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This interpretive stop at Scranton Flats along the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland allows visitors to view some of the restored habit and the hiking trail along the river. Photo by E’Louise Ondash
Columns Hit the Road

Hit the Road: Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River fire sparked environmentalism

We are gathered on this early-June day in the shaded Canal Basin Park on the banks of the Cuyahoga River. The waterway twists and turns its way through the Cleveland, Ohio, area, making it an intricate part of the city’s fabric historically and environmentally. Standing in the light breeze and under a clear sky, it’s hard to believe that, 50 years ago this month, the then-toxic, highly polluted Cuyahoga was on fire.

Mayor Carl Stokes, adroitly impersonated by Cleveland native and actor Greg White, stands before us, painting a verbal picture of that event. We’ll have to settle for that because amazingly, there are no photos of the conflagration. What has been often published are pictures of the 1952 Cuyahoga River fire — images that made Cleveland the poster child for environmental degradation.

The historic Veterans Memorial Bridge spans the Cuyahoga River near downtown Cleveland. The bridge links the city’s east and west sides and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. When it opened in 1918, it was the largest steel and concrete reinforced bridge in the world. Photo by E’Louise Ondash

The good news is that the 1969 fire also sparked a worldwide movement raising awareness about the fragility of the planet’s environment. Credit goes to Stokes (the first black mayor of a major city), his brother, Louis (served 15 terms in the House of Representatives), and Cleveland State University students who, in 1970, kicked off the first Earth Day by marching from campus to the Cuyahoga River, protesting pollution and calling for change.

Because of this, Cleveland has been called the Selma of the environmental movement. Decades later, this city of 385,000, once derisively known as the Mistake on the Lake, is not your father’s Cleveland.

“Cleveland has changed immensely,” says White, “especially the downtown area which has brought people here from all parts of the country to live downtown or the surrounding areas, to take advantage of our great medical facilities and colleges.”

White volunteers his Carl Stokes presentations through Take a Hike, an organization that offers walking tours throughout the city. In the 1970s, there was little to see, but today, the city is reveling in an explosion of downtown residential units in restored and re-purposed historic buildings and warehouses; walkable neighborhoods and clean streets; the co-existence of trendy and ethnic restaurants; a thriving theater district where once-decaying playhouses have been restored to their original grandeur; expanding parks and a trail system; and the resurrection of a river.   

“Three national designation areas culminate in Canal Basin Park — the National Scenic Byway, the railroad and the river,” explains Tom Yablonsky, one of the area’s prime movers when it comes to restoring and preserving the area’s history, architecture, open spaces and the environment.

Yablonsky, a native of suburban Cleveland who has been creating historic districts for 35 years, carries several titles with several civic organizations that share his passionate goals; he also is our tour guide today.

Native Clevelander and actor Greg White portrays Carl Stokes, mayor of Cleveland and America’s first black mayor of a major city. Stokes and his brother, Lewis, led the environmental-movement charge in the 1970s after the Cuyahoga River, which winds through the city, caught on fire. Photo by E’Louise Ondash

Between the end of the 19th century and 1929, Yablonsky explains, “Cleveland grew to be the third most important city in the country, behind New York City and Chicago.”

(The evidence of those grandiose years are alive and well in downtown Cleveland. More of that in the next column.)

After our stop in Canal Basin Park, Yablonsky takes us to several locations along the Cuyahoga River where we see portions of the 87-mile Towpath Trail. Now a recreational pathway, it follows alongside the historic Ohio & Erie Canal. At Scranton Flats, we walk out onto a dock that juts into the river. We can see wildlife habitat restorations and signage that explains what’s happening here environmentally. Much of what we see has been put into motion by Canalway Partners, co-founded by Yablonsky.

“The river was a boundary and we had a chance to rethink the river valley,” he said. “No one had ever looked at it holistically.”

Progress on all the projects around Cleveland has been incremental, he says, but as a result, “we have a lot of nothing-like-its.”

Yablonsky has been instrumental in securing historic designations throughout the area — both to preserve them and to let them speak to the region’s history.

Listening to the civic environmentalist, it’s apparent that there are multiple entities and principals at work in and around the city, and it’s difficult to keep it all straight. But what is clearly obvious is Yablonsky’s enthusiasm and the accomplishments of a dedicated army that have and continue to transform Cleveland.

The result is a city and surrounding area that is definitely worth a visit.

Next: Cleveland’s amazing historic Playhouse Square.

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