Barney Taxel Interview, 24 July 2007

Photographer Barney Taxel discusses his role in the development of Cleveland's Midtown Corridor from a public relations perspective. He discusses the formation of Midtown Cleveland (formally Midtown Corridor Incorporated) and his role in developing a better public perception of the area, focusing on his relationship with the public relations firm, Edward Howard & Company. He also discusses the importance of development, marketing, and the appeal of the area. Other topics include personal projects, his life as a college student at Case Western Reserve University in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and his sense of the community in the area.

Participants: Taxel, Barney (interviewee) / Calder, James (interviewer)
Collection: Midtown Cleveland
Institutional Repository: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection

Interview Transcript

Barney Taxel [00:00:02] Whenever you're ready.

James Calder [00:00:03] All right, here we are. It is the 24th. I'm James Calder interviewing Barney Taxel and about the Midtown Corridor Project. So I guess-

Barney Taxel [00:00:20] Can you be heard on this recording?

James Calder [00:00:23] I should be kind of in the background.

Barney Taxel [00:00:25] Okay. Because this microphone is pointing right at my mouth.

James Calder [00:00:30] [laughs] Well, you can announce it if you want.

Barney Taxel [00:00:33] This is Barney Taxel being interviewed for the Euclid Corridor Oral History Project on July 24, 2007.

James Calder [00:00:46] Perfect. That'll work. Well, I guess the first thing to ask is just, you know, personal history, especially in Cleveland. Where did you grow up? Where did- Well, basically, where did you grow up?

Barney Taxel [00:01:03] I was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1949. I was raised in the New York area, and I came to Cleveland almost exactly 40 years ago, in September of 1967, to attend what I thought was Western Reserve University. However, when I arrived here, I was told it was Case Western Reserve University.

James Calder [00:01:29] And so you came here for school?

Barney Taxel [00:01:31] I came here to go to college to study architecture.

James Calder [00:01:34] Okay. Can you describe early experiences then with either school or just how the city was at the time?

Barney Taxel [00:01:43] Well, since I was involved in the architecture program at Case Western Reserve University, we did have an involvement and presence in the city of Cleveland from a design and urban planning point of view. So we were encouraged to see more than University Circle right from the get go. Frankly, Cleveland, the impression of Cleveland at the time was a rather gloomy one. Not only was the weather cloudy, but the atmosphere of downtown, even at that time, had begun to become rather slow, I guess you could say. Things were- Things were starting to slow down. Terminal tower was, and Union Station under the Terminal Tower was like a ghost town. Stores were starting to close on Euclid Avenue and so on and so forth. So the impressions were not wonderful, I guess you could say, especially coming from living in New York City. Growing up in New York City. On the other hand, my focus was not really on Cleveland at that time. It was learning to become a designer and architect.

James Calder [00:03:26] Okay. You talked about how you encouraged to see more than just University Circle at school. Was there a focus, you know, at Case School of Architecture, about sort of urban redevelopment, or did it sort of reflect what was going on with the city at the time, especially sort of the negative things that were happening?

Barney Taxel [00:03:53] There was some. But the projects that I was involved in, in first and second and even third year studios tended to be more theoretical and not very real-world based. I did leave the architecture program after two and a half years, so if it was going to involve more with the city, I wouldn't know about that. About midway through, decided to become a fine artist, in particular a photographer. So I did migrate out of that program in the fourth and fifth years that I was there. They were, at that time, instituting an urban studies program at Case, which became an option for architecture students. And this was in the early seventies, and that was kind of a cutting-edge program at the time. There weren't too many urban studies programs in the country. Obviously, they felt a need. And so there was that response from academia to start to get involved with the city and the problems that were facing the city. This was a rough period of time after the riots. There was a lot of mending and healing that had to be done.

James Calder [00:05:35] Do you remember, were you here? You weren't here for the riots. Were you there after that, or were you here?

Barney Taxel [00:05:41] It was right at that time when I came here. That was all kind of intermixed at that time.

James Calder [00:05:47] Do you have memories of relating to that?

Barney Taxel [00:05:51] It's amazing how insulated you can be in University Circle and have the city crumbling around you and not really know what's going on. Kind of knew what was going on, but it didn't really affect life on campus.

James Calder [00:06:09] Okay, let's switch to photography. How come? What were your reasons, I guess. And where did you stay at? Did you go to CIA or stay?

Barney Taxel [00:06:23] No, actually, I stayed at Case. They have had a program called their undergraduate studies program, which was designed for, particularly for engineering and science-oriented students who found subjects they wanted to research as undergraduates that were not offered in the curricula. I was the first of several students who took that model and applied it to the fine arts in particular. Well, I had invested almost three years of undergraduate education at Case, and rather than switch institutions in order to major in photography, they accepted a proposal for a self-directed photography major, which I authored and completed in two years. So I did actually graduate with my class. However, my degree was a Bachelor of Arts and theirs were Bachelor of Architecture.

James Calder [00:07:40] So after you graduated, where did you go from there?

Barney Taxel [00:07:45] Well, I hadn't given that much thought while I was in school, as many undergraduate students, I understand, and graduate students, and I had ended up having two options. One was to move to Boston to continue studies with one of my mentors, Minor White, or stick around in Cleveland and just see what happens. It so happens that the day after I graduated, somebody, a neighbor of mine on Hessler Road, mentioned that he was leaving an entry-level job in a commercial photography studio in downtown Cleveland. And although I vaguely knew that photographers could earn a living doing commercial work, I really didn't know very much about it. So because I didn't really didn't have anything better to do, I went to interview for this job, and I actually got it, and that was my introduction to commercial photography. I worked for this firm for several months. They did let me go in the fall because they had a former employee who was returning from out of town that they wanted to hire. And I haven't had a real job since then. I've been self-employed as a photographer since the fall of 1972. And how that happened was just as a lot of small businesses happened, I just started doing what I enjoy doing. I did what today they call networking and built a career in commercial photography.

James Calder [00:10:05] How did you choose photography from sort of architecture? How did that jump sort of happen for you?

Barney Taxel [00:10:13] Well, as freshman and sophomore architecture students, we had what they call design studios, in which we were actually introduced to many media, from drawing to sculpture to graphic arts, photography, just to learn as tools in the design process. Photography happened to be one that I kind of fell for in that process and became quite intrigued with and continued, even before I decided to leave the architecture program I started pursuing photography as an interest, I guess you could say, on the side. And then I met a professional photographer who seemed like he was doing interesting things. And so just one thing led to another. It was an interesting crossroads in my life to make that choice.

James Calder [00:11:40] Commercial photography, what does that entail exactly?

Barney Taxel [00:11:51] Commercial photography is the field that creates all the images that you're exposed to in the media, whether it be editorial for news or brochures and catalogs that you get in the mail, still images on TV. Excuse me, I have to cough.

James Calder [00:12:24] Go ahead.

Barney Taxel [00:12:31] Probably more or less from the moment you wake up in the morning until you close your eyes at night, your chances are you're being exposed to some form of photography that's been commissioned or paid for, that has some kind of preconceived message built into it, as compared with what you might call fine art photography, which is supposed to be perhaps an individual's expression of themselves or of an idea, not for monetary gain or sale, although there is a big crossover of fine art photography and commercial photography when it comes to artists who find a way to earn a living selling their artwork. But usually that work is not tied to a specific product or idea or institution that's sending out a message. So that's really the dividing line, is whether the work is commissioned for a commercial purpose or not.

James Calder [00:13:58] Did you feel, which direction did you sort of feel your photography was going originally?

Barney Taxel [00:14:05] Well, I loved working in the media, so the idea that I could get paid to work in the media was intriguing to me, and still is, quite frankly, because it is a media that's, on the surface, quite tangible, but under the surface is very mysterious and revealing of all kinds of aspects of what it means to be a human being. Really, when you think about it, you have a media where you can duplicate or try to duplicate what you see with your, with your eyes, with your own mechanism in a media that's outside of yourself. It presents a lot of interesting situations, whether it's commercial or fine art, just for the fun of it.

James Calder [00:15:08] Can you talk about sort of memorable moments for you with photography, either personally or-?

Barney Taxel [00:15:20] Now that's a big question.

James Calder [00:15:22] I guess it is.

Barney Taxel [00:15:24] I have file cabinets and hard drives full of thousands of images that are memorable to me.

James Calder [00:15:34] How about some of your first projects you did?

Barney Taxel [00:15:40] It's a good question, because the first project I did in our design studio using photography was one that I remember almost every step of. And what I attempted to do was to photograph a tree using a collage technique. So I started out photographing all parts of the tree, and then in the dark room, created prints that, when assembled, became the entire tree. And I do remember, like many photographers, the first print that I made, where I exposed the negative to the paper and watched the image appear in the developing tray. I guess you could say that was a seminal moment in my photography career. [coughs] Well, it's okay. Just something I get a little throaty. Other memories could include one of the first portraits that I made of my wife, who I also met around that time of my life. And she was an experienced model in that her father was also a photographer, and she was used to posing, so to speak. So she was very patient with me as I fumbled around getting things set up just the way I wanted them to be. And it was a portrait that was made by an iron gate, which still exists at the Cleveland Botanical Gardens in the area in the ravine next to the building there, there's a little iron gate that leads up a path. You know, and I can go on and on, you know, for 40 minutes and then we'll never get to talk about Midtown.

James Calder [00:18:37] Okay. Okay, let's talk. That makes sense. Let's talk about Midtown. How did you get involved with Midtown?

Barney Taxel [00:18:51] Well, in 1976, I decided with a friend of mine to move my photography business out of my home in Cleveland Heights into a studio in or around downtown Cleveland, when we did a very thorough search for a space to open our studio in, and we finally landed in a building at East 46th Street and Prospect Avenue, which at that time was called the Cook Building. It's a five-story white stucco, or it's actually a terra cotta or glazed white tiled building. It's pretty well known as a- For people who commute from the east side up, Prospect and Carnegie Avenue because it's the only building at that intersection. And it's next to a lovely park, which is now called Colonel Young Park. And the Cook Building at that time, in 1976, was probably about three quarters empty. It did have a handful of architecture and film production studios and engineering studios. It also was the headquarters of the Youghiogheny & Ohio Coal Company, or better known as Y & O Coal, which was, I guess, majorly owned by the Osborne family. And the Osbornes owned that building, the Cook Building. They had their offices on the fifth floor. And so they were our landlords. We rented about 4,000 square feet on the fourth floor. And I believe our rent was about $300 a month at the time, which between my partner Barry Perlis and I were able to squeeze that out from the little bit of business that we did have at the time. We developed the space, got clients. We did, I think, relatively prosper. My partner decided in 1982 to go to graduate school in photography at Ohio University. So he left the business. And I've been the sole proprietor since 1982, which is also a seminal date because that's the year that Midtown Cleveland, which at that time was called Midtown Corridor, Inc., was created by the several local business giants, including Mort Mandel of Premier Industrial and Tom Ralston of the Ralston Company and Dan Sussen and Frank Porter and a few others, John Klein. My connection was with Mort Mandel in Premier Industrial because also in that year, perhaps the previous year, I'm not sure which, Premier Industrial bought the Cook Building from Y & O Coal or the Osborne family. Rumor has it, for $150,000. They had- Premier did have some offices in the building. They were renting space in the building. They apparently saw it as an opportunity to invest in rehabbing a historic structure for tax credits. They did that. They did a wonderful job with it. They spent a lot of money and upgraded the building significantly. Well, that's a sidebar, I guess, because we were talking about Midtown.

James Calder [00:24:24] That's all right. That's quite all right.

Barney Taxel [00:24:27] But it just is an example of Premier Industrial and the Mandel family's commitment to the area because the area was in relatively poor shape from many points of view. There were a number of hotels and bars on Prospect Avenue and Euclid Avenue that were attracting socially deviant behaviors. The streets were potholed and in ill repair. Things were going downhill significantly for probably about 20 or 30 years. So these people, along with starting Midtown Corridor and making personal investments in real estate redevelopment in the area, started turning things around. So anyway, my connection with Mort Mandel was that I had subsequently, with moving into this area and promoting my business, I had developed a very strong business relationship with a public relations firm by the name of Edward Howard and Company in downtown Cleveland. And Edward Howard and Company also represented Premier Industrial. I had worked on parts of a number of their annual reports, and Mort Mandel tapped Edward Howard and Company to help Midtown Corridor with its marketing and public relations efforts. And it was just very natural for them to come to me to help in that effort. There was a marketing public relations committee formed. It was originally chaired by David Leahy, who was a retired Sears Roebuck executive, was very active in the community and the city. And Dave was a person who could get things done. Very wonderful leader. And he held monthly meetings of a committee that was made up of myself and Gary Pilner from Edward Howard and Company and several other public relations and marketing professionals garnered from the community. And we began an effort to tell this story of business owners getting together, putting their money where their mouth is, and reviving a neighborhood that was definitely deteriorating.

James Calder [00:28:19] How was that from a public relations standpoint to sort of change people's opinions of this area?

Barney Taxel [00:28:30] Well, if you were even today, to go out, especially to the suburbs, go to Solon, Beachwood, Strongsville, Avon, Mentor, and randomly select a hundred people in each of those communities and ask them what their perception of Prospect Avenue is. There's a good chance that 75% of them will talk about crime and prostitution and potholes as being the highlights of a trip to the near east side of Cleveland. Now, it so happens that in the first eight years of the existence of Midtown Cleveland, which I'll call it now, because the name was changed about ten years ago to Midtown Cleveland, Prospect Avenue itself physically was transformed into a jewel of urban redevelopment, from curb to curb and vertically in terms of storefronts. The hotels and bars that attracted these activities were totally eliminated through code enforcement and other techniques. The street itself was rebuilt from ground up. The storefront improvement plans from the city were implemented with property owners. Every detail was watched, every I was dotted, every T was crossed, and still is through the design review committee of Midtown. But this, and this is a physical representation of the change, the inner and outer change, that has taken place within and around institutions and businesses that exist in this area. However, the reputation still stands strong, as it does for all of downtown Cleveland, in the suburbs, there is a huge amount of fear and trepidation amongst the masses, I guess you could say, in the surrounding areas of life in the city, which explains how the commercial areas and the suburban areas can thrive while downtown struggles to get people to shop and recreate evenings and weekends. Now, you come downtown, often there are activities, you see crowds and things like that. But what's really needed is for people to come and stay, for people who live downtown. And again, this is- It's starting to happen. And developers who are developing in the suburbs are coming to the table and putting their money and taking risks in downtown. They always have. It just obviously needs a lot more. The Euclid Corridor Project will be a big help in that regard. Changing the streetscape has a very strong effect on what individuals are willing to do with property around that streetscape. And I think Prospect Avenue is a good example of that.

James Calder [00:33:24] So Prospect's almost like a, almost like sort of a smaller version, sort of what they're trying to do with Euclid?

Barney Taxel [00:33:34] Yeah, without the public transportation component. But we've watched since that the street was rebuilt, and I believe that was finished in the late eighties, one by one, individually, all the properties are getting redeveloped. All the eyesores are being eliminated, either rehabbed or if they're historic buildings, or some of them even just rebuilt, perhaps with new skins, or torn down, whatever. But there are improvements being made all the time.

James Calder [00:34:32] Are the people moving in at this point mostly businesses, or is it also people coming to live as well?

Barney Taxel [00:34:43] It's both. It's mostly businesses, but for instance, at 36th and prospect, there is a project called the Montana, which is, I believe, about eight townhouse units that were built, and that was a landmark development. Just taking an empty corner and building eight townhouses on it was a huge risk, but apparently it's been successful.

James Calder [00:35:18] Another thing I was going to ask about too is this concept of Midtown in general. Where did that come about? Did that, I was thinking about that. Did that come out of this period? Was Midtown sort of-

Barney Taxel [00:35:36] Well, you know, I'm not real certain about the history of CDCs in Cleveland, but my understanding is that in the early seventies there weren't very many. And today there are huge number, 30 or 40 CDCs in Cleveland, community development corporations. Again, I am not totally educated about why that happened, but I understand that many of them are part of councilmen's wards, a way for them to funnel funds into the community, the discretionary funds that they have to spend in their neighborhoods. Some of them like Midtown and especially Midtown, are stakeholder-operated. And it really is actually unique about Midtown, apparently, that we cover, I think it's three different council wards. So we actually have three council people that we work with for Midtown. And how these lines were drawn, I don't know. And our annual budget is anchored by stakeholder membership fees that are paid mostly by businesses and institutions. And it always has been that way, supplemented by grants and some government funds, which usually have limited time periods for them.

James Calder [00:37:45] So the Midtown CDC is developed sort of by the businesses and the community?

Barney Taxel [00:37:51] Well, that's how it started. It started by five businesses getting together and attracting more businesses to become part of the effort, getting involved with politicians and with other community organizations to turn the situation around. And at some point, it expanded its mission to not only mend what was literally keeping businesses and individuals away from the area, turning them away, but to actually get involved in zoning and planning for the whole neighborhood. And that's really in terms of connections and one thing leading to another, one can say that Midtown's effort to rezone the area between the Innerbelt and East 79th Street was a huge, what's the right word, preamble to the Euclid Corridor Project, because now it's all connected. All the development that's going to happen around Euclid Avenue will have some plan to it, some cohesiveness. And when there's a plan for cohesiveness, it attracts more and better dollars than when there's, you know, just anybody can build anything along it. You know, you can- Somebody thinks that, well, I'll build a condominium complex here, and next door will be a used car lot or something. And no, that won't happen on Euclid Avenue now because of the zoning.

James Calder [00:40:10] Do you think that sort of debt planning is very important?

Barney Taxel [00:40:15] Oh, it's essential. Without some intention, anything can happen, but with the intention of having a quality neighborhood and having it written into the law to have a quality neighbor[hood], there will be a quality neighborhood. So Midtown is really a microcosm of everything that urban planning and social, I don't know what you'd call it, consciousness is all about. But getting back to what I was involved in and still involved in, in terms of the marketing and public relations part of it- In a way, that's kind of the fun thing about it, is the fact that there's so much resistance to it means we have a big job to do, and every little, whether it's a small business that comes in or a large business that comes in, that's interested it feels like a huge victory to have come to the point where people begin to understand that there is a real opportunity here that you can't find by moving a business to the office park in Beachwood or something.

James Calder [00:41:55] And so is that sort of how you operate, almost on a business by business basis, sort of? Or is it just trying to get the word out everywhere? Or I guess the process of sort of how you do what you do?

Barney Taxel [00:42:08] Well, we work on many levels, and of course, the volunteers on the marketing communications committee really just act as a support to the professionals who are involved in it. The staff of Midtown are all involved in marketing PR. They pull off events year round that we help conceive and try to help run, but they're the full time professionals, and we have everything from an annual meeting to an annual business show. I guess you call it like a small business show and holiday party and summer picnic. And this year is our 25th anniversary, so we have activities around the 25th. We're going to have a five k run and a big celebration in September, and things like security fairs and neighborhood cleanups and garden contests. Just all kinds of small things that, when they were added up altogether under the Midtown Cleveland umbrella, help get the word out, you know, that there are people here that care and that if one makes the decision to live or work here, that it can only be a positive decision.

James Calder [00:43:57] Excellent. So that's sort of your message, I guess, the- I don't know what to say.

Barney Taxel [00:44:09] Well, yeah. I mean, there were, in a way, it's such a personal thing to either live or work in the city or live and work in the city to have that as an ideal, because, of course, everybody loves to be in the country and be in nature. And I'm certainly not trying to compare it to that. What I do compare it to, because I did grow up a number of years in New York City area. We lived in a suburban situation, and my father commuted 25 miles to work, and it took him an hour and a half each way to do that and suffered greatly for it. So I do have some anecdotal experience of what it's like to live in a development in the suburbs. And personally, I and my wife and my family made the choice right from the get go to live close into the city and be accessible and embrace diversity as part of our lives. And we've found it to be a very rich experience. Plus, we have a lot of time that we can use productively that we're not spending traveling in automobiles, going from place to place. So in a way, it is a lifestyle that, through action, myself and a lot of other people that I know have embraced to, well, and then there are many levels. Now the real buzz of politics and economics is sustainability. So we are models of sustainability, because we do use a lot less fossil fuels in order to have the things that we enjoy, the entertainment, the culture, and the proximity to work and family. So we're doing good in that regard as well. And we get to go spend time in nature whenever we want to. You know, you just go in the opposite direction. Yeah.

James Calder [00:47:13] How are we doing on time?

Barney Taxel [00:47:16] I'm gonna have to stop soon.

James Calder [00:47:17] Okay.

Barney Taxel [00:47:19] I don't know.

James Calder [00:47:20] It's been great. We can stop. Wouldn't it be like, is there. Well, I guess this is how I normally end it with. Anything else you'd like to add? Anything you'd like to go into more?

Barney Taxel [00:47:48] I don't know. I guess I could talk a little bit about the sense of community that has really been essential to Midtown Cleveland right from the beginning, which is one of the amazing things about it. Like any other organization, there have been ups and downs, problems to tackle. But somehow the leaders, the leadership, either both with staff and volunteers and the board and others, have continuously, consistently stepped up and taken responsibility and made adjustments to make it work, which I think on this level of organization, with this kind of organization, representing over 200 businesses and institutions and interfacing with government and with the public, is kind of an amazing achievement to still have a sense of community, a real feeling that there's something here for everybody. There's no sense of exclusion, of hierarchy, really, as long as somebody's willing to participate, there's a place and a benefit of feeling like you're making a contribution to make it a better place, which is really. I don't know how often people have an opportunity to run into that and be involved for 10, 15, 25 years or whatever in something of that consistency, and that actually has tangible results attached to it.

James Calder [00:50:39] Excellent. So. So your involvement with Midtown has been very positive.

Barney Taxel [00:50:46] I guess so.

James Calder [00:50:47] That's what it sounds like. I'm not trying to.

Barney Taxel [00:50:50] Well, I hope it sounds like that.

James Calder [00:50:51] It does sound that way.

Barney Taxel [00:50:52] Mm hm.

James Calder [00:50:53] Excellent. All right.

Barney Taxel [00:50:56] All right. Yeah. You think you have enough material there?

James Calder [00:50:59] Oh, yeah. That's wonderful.

Midtown Cleveland

In 2007, the Center was contacted by MidTown Cleveland, a community development organization dedicated to revitalizing Cleveland’s Midtown Corridor. Together, the Center and MidTown Cleveland worked to locate business owners, developers, activists, clergy, and residents with ties to the area. Center staff then conducted a number of oral history interviews, each of which tells a story about the area’s rich history and prospects for the future.