How Cleveland Reinvented Itself (and Helped Clean Up America)

“Wait. Cleveland’s river did what?”

There aren’t many cities in the world that would be willing to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their most infamous piece of history, an environmental disaster that became national news—but that’s what Cleveland is doing right now.

Except that’s not really what it’s celebrating at all. It’s actually memorializing what happened afterwards, in those 50 intervening years.

It’s one of the greatest urban renewal stories in U.S. history, and the creation of an exciting, welcoming modern city that its residents can be proud of, which I explored firsthand as a guest of Destination Cleveland.

It’s about how one city’s example helped an entire nation clean up its natural treasures, for generations like mine to enjoy. If you’re a traveler based in the States, and you love exploring America’s wild places, you owe this city a lot of thanks. As my trip around Cleveland confirmed, it’s that important a story.

And above all, this story is about how to use your history, proudly and wisely, to correct mistakes and make a better future for everyone. Cleveland is celebrating how much it’s done to change itself for the better in that half-century—and as my trip showed me, the amount it has changed is staggering.

If you knew what this city was like 50 years ago and you saw it today, you’d have to pinch yourself. You’d never have guessed Cleveland’s Cuyahoga river, once the source of the city’s greatest shame, could one day be voted River of the Year, out of all the waterways in the whole country, by the American Rivers Conservation Association. But that’s exactly what happened this year.

The traditional best of the city has never looked better, and the worst has gone forever.

Cleveland’s story of recovery, renewal and conservation is a story everyone needs to know—and it all revolves around what happened on that river on that one hot summer day in 1969.

Here’s how the whole story played out.

From Popular City on the River to “Mistake on the Lake”

The city gets its name from General Moses Cleaveland, whose surveyors founded the place in 1796. The “a” was dropped in 1931— allegedly because a local newspaper couldn’t fit “The Cleaveland Advertiser” on its masthead and needed to save space. The new name stuck.

At the time of Cleveland’s founding, Ohio still hadn’t formally been declared the 17th of the freshly-minted United States Of America. And, thanks to a series of oversights, this eventually had to be done in 1953 (!), under the signature of President Eisenhower to retroactively admit Ohio into the Union.

In a practical sense, however, Cleveland was immediately of vital importance for the success of the new nation. At a time when water was the only way to shift heavy goods efficiently, Cleveland had access to the Great Lakes, connecting routes east, west, north and south, and sparking a boom in local canal building and, later, railway track laying.

By the 20 century, Cleveland was both one of America’s great manufacturing cities and a really eye-catching place to explore, thanks to the 1920s architecture that gave birth to The Mall and the city-beautifying plan it was part of.

Cleveland survived the pressures of mass-immigration; it survived the 1929 crash and the Depression; and it looked to affirm its status as one of the United States’ great old cities.

Then it all started falling apart.

The local economy slowed down, employment became precarious, there was little money available to improve the city’s looks and all that industry started taking a terrible toll on the landscape, fouling the soil and the city’s waterways with pollutants of all kinds.

On the morning of June 22nd, 1969, the unthinkable happened.

The garbage-covered river caught fire.

How to Set a River on Fire

If your reaction is “how on earth can a river catch fire?” you’re echoing the thoughts of a whole country.

The story ran in TIME magazine on August 1st, 1969, and it sparked a national outcry. It was the perfect example of how far the country’s environmental standards had slipped. It was a source of national shame. It was a sign that something had to be done.

So just imagine how Cleveland felt. Imagine the embarrassment. Your city’s river was so dirty with oil and debris that it caught fire? Oh man.

But Cleveland had already spent more than a decade knowing it had a big problem. The fire of 1969 was small in comparison to the one that roared down the Cuyahoga river in 1952. That one caused over $1 million in damage, to boats, bridges, waterfronts—and the city’s sense of civic pride. There had also been other fires since then. A burning river in Cleveland certainly wasn’t a new thing.

The difference in 1969 was that it became national news, partly thanks to the new city mayor, Carl Stokes. He was pushing a $100-million cleanup program. And the 1969 fire was the perfect example of why it was needed.

He did his best to publicize the story, and despite little coverage in the local media, it caught the attention of TIME magazine, which was looking for a suitably dramatic story to launch its “Environment” section. It ran an article using a photo from the far more dramatic 1952 fire.

Suddenly, Cleveland had something to say about the nation’s rivers as a whole.

How to Clean up an Entire Country

In 1969, the river was too polluted to hold much life, and a long stretch of it running into the city center was entirely empty of fish. Today, over 60 species of fish swim along the Cuyahoga, and in March of this year, they’re all safe to eat—a direct result of that $100-million clean-up plan and everything it had kickstarted.

In contrast, the federal budget for water quality and pollution control for the whole of the United States in 1968 was just $180 million. Cleveland became the poster-boy for how polluted cities could turn things around, if they got the right kind of funding.

It sparked a national renaissance in urban river renewal. It led directly to the passing of the 1972 Clean Water Act. And it became part of the pressure put upon the government to create an organization that could administer to the nation’s environmental problems, which became the Environmental Protection Agency, formed in 1970.

That is Cleveland’s gift to the rest of the country. But it has had the most impact at home, because today, Cleveland is safe, clean and absolutely gorgeous.

The best reason to visit Cleveland today isn’t to immerse yourself in its history. It’s to enjoy what Cleveland has become—and see how it used that history to inspire massive changes that have allowed it to redefine itself as one of America’s greatest cities.

A City Redefined

Fifty years ago, Downtown Cleveland was in noticeable decline. Huge areas of the city were ghost towns, and its parks were shabby and poorly kept. Heavy industry was collapsing in on itself, and the people relying on vulnerable jobs were looking at a bleak future.

(Plus, you know, the river was on actual fire.)

But that dystopian future never came.

Cleveland took a look at its downward trajectory and steered a new course, turning itself into a poster-boy for urban renewal and cutting-edge environmental reform.

The Cleveland of today is what happens if you start caring about where you live. There’s loads to see and to explore, there’s amazing food, there’s a clean river teeming with fish and there’s a vast national park to get yourself lost in.

But to understand modern Cleveland, you have to start with the music.

Cleveland’s Music Scene Rocks Hard

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is the pride and joy of Cleveland. You see, Cleveland was where some of the biggest rock & roll stars of the 1960s and 1970s broke into the mainstream—and where the term “rock & roll” first came into being, thanks to Cleveland DJ Alan Freed sometime in the early 1950s.

The list of musicians who launched their music careers in Cleveland is a who’s-who of all-time greats:

  • Bruce Springsteen
  • David Bowie
  • Roxy Music
  • Rush

Then there are the big names actually from Cleveland:

  • Tracy Chapman
  • the James Gang
  • Dean Martin
  • Chrissie Hynde and The Pretenders
  • Trent Reznor
  • Nine Inch Nails…

Ohio has always been a fertile place for garage bands, heavy metal, punk, indie and power pop. But Cleveland is where newcomers found enough clubs hungry for new talent to get their careers started. Musical entrepreneurship is baked into the city’s social scene, and every club seems to have a story about “that time [some famous musician] played a gig here.”

Even today, Cleveland is busily hunting for the next big breakout act in popular music—and shows no signs of slowing down.

So what better place for a museum celebrating the best of rock?

We’ve Got the Music—Now Where’s the Beer?

With a love of music, inevitably, comes a love of good beer—and Cleveland’s craft beer scene isone of the most exciting in the country. (It’s now fourth in GQ magazine’s list of the top five beer cities in America.)

In retrospect, it seems an inevitable direction for the city to go in. Take a somewhat rundown city in the late 1960s with neglected areas filled with derelict buildings, and add a lot of beer-making visionaries to fill them up again.

As the city converted empty factories and office spaces into lofts, restaurants and retail areas of all kinds, two Irish brothers with limited brewing experience took a chance on a neighborhood in need of a facelift.

And Great Lakes Brewing (2516 Market Avenue) was born in 1988.

At Collision Bend on the Cuyahoga river, named after the precision required by barge-pilots to negotiate a very sharp bend in the river, brew master Luke Purcell found a place suitable to start a new kind of brewery. Fresh from success helping launch Great Lakes Brewing to national fame, Purcell wanted somewhere with striking decor and a stunning view of the river to compliment handcrafted beer and locally sourced dishes.

The result was Collision Bend Brewery (1250 Old River Rd) – and it’s never been so popular as it is today. In 2018, Collision Bend was named the best brewpub in the nation, in USA Today‘s 10Best Readers Choice competition.

The breweries are still arriving. As the “brewery district” attracted expertise to the region around Great Lakes Brewing, new companies sprung up to meet the demand. One was Market Garden Brewery (3418, 1947 W 25th St.) which is making great strides after expanding in 2016, with 12 varieties usually on tap and, its later addition, a sister brewpub in Ohio City.

Further afield, Hansa Import House became the home for Hansa Brewery.

Platform Brewery (Lorain and W 42st St.) opened in 2014, Brick & Barrel (Flats) arrived in 2015 and Forest City Brewery (Duck Island) opened in 2016.

All This Music and Beer Is Making Me Hungry

According to TIME Magazine, Cleveland is now America’s seventh best city for food—and it seems keen to rise even further up the ranks in future. The food scene is really hot right now, with bustling food halls, trendy bars and street food, as well as award-winning international cuisine on offer if you know where to look.

The Food Network’s Michael Symon gets a lot of credit for kickstarting Cleveland’s food scene, and you can find his Lola Bistro at 2058, East 4th Street. (However, it’s usually as busy as you’d imagine, so it’s best to call ahead.)

Take the most important meal of the day (it’s no good trying to explore Cleveland on an empty stomach). Of the dozens of trendy new fresh-food cafes to choose from, REBOL (101 W Superior Ave) is at the top of the list. It has great breakfast options with vegan, paleo, keto and gluten-free options aplenty, with a nice line in refined-sugar-free dressings and superfood smoothies. It also serves great coffee (I can recommend toxin-free Bulletproof or their own in-house blend).

If you can’t get yourself there in time, Restore Cold Pressed (1001 Huron Rd. E) is built around serving superbly refreshing fruit and vegetable juices, freshly-prepared that morning or made to order as you wait—with vegan and keto/paleo-friendly items available.

Lunch in Cleveland is an opportunity to rest your feet and lounge away the hot noonside hours with a good view. If that’s what you’re after, TownHall (1909 W 25th St.) offers classic American dishes with vegetarian, vegan and non-GMO options. They’re delivered with a courtyard and plentiful indoor and outdoor seating for resting your aching feet after a hard morning of sightseeing.

Or maybe you just want an indie rock & roll-style story to go, in which case, head to BEET JAR (1432 W. 29th St.), purveyors of organic juices and healthy takeaway. BEET JAR boasts one of the most delightfully scrappy back-stories you’ll hear in Cleveland’s food scene:

“During buildout, we paid some of our construction workers in home-cooked meals, like Pierogi and kale chips, since we didn’t have much of a budget. It’s no secret that Beet Jar nearly didn’t happen because of our lack of funding. We took pride in our struggle and did what needed to be done.”

For something a little different, Anna in the Raw (1360 East 9th Street in the IMG Building Lobby) advertises itself as selling “the only chef-designed juice and raw line in the country,” offering healthy options that have been engineered for flavor, not just for the healthiness of their ingredients (although that, too).

Dinner at Spice Kitchen
Dinner at Spice Kitchen

And at the end of the day, if you can’t get yourself a table at Symon’s Lola Bistro, try Spice Kitchen & Bar, a chic and rustic American restaurant with seasonal, local ingredients and innovative cocktails.

Or if you’re feeling Italian, try Luca’s Italian (2100 Superior Via), which has a deliciously European atmosphere in a restaurant that serves the most authentic of great-tasting Italian food, with a spectacular view of Cleveland as a backdrop.

And, of course, no trip to Cleveland is complete without a stop at Mitchell’s Ice Cream!

Burn it off Outdoors…

Trekking in the Cuyahoga National Park

If adventuring through the Great Outdoors is your thing—and I’m guessing it is, if you’re a regular reader—this will be the highlight of your trip.

Cleveland’s newly pristine environment is its pride and joy, and the centerpoint of the 50th anniversary celebrations. There are events running all the way through 2019 (details here). But the easiest way you can see Cleveland’s natural bounty for yourself is to get out of the city, take the road towards Akron and keep going until everything turns unexpectedly, spectacularly green.

The Cuyahoga Valley National Park—the only national park in Ohio, as from the year 2000—is spread over 33,000 acres between Cleveland and Akron. It borders the same stretch of the Cuyahoga river that used to be empty of fish in the 1960s.

Nowadays, it’s a natural paradise—a place of forest-covered hills, plunging ravines, sprawling wetlands, rivers and waterfalls.

An early morning at Brandywine Falls in Cuyahoga National Park
An early morning at Brandywine Falls in Cuyahoga National Park

There are over 125 miles of trails crisscrossing this landscape, with the 21 miles of the Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath Trail forming the main thoroughfare for trekkers.

Brandywine Falls is possibly its loveliest spot. And The Ledges, a trail winding through million-year-old rock formations in the Virginia Kendall Park, is a relaxing afternoon’s stroll (2.5 miles) that shows you a lot of the park’s natural beauty without needing a lot of effort.

Kayaking on the River

Given its history, it makes sense that the best view of lakeside Cleveland is from the water. There are plenty of pleasure-boat rental options available. But if you want a more adventurous afternoon on the waves, you really need to get yourself in a kayak.

It’s first come, first served at Great Lakes Watersports, meaning you can’t book ahead. For this reason, I’d recommend dodging the crowds (and the heat, if the sun’s out in full force) by turning up first thing in the morning.

Once you’re away, you have the whole mouth of the river at your disposal, where Cuyahoha meets the seemingly endless expanse of Lake Erie—with the best view of Cleveland’s skyline as your backdrop.

A City Back From the Brink—and Better Than Ever

There are plenty of lessons to be learned here, not just for the rest of the United States, but also for our planet as a whole.

Horrifying environmental issues? Okay. Then something must be done—giving up is not an option, because something can always be done. And Cleveland proves this.

Cleveland is an excellent example of how dedication and support can turn a city around. It’s a city back from the brink that’s, today, thriving in a way nobody would have ever expected. And it has a really bright future ahead of it, too.

In short: It’s a city that shows what’s possible for any of our cities.

Thanks for choosing the right future for yourself, Cleveland. It’s something you can really be proud of.

Cleveland FAQs

What is the history of the city of Cleveland?

Cleveland was founded in 1796 and named after General Moses Cleaveland.

What is the industrial history of Cleveland?

Cleveland has an extensive industrial history, especially in the iron and steel industries.

What is Cleveland ranked in size?

Cleveland is the 54th-largest city in the US.

About the Author

Jeremy Scott Foster

Jeremy Scott Foster is an adventure-junkie, gear expert and travel photographer based in Southern California. Previously nomadic, he’s been to ~50 countries and loves spending time outdoors. You can usually find him on the trail, on the road, jumping from bridges or hustling on his laptop working to produce the best travel and outdoors content today.
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