It’s gratifying when gifted people decide that Cleveland’s blend of arts, nature and on-the-rise aura are enough to spur a return home instead of living in a larger or flashier city.
We learned as much from a certain NBA star, but former Clevelanders of all disciplines are paying more attention to the forces pulling them back home. Simultaneously, intelligent, talented people with few or no connections here are deciding to build careers and lives in Cleveland.
Yes, it feels good to be wanted, particularly when brain gain is involved.
“Usually when people are moving or migrating anywhere, they’re coming with maybe a different motivation or outlook,” says Jade Davis, who moved here just two months ago. “Those different motivations and outlooks spur activity, and that activity lifts everyone’s opportunities.”
Five people from different walk of life share why they decided to return or start anew in Cleveland.
Aeneas AlldredgeAeneas Alldredge
CMSD music teacher
Aeneas Alldredge put his resume on the Ohio Department of Education’s website in 2014 with intention of moving to Columbus. Instead, the music teacher received an offer from the Cleveland Metropolitan School District at John F. Kennedy High School’s E³agle Academy.
The details of the job might have scared some candidates off, but they solidified a move to Northeast Ohio for the Anchorage, Alaska native.
“My principal [Margaret Schauer] explained it: ‘You’ll be teaching in a kindergarten room, there’s not much of a budget, there’s no real band program in Cleveland and most of our students are overaged and under credit,’” Alldredge recalls.
Alldredge’s response? “Perfect.”
Alldredge now teaches percussion, brass, recording technology, general music and more at the academy. He has bounced back and forth between Anchorage and Columbus over the years, but this is his first time living in the Cleveland area.
Alldridge taught for six years in Columbus and in 2007 was named Columbus Symphony Elementary Music Educator of the Year. However, you get the sense that if he receives such an honor in Cleveland, he’ll be a little more proud of it.
“When I taught middle school in Columbus, the band program went great, but I was in a situation where a first-year teacher could have come in and done well,” Alldridge says. “There was a lot of parental support, a lot of nuclear families, funding for the area was good and the neighborhood of the school was upper middle class. Basically, you’re set up to succeed.”
Alldredge likes more of a challenge. “I prefer to go to a place where you’ve got to be on your toes, where you have to have a pretty deep bench, as far as teaching skills. I just tend to do better there.”
Alldredge’s deep bench includes E³agle’s cross-curricular education strategy that times up the origins of blues, country or jazz with whenever history teachers are instructing lessons of those eras.
Feedback from fellow teachers has them mostly calling for more. They report fewer problems in class after students spend time recording poetry with Alldredge or learning about iambic pentameter within blues.
“I see a lot of lip service to the fact that fine arts are needed in the schools, and I see a lot of principals that are desperately trying to find a way to include it, but that’s where it stops,” Alldredge says. “It’s an outlet that students desperately need.”
Alldredge is glad to provide that outlet in Cleveland.
When Alldredge gets time away from music instruction, he enjoys exploring the Cleveland Metroparks system, which he says is far more extensive than he initially thought. He looks forward to continuing his family hikes amid the area's seasonal variances.
Jade DavisJade Davis
Port of Cleveland executive
Jade Davis knew that a return to Cleveland was always going to happen at some point. The hundreds of cargo containers he peers at from his Port of Cleveland office window reminds him why.
“We’re the only port on the Great Lakes that has direct, scheduled, international container cargo,” boasts Davis, the Port’s new vice president of external affairs. “With each container is more and more jobs, more and more goods, transportation and more and more things built, used and sold.”
That maritime access to Europe earned the port the Pacesetter 2014 Robert J. Lewis award. It was part of what excited Davis enough to become a Cleveland resident for the first time since 1999. Since his move here in September, Davis has enjoyed explaining the port’s success story to reporters from this continent and Europe.
“We’ve become the cargo container destination for the Great Lakes,” the Benedictine High School graduate says. “That’s going to be a game changer our waterfront, our city and our county.”
Davis relocated after a stint as senior director of state affairs and outreach for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity in Washington D.C. Before that he served as a legislative and economic development liaison for the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio and a policy analyst for the Ohio Senate.
Davis believes that Cleveland residents and lawmakers are embracing future changes in ways that simply didn’t exist when he was younger.
“Whether that’s to embrace our medical infrastructure [or] maybe it’s looking at renewable energy and things that LEEDCo was talking about doing out on Lake Erie, like windmills, or whether it’s looking at high-tech manufacturing and startups -- those weren’t conversations I remember the people I looked up to having at that time,” he says.
“The conversations I remember being had at that time was, ‘how do we keep the blue-collar jobs of yesterday? How do we get more blue-collar jobs of yesterday?’
“I think now it’s, ‘How do we grow the opportunities for tomorrow?’”
Senior project director, Perpectus Architecture
Philip Robbie’s career seemed to get bigger and better with each move since he left Cleveland a decade ago, but he always yearned for a homecoming.
He left the architectural firm he co-owned with two partners here for a job as BRPH’s director of design in charge of the South Florida, Georgia and South Carolina regions. Toronto-based firm NORR then offered him a principal position, exposing him to an international portfolio with offices in Canada, Europe and Asia.
“Each of these were huge opportunities that you just can’t pass up,” says Robbie, now a senior project director at Perspectus Architecture in Shaker Square.
Though he ended up back in the states with the task of opening a Washington, D.C. office for NORR, the frequent moving took a toll on Robbie and his family.
“It seems like you go explore and enjoy, but eventually, you can’t deny where you came from,” says Robbie, who moved back to Cleveland just six months ago.
The culture, connectivity, housing stock and history have all reminded the Kent State graduate of what he originally loved about his hometown. He certainly doesn’t miss the lame “mistake on the Lake” jokes that irked him in other cities.
“Have you ever been to Cleveland?” Robbie would ask in a serious tone after hearing an outdated remark. “Oftentimes, you find out they haven’t. If you’re going to make it the butt of a joke, you better know what you’re talking about.
“There’s some real talent here, and I’m glad to be part of that and to bring back some of the things that I’ve learned in other countries and firms.”
Robbie is most active in Perspectus’ work for the learning and healthcare environments. The reunited resident believes that the work Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland State University and others have done during his time away fit into a larger vision that uses resources more efficiently than a decade ago and garners the respect of architects all over.
“They’re not only creating architecture that Cleveland is proud of, but that the state and country are proud of,” Robbie says. “The reality of this town is irrefutable. As soon as you get off the airplane, take the Rapid to go downtown to Public Square, there’s a rebirth, but it’s consistent with who we are.”
Scott StephensScott Stephens
Shaker Heights Schools administrator
The Cleveland area didn’t just gain just any brain when Scott Stephens moved here this past summer. It gained a two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee who was recently tasked with reorganizing the communications strategy of the Chicago Public Schools – a district with nearly 700 schools and 400,000 students.
Stephens, now the executive director of public relations and communications for Shaker Heights Schools, is a boomerang of sorts. Though he was born and raised in Pittsburgh, he spent much of his adult life in Cleveland, from the early ‘80s to 2010.
“[As a return resident] hopefully you come back with a knowledge from other places and some of the best practices, some of the good things that are done in other places,” Stephens says. “But you’re not coming back without a knowledge of some of the good things we have here.”
After time with news media organizations in Washington, Florida and Mexico, Stephens covered education for the Plain Dealer for 18 years. Those years taught him that Cleveland should and would be his home.
“It’s much more livable and you can get around easier,” Stephens says. “You have virtually all the things offered in big cities, and yet you don’t have the crushing traffic that deters you from enjoying those things, knowing it will take you an hour and a half to get there. You live on the west side but want to see something on University Circle? You just get in the car and you can be there in about 20 minutes.”
With two sons who live here, Stephens has been a somewhat frequent visitor during his time away. Regardless of the duties he had in his 13 months in Chicago and in Washington, where he was crisis communications coordinator for the American Federation of Teachers, Stephens knew he would be back. He kept his home in Lakewood for that very reason.
“The time frame that I was here really coincided with what I think was the start of changes in Cleveland,” he said. “I saw the city come from a really struggling northern city that had lost much of its manufacturing base, losing population in great numbers and was struggling with issues like crime and other things that come with those socioeconomic issues.
“Then I started to see things change for the better,” Stephens continues. “We really started to take advantage of some of the great things about the area, like the lake. It’s perhaps a little bit of a downsized Cleveland, but probably a better Cleveland than the one that I came to in the early ‘80s.”
chef, Team Sawyer Resaurants
Jeremy Umansky discovered about two years ago that he could no longer do what so many loved ones previously advised – get away and stay away from Cleveland.
“When I graduated high school, it was like, ‘grow up and get out of here, kid. There’s nothing for you,’” says Umansky, now the larder master and wild food forager for Trentina, Greenhouse Tavern and other Team Sawyer restaurants.
That pervasive attitude pushed Umansky to New York, where he managed a farm, enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America, became a chef at restaurants in Brooklyn and much more since he left Northeast Ohio in 2006.
That get-out-of-dodge mentality was almost enough to keep the obsessive gastronomist away even after the Cleveland food scene blew up. Umansky credits his wife, Alexandra La Valle, with ultimately deciding that Cleveland would be exceptional for their careers and raising a young daughter.
“I was trying to convince my wife for us to move to the Bay Area or Austin or Philadelphia,” Umansky recalls. “Literally, during that visit here [for a friend’s wedding] my wife said, ‘it’s amazing here. We’re moving to Cleveland.’ “Prior to that, there wasn’t even a conversation about Cleveland or anywhere else in the Midwest.”
They were blown away by the combination of the arts, culture, cost of living, concert venues and availability of family friendly activities. Their mouths were both agape during that fall 2013 visit when they saw bustling East Fourth Street.
During previous red-eye trips to Cleveland, Umansky, a Solon High School graduate, admits that he never made it any further west than Beachwood, so he had no clue about the energy in neighborhoods like Ohio City, Tremont or University Circle, where he now spends time cooking at Trentina and exploring how he can incorporate wild fungi and plants into dishes throughout the Team Sawyer enterprise.
Still, the reversal of attitudes here is what truly sold Umansky on coming back. He also realized that it was a big enough market for him to be recognized for the salt growing and cheese creation discussed in his recent TEDxCLE talk, but not so large that he might be obscured by the talent of others.
“We’ve got incredibly talented people here doing incredibly talented things that, I feel, if some of them were in larger markets, some of them might get lost,” he says. “Their good food is being appreciated by people, and that’s what you want. I think that’s what makes us unique as a food scene – the ability for someone with passion, integrity and drive to be able to bring that to people and for it to get noticed and enjoyed by people.
“That’s what food is all about.”