Margaret Atwood wrote that water is patient, Martin Luther King opined for justice to roll down like water, and Leonardo da Vinci reminds us that water is the driving force in nature. Universally considered an eternal symbol of life, purity, and rebirth, water comprises 71 percent of our planet and over 50 percent of our bodies.
Oh, and also, there was a time that the water literally caught on fire in Cleveland. So there’s that.
The relationship between Cleveland and our local bodies of water is a complicated one, no more so than on June 22, 1969 when sparks from a passing train ignited oil-soaked detritus in the Cuyahoga River.
Although it was neither the first industrial fire on an American river—nor even the first time the Cuyahoga itself ignited—this incident captured the attention of a country coming to grips with environmental pollution in our nation’s waterways. That sense of urgency then sparked a string of reform efforts to preserve our water supply, even as the often-embarrassing press coverage on the fire did great harm to Cleveland’s reputation.
“The June 22 fire not only impacted Cleveland, but also the region and the globe,” says Stephen Love, a program officer at the Cleveland Foundation who specializes in the environment. “What most folks forget is that it was the leadership in Cleveland, in particular brothers Mayor Carl Stokes and Congressman Louis Stokes, who moved forward plans to address environmental issues, elevating the tragedy into an opportunity to improve our water and our quality of life.”
Fifty years later—instead of relegating this event to the annals of history—the city of Cleveland will spotlight its considerable environmental progress and commemorate this pivotal point in time with Cuyahoga50. A yearlong celebration devoted to our very own burning river, Cuyahoga50 will feature a series of events throughout 2019 to celebrate clean water and ignite future action through storytelling, discussion, and debate.
One of the highlights leading up to the main anniversary festivities on June 22, 2019 will be "Creative Fusion: Waterways to Waterways"—a partnership between the Cleveland Foundation, the City of Cleveland, and 12 local and international artists. The project will use the anniversary as a jumping-off point to promote environmental justice, highlight water-related art, and celebrate the astounding strategies that have positively transformed Cleveland’s surrounding water.
Similar to other "Creative Fusion" installments, "Waterways to Waterways" is a two-pronged initiative that acts as an exchange program of sorts—with global artists visiting Cleveland and vice versa. Five local organizations—including the Cleveland Print Room, Cleveland Institute of Art, Praxis Fiber Workshop, LAND Studio, and Kent State University Cleveland Urban Design Center—will host the visiting artists.
“Historically, artists in Cleveland have always been at the forefront of putting forward environmental justice issues and challenging us as a society,” shares Lillian Kuri, Cleveland Foundation Vice President for Strategic Grantmaking, Arts & Urban Design Initiatives. “With a local and international exchange of ideas, we can ask questions like, ‘What is someone across the world thinking about with regards to their own river? What can we learn? How can we support their reform efforts?’”
Featured projects range from an internationally-recognized German architect and planner sharing his expertise on green urbanism (sponsored by CIA) to an Ethiopian photojournalist showcasing an exhibition of aerial photographs of the Cuyahoga River (sponsored by the Cleveland Print Room). Also in the works are a themed PechaKucha night, a river walk with Native American artist Sharon Day, and much more.
Key to the “Waterways to Waterways” effort is for Clevelanders to not simply passively observe water-related projects, but actively engage in the initiatives on display. The Kent State University Cleveland Urban Design Center (KSU CUDC) will be hosting a visit by Squidsoup, a UK-based design collaborative, to create an interactive experience on the streetcar level of the Detroit Superior Bridge.
“This won’t be like going to a science exhibit,” says Terry Schwarz, director of KSU CUDC. “Squidsoup’s work involves light installations which will transform that familiar existing space into something you’ve never seen before.”
Clevelanders will even get an opportunity to get their hands wet—and maybe even a little bit blue—at Praxis Fiber Workshop, where Venezuelan artists Eduardo Portillo and Mariá Eugenia Dávila will pair up with two local artists to be the first to use a newly fermented Indigo Vat. Participants will be able to dye their own individual squares of fabric, which will then be incorporated into a 60-foot banner to be displayed downtown during the event.
“We wanted to be a part of Waterways to Waterways to show how you can work sustainably in textiles,” says Jessica Pinsky, Executive Director of Praxis Fiber Arts. “Indigo is a great example of a natural solution to an industry that contributes to a large percentage of global pollution and people here will be able to experience that up close and personal.”
Under the instruction of KSU professor Taraneh Meshkani, KSU architecture and environmental design students will also be traveling to Beirut and Medellin in the coming months to research the commonalities between the river there and our own local supply. This cross-cultural exchange of ideas will be shared at InDEX Studio: River, Nahr, Rio as a chance to inspire those working tirelessly to restore the ecological health of corrupted waters.
A central tenet of “Waterways to Waterways” is the idea that water preservation is a process, and not an end goal. Yes, the fire on the Cuyahoga was 50 years ago, but there are still communities across the globe with conditions not far off from what Cleveland experienced in 1969.
“At a local level, we could look at the river, pat ourselves on the back, and say we’re done,” says Cleveland Foundation's Love. “Or we could host an event like this where the arts could inspire the next generation of work that needs to be done to protect our water that needs our engaged advocacy. The worst thing we could do now is [assume] that we’re done.”
Ken Schneck is the Editor of The Buckeye Flame, Ohio’s LGBTQ+ news and views digital platform. He is the author of Seriously…What Am I Doing Here? The Adventures of a Wondering and Wandering Gay Jew (2017), LGBTQ Cleveland (2018), LGBTQ Columbus (2019), and LGBTQ Cincinnati. For 10 years, he was the host of This Show is So Gay, the nationally-syndicated radio show. In his spare time, he is a Professor of Education at Baldwin Wallace University, teaching courses in ethical leadership, antiracism, and how individuals can work with communities to make just and meaningful change.