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Another look at Where the River Burned

Marc Lefkowitz  |  04/09/19 @ 4:00pm  |  Posted in Clean water

The 2015 book Where the River Burned: Carl Stokes and the Struggle to Save Cleveland looms large in 2019, the 50th anniversary of the last fire on the Cuyahoga River.

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River Burned is an insightful retelling of Cleveland’s modern history through an equity and environmental lens. The story of Carl Stokes, the first black mayor of a large American city, is intertwined with Cleveland's unraveling socially and physically. Carl fought against inequity and waste—not just on the river—but where he and his brother (15-term U.S. Representative) Louis Stokes, were raised, in Cleveland public housing. Ironically, lack of regard for the physical environment threatened to undo the very industries that caused it.

David and Richard Stradling’s book is a ringing endorsement for a respect for limits. For a Clevelander born into this environment, the narrative has always been one of decline and a deep respect for limits.

For those unfamiliar with the Stokes’ legacy, their Progressive policies grew out of a concern for the cause of burning rivers, rat infestations, redlining, and racial animus. In many ways the birth of the environmental movement, where the book begins, is the place to talk about Stokes legacy which lives on in contemporary issues that plague Cleveland’s physical environment. “Where the River Burned” includes EarthDay 1 letters from Cleveland area children. They show how those raised in suburbs of Cleveland were insulated from the effects of the Industrial City. The book addresses a lot of victim blaming that was happening at the time by pointing out how poor physical conditions contributed to social unrest.

“Writing later about it, Stokes noted that African-Americans hadn’t moved into a land of primeval forest and sweet, clear waters.”

The Hough Riots of 1966 and the 1969 Burning River were linked by the very same ability of some to leave behind the problems of the city. Like contemporary environmental concerns— fertilizers, plastic and other wastes washing into the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie—the root causes were in plain sight. But few were staking their capital on a long-term fix. How quickly Cleveland’s suburban residents could turn against the city, and how quickly the city deteriorated as a result of more people leaving than coming in. Understanding this helps better cope with that same animus that rankles Cleveland’s city-suburban relationship today.

The Stradlings do an admirable job of recounting the step by step dismantling of one of America’s great cities. They detail how corporate power, visions of Urban Renewal and neighborhood opposition stood in the way of Stokes’ Progressive policies. It serves as a cautionary tale for a less heated brand of Progressivism. Not that Stokes was wrong; he called out the forces of privilege and the victim blaming as much as he held up a mirror for all to see Cleveland’s impoverishment was America’s as well.

The message from Cleveland today is the Cuyahoga fire redefined our relationship to the river. It led to a desire for clean water. The river still faces many threats, but the blame can no longer be placed on a handful of big polluters. In many ways, the problem is us and what we consume, how we farm, and what cleaning products we put down the drain. We can take pride in the Clean Water Act and investing in modern water sanitation, while learning ways to recognize the big challenges that remain before we can declare water is clean and safe.

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