There was a telling moment during a March 23 City Club forum, when Tamara Door, president and CEO of the Downtown Denver Partnership Inc., outlined to us Clevelanders how important our waterfront is to the city.
"I will say that it is a huge asset to the city," Door said. "And I think if you got further west, you might be surprised how many people don't know that this city is on the water. There's something about being on the water that says this is a healthy, vibrant, active community."
Indeed. It might seem obvious, but history bears out a tendency to bemoan our waterfront or talk in circles about what might be possible. This is a waterfront city, but sometimes we don't act like it.
Things are changing, though. In fact, things have been changing for quite some time. Those who are tuned in to the water know this; others will find out as the warm weather wraps Cleveland in a midsummer frenzy.
"I think folks are finally feeling like it's time to get off the sidelines," Jim Ridge says. "We've been sitting on this nest for a while, and it's time to fly. You know, it's exciting to see." Ridge runs Share The River, an advocacy group that seeks to brand Cleveland as a waterfront city and connect the dots for those who live, work and play here.
From the old stalwarts like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Great Lakes Science Center to newer entrants that fill out the Flats East Bank development -- Punch Bowl Social and The Big Bang, for example -- there are more beacons in greater variety than ever before, all attracting the city's dynamic population to the waterfront.
And it's not just the lakeshore, either. A quick scan upriver reveals a number of enterprises that get people on the water: NALU Stand-Up Paddle & Surf, SUP Cleveland, Great Lakes Watersports, Cleveland Metroparks, Cleveland Dragonboat Association, Rock & Dock Marina, NatureVation, Western Reserve Rowing Association (more of a league than a one-off venture for folks) and the Cleveland Sailing Association. At each of those places, a variety of water recreation opportunities awaits.
For instance: The Cleveland Rowing Foundation will host a free "Learn to Row" opportunity on June 4 at the CRF boathouse, 1003 British Ave.
It's starting to resemble the proverbial broken record, but the idea that you can hit the river for a morning of kayaking or standup paddling, then duck into Merwin's Wharf for a late lunch and a beer before landing at the Flats East Bank for an evening show -- this is the new pattern of Cleveland entertainment. The waterfront is something can be played with everyday.
And then there are the special events, like Edgewater Live, the free Thursday concert series on the beach, returns June 9. At that park -- and over at Whiskey Island and Wendy Park -- the Cleveland Metroparks organization has invested a great deal of money and elbow grease to revitalize recreation and relaxation along the lake. The place has become welcoming over the past few years, right in line with the rest of this city's transformation.
And that might be the kicker. Not only is the weather really about the break -- and with it the summer-fun mindset of hundreds of thousands of Northeast Ohioans -- but the city's own self-awareness is hitting a wonderful stride. The evolution of Cleveland is a story that can't be told without discussing the water.
Go back to 1968, one year before one of the famous Cuyahoga River fires. Mayor Carl Stokes convinces the voters to approve a $100-million tax to improve sewer system, a financial support structure that was fairly unheard of at the time.
"That bet in '68 that Carl Stokes makes, and that action that the city of Cleveland had to take against industries that were permitted by the state of Ohio to pollute...has translated now into an improving ecosystem that is fostering and providing the conditions that developers want to provide places where people want to live, where people want to dine," Ridge says.
It's an important historical throughline. Images of the Cuyahoga River fires remain pervasive in the national media scene. Now, however, thanks to social media and the efforts of entities like the Downtown Cleveland Alliance, a wave of positive imagery -- recreation, waterfront dining -- is taking over the old aesthetics. Development has moved in en masse.
It's hard not to notice everything that's taking place. Headlines abound almost daily, sharing news of the latest restaurant opening or residential opportunity on the horizon. But it's also easy to overlook this stuff, in a town where the waterfront has for so long played a back-burner role to other neighborhoods' ascents.
2016 is the year of the lake, of the river.
On that note and more, Scene has been speaking with some waterfront stakeholders who have big plans in the works. Nothing's public yet. Stay tuned. It's going to be a fun summer.
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