated his mind. All emotions are on the surface and it is hard to tell what a person's response is going to be. At the first home the family was there moving goods out quietly but the rest of the day was spent breaking open doors and clearing the homes, room by room, at gunpoint. Many of the vacated homes were vandalized and ripped apart for the copper pipes. We'd step from a dark room to a flooded room after the owners had left the water on in a home for revenge. The detective let me work close by but I constantly had the feeling that I was in harm's way; certainly anything could happen.
At one house the door was ajar as we came up to it. We entered with extreme caution as we could see debris covering the floor, evidence that vandals were there or had been there. As the detective moved swiftly to clear the house I made the image that would later be recognized by the World Press Photo jury in Amsterdam as the Photo of the Year 2008 [http://www.worldpressphoto.org/]. Window light illuminated an empty wall in the dining room, silhouetting the detective and his weapon for a fraction of a second, giving me a clean shot as he moved into a dark room where we found evidence of weapons. Most likely these weapons were now on the streets of Cleveland. I was on edge each time we approached a home over the next day and a half I rode with him – I always wondered what emotion we would find next. Between evictions he took me to streets on which every home was closed as a result of foreclosures. I worked the streets of crack houses and boarded up complexes as he stood closely by. "Don't even think of coming here on your own," he told me as we pulled away.
Immediately after I left the detective, by noon on the second day, I meet by chance a father and his two daughters who had been evicted the day before, their belongings thrown onto the streets within a few hours, because as renters the owner never told them the property was under foreclosure. This was a frequent problem and a brutal inhuman act. After spending the night on a bus to stay warm they found their way to a Catholic Charity where they were fed, put up in a hotel for a night and then shuttled off to separate shelters. From there they had to fend for themselves, individually, breaking their only means of human support. It made me physically ill to see as I knew it was happening throughout the country.
From there I visited a family undergoing a foreclosure and the stories got worst. They spoke of certain streets in East Cleveland that were so far out of control not even the police dare enter. They referred to the area as "Mad Max" – a reference to complete anarchy. They told me that anything was possible to buy in East Cleveland: drugs, women, children ….
I then traveled to what was once America's largest mall, the Randall Park Mall. Ninety percent of the stores where closed but the mall itself remained open. I entered the long mall at what was once a food court. One or two counters remained open but the rest were shuttered and dark. The mall was an eerie cave and only a few people moved about the vast space, alone and aimless. I was addressed by a store owner. He claimed that it was a very dangerous place to be. Most shops were frequently robbed over the past year or so. Macy's had just closed its doors; there was no business and it was too dangerous. He told me to be careful. I made six fames and hid my camera under my jacket and left.
Within a couple of hours I was back in New York. The streets were pristine and people dressed so well. It's as if I had flown halfway around the world to another culture but, in fact, I was just a few miles away from a world we were all oblivious to.
By September, much of America had become aware of something extremely dark happening down the road. One year on … the root of economic downturn that I witnessed in Cleveland last March was fermenting in nearly every neighborhood in America.