The Cleveland Foundation Presents Creative Fusion: Waterways to Waterways Cuyahoga50: Celebrating Our River, Building Our Future

Matt Gray

Water. It sustains us, nourishes us, and drives our economy. On the morning of June 22, 1969, a spark dropped from a train passing over the Cuyahoga River, and for the thirteenth time over the previous century, the river caught fire. The immediate reaction was ambivalence: The story barely made it on the back pages of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. But, as is often the case when a single incident sparks a national movement, timing is everything. The fire was featured in a well-read issue of Time magazine, and after years of growing environmental concern, Cleveland’s “burning river” went viral.

By the time of the 1969 fire, there was no visible life in the water. Fifty years later the river is alive again. Just look at the fish. In 2019, the Cuyahoga reached a milestone—fish caught in the river are now officially as safe to eat as fish caught in the lake. Think about that—in 1969, no fish could even survive in the river. Now it is home to dozens of healthy species.

When we look back at the progress since 1969, we see activism and determined local action supported by strong state and federal policy. Mayor Carl Stokes and his brother Louis embodied this leadership. As the nation’s first African American mayor of a major city, Carl Stokes was under the microscope of the national media. He used the fire to highlight the legacy of environmental degradation found in Cleveland and other industrial cities. Together with his brother, they helped create the US EPA in 1970, and the Clean Water Act two years later. They were also ahead of their time in connecting environmental issues to social issues, especially how poor water quality impacted the community’s most vulnerable residents.

In 1969, the main water problem was a handful of big industrial polluters that needed to be regulated. Today, the main problem is us and what we consume, how we farm, and what we put down the drain. Industrial pollution has been largely overtaken by algal blooms, climate change, plastic pollution, invasive species, and federal policy threatening to roll back progress.

But like 1969, the overarching recipe for progress is the same—local action supported by strong policy. Cuyahoga50 is about learning from the past to ignite action through storytelling, discussion, and debate. More than 200 organizations are coming together to do just that. The year’s pinnacle will take place from June 19-23, as Cleveland marks the 50th anniversary with the largest series of public clean water events in the country.

What about the role of the arts? The idea was to have Cleveland’s incredible arts and culture organizations integrate clean water into their programming. To say the least, they’ve stepped up. It starts with the Cleveland Foundation’s Creative Fusion: Waterways to Waterways Edition. They have brought together a group of six international and six local artists to focus on projects that connect the Cuyahoga’s regeneration to global waterways. This groundbreaking initiative incorporates artists’ work from around the world to inspire continued progress in Cleveland, and vice versa.

Our focus on the river doesn’t stop there. In addition to the Creative Fusion projects, many of Cleveland’s most responsive organizations are presenting programming relevant to the health of our waterways. MOCA Cleveland hosted Alexis Rockman: The Great Lakes Cycle; Cleveland Public Theatre re-mounted Fire on the Water; the Cleveland Institute of Art presented Earth Works; the Cleveland Museum of Art is hosting major exhibitions this summer, with works of Cai Guo-Qiang and Edward Burtynsky, both centered around water. Many others have contributed, from Parade the Circle and the Wick Poetry Center to Lit Cleveland and the 48 Hour Film Project.

At Sustainable Cleveland, we thank all the people and organizations who are partnering to celebrate our river and build our future. Learn more at and