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Cleveland’s Shifting Image

From the ‘Mistake on the Lake’ to ‘Believeland’

Written by: Emma Smallwood

In the past, when hearing about Cleveland, people may have scoffed and remarked on it being “The Mistake on the Lake.” That narrative is not nearly as common now. Cleveland has made a major comeback in the past decade, but a long road of tumultuous incidents that led us to where we are today.

Major Incidents in Cleveland’s History

The Hough Uprising of 1966

In the 1960s, Black citizens of Cleveland, primarily concentrated in the Hough and Glenville neighborhoods, were fighting for just treatment from the Cleveland government and the Cleveland police force. The growing racial tensions in these neighborhoods were backdropped by incendiary incidents. Anti-Black literature written by white supremicist groups spread through Cleveland neighborhoods and a ten-year-old Black child was shot by a white man, while police officers did nothing to quell these incidents. The Hough Uprising officially broke out July 18, 1966, and for four nights, riots tore through the East Side.

With the police’s white helmets, riot sticks and tear gas guns, and a helicopter menacing overhead, the fights between the Cleveland police force and the young Black kids rioting for equality was reminiscent of the unrest in the Southern states at the time. Four Black citizens died as a result of these riots, along with an incalculable amount of property damage throughout the neighborhoods. Cleveland, which at one point had a reputation as a leader in race relations, officially received its notorious nickname, ‘Mistake on the Lake,’ as a result of this event. The city’s horrible response to the growing racial tensions in these neighborhoods, along with the government and police force’s continued mistreatment of its Black citizens, painted the city in a severely negative light.

The Cuyahoga River Fire of 1969

The sight is almost unthinkable today: a five-story fire breaking out on the Cuyahoga River itself, with the polluted water catching fire faster than it could be put out. Cleveland’s pollution and environmental crisis in the mid-1900s set the stage for this incident, and while the fire of 1969 is the most prominent, there have been thirteen fire-related incidents on the Cuyahoga River. A fire on the river in 1952 caused $1.5 million worth of damage, but the 1969 fire attracted the spotlight because it was a turning point for the river and for Cleveland itself. After this incident, strategies were put into place to clean up the river, which was one of the most polluted in the nation at the time.

Balloon Fest of 1986

What began as a fun-filled fundraising stunt soon turned into a public disaster when 1.5 million balloons were released above the city of Cleveland September 27, 1986. One of the major goals of this event was to paint Cleveland as one of the nation's up-and-coming cities, when in actuality, it once again proved Cleveland's infamous nickname to be true. In fact, during the event, a local DJ exclaimed in excitement, “there is no ‘mistake on the lake’ anymore,” a line which rings out as truly ironic in the aftermath of this disastrous event.

In an attempt to break the Guinness World Record for “Biggest Simultaneous Balloon Launch,” 1.5 million balloons were released and the citizens of Cleveland were amazed by the spectacle of the balloons filling up the sky. The beauty did not last long, however, as major accidents began to be reported across the highways in the Cleveland area when drivers were distracted by the sight of the balloons. Soon after, the Burke Lakefront Airport had to briefly shut down as an overwhelming amount of balloons blocked the runway, and the streets and waterways were nearly unusable because of the debris. Perhaps the most devastating part of this event is the death of two men who went sailing the day of the event, who were unable to reach the land or be rescued because of the volume of balloons in the lake.

Following these noteworthy incidents, along with a growing public image issue, Cleveland began to make a comeback in the late 90s to early 2000s. This resurgence has largely been focused on environmental advancements, a blossoming entertainment industry and population growth. These three major developments have earned Cleveland its nickname as the “Comeback City,” painting the city in a much better light than its previous nickname.

Cleveland’s Improvements

Cleveland’s Population Growth

The 20-year period from 1970 to 1990 saw a major decline for the city, when the population dropped from almost 2 million residents in the Cleveland metro area to 1.6 million residents in 1990. The loss of nearly 400,000 residents is staggering, but Cleveland has been slowly improving in the past two decades. In 2022, we saw a 0.06% increase in residents from 2021, and we are projected to continue on this path in the years to come. U.N. projections estimate the Cleveland metro area nearing the 2 million point within the next ten years, which will have a fantastic effect on the city. Population growth leads to progress, and this means that people are excited to move to Cleveland again. In 2016, Cleveland ranked among the top 10 cities in the country for population growth among college-educated residents from ages 25-34, which has had a major positive impact on the workforce in Cleveland.

Climate Action Plan (CAP)

The Cleveland Climate Action Plan launched in 2013, but major improvements have been done on the plan in recent years. For a city that was known for the Cuyahoga River Fire and the Balloon Fest, CAP has done wonders in improving the climate health of the city. The Climate Action Plan has reduced carbon pollution, improved water and air quality, and installed over 70 miles of bike infrastructure throughout the metropolitan area. CAP goes beyond climate change, and focuses a large amount of its energy on sorely-needed social and racial equity in Cleveland. While Cleveland has a long way to go in reaching racial equity, programs such as CAP are pointing towards a better future for Clevelanders. As writes, “the actions in this plan are meant to strengthen our economy, clean our environment, and improve the health and wellness of Clevelanders.”


In terms of entertainment, Cleveland has just about everything. If you want to expand your mind, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Great Lakes Science Center and the Cleveland Museum of Art are all world-renowned museums in the downtown area that have received major upgrades in recent years. For music lovers, the House of Blues, the Agora and Jacobs Pavillion are incredible venues in the heart of Cleveland to enjoy your favorite artists. Cleveland is also a city for food lovers as Time Magazine listed Cleveland in its top 10 cities in America for cuisine, stating that the city “offers some old-fashioned, even old-world, charms.” With the establishment of incredible new restaurants, including Michael Symon’s numerous eateries, the city of Cleveland has made major efforts to improve the culture of the downtown area through the city’s food scene. East 4th Street is one of the prime examples of fabulous food in Cleveland, and is a street that was primarily vacant in the 1970s but has grown into an iconic food and entertainment district in more recent years.

One of the crowning jewels of the city, referred to as “one of the top ten successes in Cleveland’s history,” Playhouse Square is the second-largest performing arts center in the United States. In the late 1960s, all of the theaters except the Hanna were closed down because of the rise of television and suburbanization, but in the 21st century, the theaters have been truly reborn. Welcoming over 1 million guests every year, Playhouse Square has truly transformed the entertainment scene in the city. Cleveland’s sports scene has been on the up-and-up as well, with the city breaking the “Cleveland sports curse” when the Cavaliers beat the Golden State Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals. This “curse” lasted from 1964 until the aforementioned game in 2016, a time period in which Cleveland professional sports teams failed to win a single championship. Regardless of curses and continuous losses, Cleveland fans are loyal and proud, and the Cleveland sports scene is stronger now than ever. With the implementation of AHL hockey team the Cleveland Monsters in 2007 and the recent Cleveland baseball team name change to the Guardians, Cleveland sports are having a major turnaround along with the city itself. Cleveland is a diverse, multicultural city that has become a hot spot of entertainment within the past few decades, and with the installment of a new, hip spot seemingly everyday, the city is just getting started with all it has to offer.

In the 1960s-1980s, Cleveland was a city with a disastrous public image, riddled with political, racial and economic strife. But in the last few decades, Cleveland has shifted its image to a hot spot for entertainment, fun and food. Cleveland has implemented programs that help fight the environmental and racial issues prevalent in earlier decades, and these changes have made the city what it is today.

In a recent appearance on The Chuck Todd Podcast, current mayor of Cleveland Justin Bibb discusses the future of the city on an optimistic note: “If Cleveland is a city that young people move to, instead of leave, that's progress. If Cleveland is known as a destination for immigrants and refugees to start and live out the American Dream, that's progress. One day Cleveland may be on the cover of the Economist Magazine as America's most livable city.” Instead of “Mistake on the Lake” being the first thing people think when it comes to Cleveland, “Believeland,” “The Land” and “Comeback City” are nicknames that better fit this blossoming city.

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