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Issue Date: July 2009


Our Fire Inside

We asked 11 Clevelanders how they think the fire has changed the city’s view of itself. Here are their tales of shame and perverse Cleveland pride.
Joe Hannum
co-founder, Cleveland Comedy Fest
To me, it was the first great Cleveland punch line. It is kind of analogous to the first car that rolled off the assembly line in Detroit or the first oil well that anybody struck in Texas. It led to many, many other Cleveland punch lines and one of our greatest exports, which is our comedy and sense of humor.

Dick Feagler
host, WVIZ’s Feagler & Friends
I went around for years saying to people, “Look, the river doesn’t burn — the oil on top of the river burned.” But nobody seemed to think that was mitigating enough. I felt like it neither won nor lost anything when they put the fire out.

Ray Wouters
server, Shooters
People love coming down here just to sit by the river. I get tables from New York and California. Everyone knows it has been on fire. I think Clevelanders take pride in it, but in a backward way, because that’s how Cleveland works.

Mike Polk
comedian and creator of the “Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Videos”
First of all, I just want to say that I had nothing to do with it. I wasn’t around. It just shows how much we rock. How many people can say that their river caught on fire? It caught on fire, and we’re still just like, “Eh, we’ll stick around. We want to see where this is going.”

Jonathan Adler
law professor, Case Western Reserve University, and author of the paper “Fables of the Cuyahoga”
Our river happened to catch on fire at precisely the wrong time. The nation was yearning for symbols and examples of environmental decline and the need for progress, and that just happened to be the time when we had a river fire. The real story of the river fire is a city that learned over time to appreciate the river as something more than a place to deposit waste.

Mansfield B. Frazier
columnist, CoolCleveland
I was raised hunting and fishing. So the first time I saw the Cuyahoga River, I just couldn’t believe it. My father was going to a fish wholesaler down along the river, and I said, “Why is this thing so nasty?” And he said, “Well, they dump stuff in it.” To me, it was a symbol of American greed, of corporate greed and lax government oversight.

Bruce Hudec
captain, Goodtime III
In the 38 years I’ve been in the river, it has dramatically changed. I can hardly believe it’s the same river. There are turtles in the river; there is a family of red-tail hawks up the river; there are great blue herons that live in the river. There are all sorts of songbirds — I saw a couple of red-wing blackbirds today.

Elaine Marsh

co-founder, Friends of the Crooked River
We still have work to do. We are still discharging raw, untreated human and industrial waste into the river. Water is not a renewable resource.

Samantha Shunk
member, Cleveland State University’s varsity women’s rowing team
Every time we go to a regatta, someone goes, “Oh yeah, that river — the Cuyahoga — it’s got all those turns, and it caught on fire once!” I’m like, “Yeah, you know, our river caught on fire — but that’s why we row so fast.”

David Beach
director, GreenCityBlueLake Institute at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History
I think fewer and fewer people are making jokes. I think Cleveland is getting a reputation as a city that’s starting to think about things differently. I think you could say something about resilience as a city, that we have successfully brought back a severely degraded river.

Mike Fedorka
owner, Shine’s Bait & Tackle
We used to catch bait down around there. When the steel mills were discharging into the river, if there were any fish or bait swimming by, it was trying to jump out of the water because it was dying.

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