Balloonfest!

What goes up must come down – sorry to begin a blog with an old cliché, but we all know there is some truth in the old chestnut. I’m currently writing this in COVID-19 lockdown from Auckland, New Zealand – the Hegemon of New Zealand cities. Currently we’re up – a boom town with much of the wealth, and the largest portion of the population. This will not always be so. Dunedin, at the other end of the country, was once the hegemon. Westport, a town with a current population of around 5 thousand once dwarfed Auckland. Things go up, things go down. I say this, Cleveland, hoping you don’t judge me a snob over city size for telling this tale. I mean no malice and I know what will eventually come to the City of Sails.
I am well aware at some point in the future the air will begin to seep out of Auckland’s balloon, and as the tumbleweeds roll along Queen Street unobstructed, a new hegemon will rise to take it’s place.

What goes up must come down.

Now that is something Cleveland, Ohio knows all too well. Established in 1796, and named after their founder Moses Cleaveland (president Grover Cleveland was a distant relative) – the settlement saw a population boom in the 1830s as the Eerie Canal was cut, allowing transit from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes. With access north to Canada, and not terribly far from the Mississippi river, south all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, Cleveland made a great trading post. Following the American Civil war Cleveland became a manufacturing centre – due to their close proximity to coal and iron ore deposits in neighbouring states. John D. Rockefeller established Standard Oil in Cleveland. Their steelworks, early adopters of the Bessemer process were on the rise in the late 1860s. The motor industry first started in Cleveland. Where there was industry there were jobs, and people flocked to Cleveland. What had started as a settlement of just seven people was, by 1913, calling themselves the ‘sixth city’ due to having the sixth largest population of any city in the USA. In 1926 Cleveland constructed the Terminal Tower, a 52 floor monster which was the 2nd largest building in the world upon completion.

The Great Depression slowed their rise upwards, but World War Two gave a boost to the economy. Cleveland was the USA‘s fifth biggest contributor to the war effort. Following the war their economy boomed and they had tagged themselves ‘the best location in the nation’. For a while their sports teams were very formidable – their baseball team won the 1948 world series, their hockey team topped the American hockey league, and their football team dominated for much of the 1950s. A Cleveland DJ named Alan Freed picked up on a convergence of trends across several styles of music and named it Rock and Roll. They had little to do in it’s invention, but Cleveland is forever linked to rock and roll music. Cleveland was on it’s way up, sports up, rock and roll was on the rise.
But what goes up, inevitably, must come down.

First industry waned. Restructuring of the international steel industry saw less business coming their way. Postwar changes to infrastructure (someday I’m going to take a shot at explaining Kondratieff waves, and the effects of long term economic waves on infrastructure – today is NOT that day however) – led to huge highways, and the rapid spread of the suburbs. Other cities, Detroit I’m looking at you, had become the centre of the motor industry – Motown certainly was up. The population of Cleveland shrunk as many of its citizens moved out for a home with a backyard, in a car built in another city. What was left behind however was industrial pollution, lots and lots of it. As the city descended the Cuyahoga river burst into flames, not once or twice – that would be bad enough – but 13 times! It’s last time, in June 1969 earning Cleveland the moniker ‘The Mistake by the Lake’. By 1986 the sixth city had become the 18th …. with an anchor. What could one do to raise morale, and maybe start bringing Cleveland back up?

The Cuyahoga river in flames.

Well……… What goes up?

Balloons.

On 5th December 1985, 84 years since Walt Disney was born and 30 years since Disneyland had been opened – 1 million helium balloons were released into the skies of Anaheim, California. There is news footage of the then Guinness world record release and it does look impressive – like a sea of floating jelly beans. The stunt must have been the hot topic around the water cooler the next day at the United Way of Cleveland – a non profit organization who runs charity fundraisers for needy causes. What can we do to promote Cleveland which we could turn into a money spinner – and symbolically suggests a rising from the ashes of the Cuyahoga river fire? That thing Disney just did – only bigger. United way soon committed $200,000 of their own money to the project, and hired Balloon Art by Treb, the company who organized the Disney launch. The plan was to take up an empty block next to Terminal Tower, building a three story high enclosure around the square plot – and to get 2,500 volunteers in to blow up the biodegradable balloons. The plan was to fill 2 million balloons and charge members of the public to sponsor the balloonfest at a cost of $1 for 2 balloons.


Throughout the day, and all through the night of September 26th 1986 the volunteers, mostly high school students, labored away filling balloons. Throughout the night they soldiered on, into the next day. On the 27th September a storm was setting in but they had come too far now to stop. At 1.50pm, with a little over 1.4 million balloons, the decision was made to loosen the giant net keeping all the balloons- free those colourful little spheroids, out into the universe – Cleveland’s commitment to rise again analogized in a cloud of coloured orbs. Off into the grim day they flew.


They flew aimlessly into traffic, causing multiple pile ups – motorists and vehicles alike crumpled by the impact. They flew out over the tarmac of the local airport – ceasing air traffic to and from the city until every last balloon was coralled. Some flew to Canada, washing up on their shores. Though biodegradable, marine and bird life tangled up and choked on them. On a horse ranch in Medina County Ohio, a stable of Arabian horses became spooked by the invading balloons, causing several stallions to trip and maim themselves. Their owner, Louise Nowakowski, sued Cleveland for $100,000 in damages.

Most disturbing of all, a fishing boat ran into trouble on the lake that day. The coast guard dispatched a rescue party, but when they arrived at the scene – where one would normally see two brightly coloured life jackets bobbing in the water, there were thousands and thousands of brightly coloured balloons obscurring the view. The two sailors bodies would wash up the following day. One of the widows would file suit against Cleveland for over $3 Million – later settling out of court for an undisclosed fee.

What had seemed such a fun publicity stunt quickly turned tragic. All up it cost the city of Cleveland millions more than it made. Balloonfest soon came to signify something altogether – that the rise up may be spectacular – but the inevitable fall is bumpy at best.

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