By Anne Nickoloff
On February 21, 2015, bars across Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood were filled to capacity. Crowds huddled around fire pits. Bundled-up pedestrians stumbled like penguins across icy sidewalks and jammed into music venues as small as a neighborhood bike shop and as large as an outdoor stage in a parking lot. But if the sixth annual Brite Winter festival was undeniably overcrowded, it was also a success.
“When you talk about the different aspects that go into Brite Winter, I think of art, I think of music, I think of fire, and I think of beer,” says Brian Horsburgh, the event’s current executive director. “If you take any one of those things and put 10,000 people outside, in 10 degree weather, I don’t think anyone would have a very good time. When they’re all combined, it works.”
Brite Winter’s mission is “to embrace the Cleveland winter by celebrating with light, fire, art, music, games, and snow.” The festival launched in 2010, and despite bitterly cold temperatures, Cleveland’s residents turned out in force at Hart Crane Memorial Park on the Flats’ West Bank. And more came back the following year to the same location.
When in 2012 Brite Winter outgrew Hart Crane and moved to Ohio City, attendance grew, up to 15,000 people in 2015. But looking at Ohio City’s crowded streets and overfilled venues last year, almost everyone who was involved in the festival saw a need for change.
Brite Winter volunteer Brooke Willis has worked with the festival since its inception. Last year, he says, he thought the festival had grown too large for the small neighborhood, and was starting to become dangerous. “There was a lot of traffic and a lot of potential for disasters,” he says, noting the busy intersections in Ohio City and the icy roads. “It’s smart to keep moving it, so it’s not the same festival year after year.”
Last year’s crowds led to long lines of people waiting to see bands in venues that could only hold a third of them at most. There were locations that became claustrophobically cramped with attendees trying to find a seat. When it was over, the Brite Winter Board of Directors started searching for a new site; it had to be somewhere large, but somewhere up and coming. And, of course, it had to be in Cleveland.
They settled on a site about a mile up the Cuyahoga River and across the water from Hart Crane Memorial Park. Returning to the Flats has immense benefits for the festival, says Horsburgh. “It gave us a combination between large outdoor spaces, [and] some large indoor venues,” he says. “It also helps to highlight a new place in Cleveland that’s up and coming. We see this as an opportunity that, as we continue to grow, to go to a place that is more of a blank canvas for our artists and musicians, but at the same time an opportunity to highlight a unique and cool area.”
Cleveland’s Flats district has a roller-coaster history. With its underground music venues and large number of bars, it was a trendy spot for a night out in the 1990s, but after three people fell in the river and drowned in the span of five weeks in 2000, the district’s popularity waned.
At first, the West Bank fared better than the East, which crumbled quickly on the far side of the Cuyahoga. However, a recent redevelopment project has created retail areas, restaurants, and hundreds of new apartments, transforming what was previously the drab, dangerous East Bank into an again-trendy neighborhood, while the West Bank languished.
Still, the area is doing OK, with restaurants like the new Rusty Anchor and music venues like Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica and the Music Box Supper Club. It’s just not at the forefront of the city’s revitalization work. Brite Winter may change that, but not everyone thinks it’s a great move. Angeline Xiong, a student at Case Western Reserve University, had attended the festival in Ohio City for the past two years. Last year, Xiong travelled to the festival via the Red Line; it was a straight shot and the Ohio City train station dropped her and her friends in the middle of festivities. At the Flats location, she’ll have a longer commute, with a transfer along the way.
“I think moving to the Flats might mean a cooler venue and festival, but since it’s not [as] accessible by public transit, it might also discourage a large number of people from going,” she says.
Joe Satterfield, another CWRU student, isn’t a fan of the move either. He worked in downtown Cleveland two summers ago and saw the reconstruction of the Flats East Bank slowly bringing back attractions, but wasn’t familiar with any ongoing entertainment on the other side of the river, where the festival will move this year.
He is familiar with restaurants, bars and activities in Ohio City, and spent time at last year’s Brite Winter walking around the neighborhood. “My biggest worry is there really won’t be much else to do in [the Flats West Bank] other than festival stuff,” says Satterfield.
This year the festival promises three times as many fire pits, plus s’mores-making kits, more refreshments, and more visual art. But though the festival is physically larger, fewer bands are on the bill.
Justin Markert, Brite Winter’s music director, said that decision was made so that overlapping concerts would occur less often. “We felt like it was too much, so we started to cut down the number of bands, because it just gets to a point where you can’t see anybody.”
Now, the lineup stands at “just” 35 bands, including headliners the Mowgli’s.
“They’re a sunny California band,” says Markert. “We let them know it’s outside in the cold February, so we’ll see how their sound translates in the snow.”
The rest of the lineup consists of local bands, including the popular Seafair. The band performed the festival last year, but as a stand-in for Sun Club, a Baltimore band that was stuck on the East Coast during a blizzard. When he found out about the travel snafu, Markert texted Ryan Kelly, Seafair’s drummer, and later that day, Seafair performed a surprise set in Sun Club’s place.
“We were in the right place at the right time,” says Kelly. “We had planned on going together anyways to watch the bands playing. So when we were asked, we jumped at it to help out.”
Alt-pop act Marcus Alan Ward performed at Brite Winter two years ago, and is returning to this year’s fest. “The shows I typically play are indoors,” says Ward, laughing. “It’s a sweaty experience, the audience is usually dancing… [At Brite Winter], we’re out in the cold. Hopefully I won’t get sick or anything.”
Brite Winter’s music lineup tends to get the most media attention, and it receives one of the largest budgets to work with. However, this year, organizers are emphasizing art as well, with heated art tents that will have different themes.
Brite Winter’s art innovations once created an odd situation during the festival’s first year. Several large plastic bubbles, which served as sculptures, were turned into performance spaces for bands when freezing temperatures made it impossible for them to perform without any heat. The cold temperatures can lead to bleeding fingers, when guitarists can’t feel how much pressure they are using to strum.
Because the large plastic cubes were warmer than the uncovered stages, Brite Winter founder Emily Hornack and the other planners decided to put the performing bands inside the sculptures during their concerts.
But the plastic was opaque.
“You couldn’t see [the bands], you could only hear them,” said Hornack. “We were literally watching a plastic bubble.”
But perhaps the closest Brite Winter has come to disaster was two years ago, when it was so cold outside that the beer lines froze. “It was eight degrees,” says Hornack. “Things don’t work the way they do at 30 degrees, at eight degrees. A lot of things didn’t work. Salt didn’t work.”
That year, both the beer lines and slippery sidewalks were problematic, but, as Clevelanders have for decades, Brite Winter planners found solutions. They heated the beer lines with hot air and volunteers with hammers took to the sidewalks and pounded the ice apart.
“It was a lot of work that year,” says Hornack.
Really, it’s a lot of work every year.
Brite Winter’s workforce mainly comes from its many volunteers who pour and sell beer, stoke fires, and redirect concertgoers to the right venue. Volunteer Heather Wescott handed out maps when she first was involved. Last year, she was the leader of the ambassador program, where she helped direct other volunteers at rest stops.
Wescott moved to Cleveland from Dallas about four years ago, and quickly became involved with Brite Winter. She says that Cleveland is more arts-focused than Dallas, and also much colder. Though Wescott is originally from Minnesota, the Brite Winter weather still came as a shock to her, but she’s still enthusiastic.
“When you talk about the different aspects that go into Brite Winter, I think of art, I think of music, I think of fire, and I think of beer.”“I feel that Cleveland is up and coming, and it feels good to be a part of it,” she says. “When it’s snowing, [people] tend to hibernate a little bit.”
Horsburgh himself started as a volunteer. In 2011, he stoked fires in Hart Crane Park, and now he understands the importance of volunteers to continuing the community-based festival.
“It’s the volunteers that really make it happen at the end of the year,” he says. “It’s really amazing to see how the community comes together and supports such a fun event, so we can continue to grow it and get more people exposed to it.”
Barry Ling lived in Ohio City while Brite Winter was hosted there, right down Bridge Street. Ling helped to shovel the sidewalks so that festivalgoers would have an easier time getting around, and enjoyed seeing people on their way to concerts right around the corner from his house.
He also helped build fire pits in the early years, before a generous volunteer donated concrete barriers to contain the flames. Back then, Brite Winter’s fire pits were constructed out of cinderblocks, hefted around by volunteers like Ling. “I love the fire pits, but I hated the cinderblocks,” he says.
Still, these memories – of lugging cinderblocks, of beer lines freezing, of bands not showing up and invisible performances in plastic bubbles – show the complicated reality of Brite Winter.
It’s a festival that has taken constant figuring out, and constant involvement with the community around it. Brite Winter’s organizers evince a wry sort of pride when they talk about their creative, last-minute solutions.
Wescott remembers how delicate the snow looked when she walked outside in 2013. Horsburgh remembers talking to a band that said Brite Winter was the best show they’d ever played, and Markert remembers standing in the middle of a dancing crowd at a concert in Joy Machines Bike Shop.
Hornack remembers having one special experience every year since the start. During the bustle of the event, while she says she’s running around “like a crazy person,” she always takes a moment to slow down and look around her at the people talking or laughing with each other. It all makes sense, she says, when she sees festival goers warming hands by the fire pits, standing close, creating connections and building community in the cold.
Anne Nickoloff is a student at Case Western Reserve University. There, she is the director of print of the school’s newspaper, The Observer, and the editor-in-chief of its humor magazine, The Athenian. She has had articles published in USA TODAY, Cleveland Scene Magazine, Alternative Press, and Cosmopolitan Magazine. In her free time, Anne enjoys skiing, knitting, and exploring Cleveland.