CLEVELAND — Fifty years after the Cuyahoga River's most famous fire, a plucky new generation of Cleveland artists and entrepreneurs has turned the old jokes into inspiration and forged decades of embarrassment into a fiery brand of local pride.
“Everybody knows Cuyahoga County for the burning river. That happened how many years ago?” said Johnny Rowan, manager of Burning River Coffee in nearby Lakewood. “It was a big joke of the country — heck, the world — for how long? And now people look at us with pride. We've taken it, we've owned it and we've turned it into something positive.”
Rowan's is one of 90 active businesses registered with the state that have “burning river” in their names, the bulk formed in the past five years. The legacy of that June 22, 1969, blaze has been embraced by coffee shops, beer makers, songwriters, poets, sports teams, festivals, endurance races, podcasts, candles and jams.
Despite its symbolism, the 1969 fire was hardly the first on the horrifically polluted river. More than a dozen fires broke out over the years, including a deadly 1912 blaze that killed five, and a 1952 fire that caused more than $1.3 million in damage.
The 1969 fire began when a spark from a passing train landed on a floating oil and garbage slick, and lasted less than an hour. No pictures exist of the flames. But the blaze atop the Cuyahoga became iconic and led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and contributed to passage of the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Somewhere over the past decade or so, the city stopped trying to erase the memory of the fire and began to embrace its many lessons, said Mayor Frank Jackson.
“You know what it is? You have to accept yourself,” he said. “They view it not as the river catching fire, but the way they view it is as the beginning of something. It became the starting point.”
Things got worse for Cleveland before they got better.
In 1972, adding proverbial fuel to the fire, then-Mayor Ralph Perk accidentally set his own hair on fire while using a blowtorch at a public ceremony. That same year, Randy Newman released “Burn On,” singing wistfully that he'd always remember Cleveland because “the Cuyahoga River goes smoking through my dreams.”
Decades of economic hardship, social turmoil and famously abysmal luck in sports followed. That losing streak ended when the Cleveland Cavaliers and Akron-born LeBron James brought home a national championship in 2016.
“There was a time when Clevelanders were what I call clinically depressed. No matter how much the sun was shining, there was this humdrum attitude about ourselves,” Jackson said. “We've overcome that clinically depressed attitude and mentality to be a city that has an expectation of winning.”
That new upbeat view began early for Cleveland-based Great Lakes Brewing Co., founded in 1988. Co-founder Patrick Conway said Burning River was one of the first beers the company released.
“It was self-deprecating, it was cheeky and we felt 1969 was a different time,” Conway said. “We never would have chosen the name if we had thought the river was still being treated as a sewer or if we felt there was a pejorative feel about the river and the city and the name.”
Great Lakes sponsors an annual Burning River Fest, too, added to anniversary events this week celebrating the city's precious clean-water resources. Those include a Cuyahoga River so clean that, in March, the EPA declared its fish safe to eat.
There's no limit on use of “burning river” by businesses, since you can't trademark common descriptive phrases.
Jake Tuel named his guitar repair shop in the nearby city of Akron after the blaze.
“I feel that it's kind of a message of rebirth, kind of like a river coming back, an ecology coming back, business coming back,” Tuel said of the name Burning River Guitars. “So I thought it had a nice little association with it, as far as our business goes, because our business is guitar restoration.”
Gene Natale Jr., who owns Burning River Entertainment, said more clients are choosing the backdrop of Cleveland for their wedding photos.
“Somehow the way it entered the public consciousness was, ‘We're better than you because of our river,’” Natale said. “When you bring up the years when things were miserable, people have a lot more genuine pride in Cleveland. Calling back those days of everyone making fun of Cleveland makes everyone have even more pride.”
Malina Rauschenfels, of Burning River Baroque, said her feelings about her social justice music group's name are so strong that she includes them in grant applications. The artist-run ensemble specializes in interactive Baroque performances.
“You find it's very easy for people to look on the past and say, ‘How could they have done that?’” she said. “We try to twist that and say look how far we've come or how not far we've come. How can this thing that we look at in history seem so clear to us, and yet our current space in time seems so fuzzy or seems so different? It really isn't. There are the same lessons to learn.”
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