In the summer of 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, defied the laws of nature and caught fire. Time covered the event and cemented the fire’s place in national lore. The story that followed says this fire captured the country’s attention and brought to light the environmental hazards not only in Cleveland but in the country as a whole. And it went on to spark the modern environmental movement. This all sounds like such a nice, tidy story. But in reality, things were much more complicated and involved politics, the space race, and just plain timing.
Hosts: Alexis Pedrick and Elisabeth Berry Drago
Reporter: Larry Buhl
Senior Producer: Mariel Carr
Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez
Audio Engineer: James Morrison
Music courtesy of the Audio Network
Audio from the film The Return of the Cuyahoga used courtesy of Bullfrogfilms.com.
“1969 Report on Ted Kennedy’s Accident at Chappaquiddick Island.” ABC News. YouTube video, 01:11, April 5, 2018.
“Anti Vietnam War Protest: King Rose Archives.” YouTube video, 01:35, April 1, 2013.
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“Carl Stokes and the River Fire.” National Park Service. Last updated May 2, 2019.
“Carl Stokes, Mayor of Cleveland.” Archive film 91967. Huntley Film Archives. YouTube video, 01:48, June 20, 2014
“The Cuyahoga River Fire: A New Mayor Tackles an Old Problem.” CSU Digital Humanities. YouTube video, 01:07, August 6, 2010.
“The Cuyahoga River Fire, Part 1: Don’t Fall in the River.” CSU Center for Public History and Digital Humanities. Video, 01:23, 2010.
“Cuyahoga River Pollution Ohio 1967.” YouTube video, 04:45, March 20, 2010.
Doyle, Jack. “Burn On, Big River…,” Cuyahoga River Fires,PopHistoryDig.com, May 12, 2014.
“Greenhouse Warning on Earth Day 1970: NBC News.” YouTube video, 02:53, April 22, 2015.
Heaton, Michael. “Burning River Fest Parties in the Name of the Environment.” Plain Dealer, July 19, 2012.
Holt, Lawrence R., and Diane Garey, dir. The Return of the Cuyahoga. 2008. Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films.
“The J.F.K. Assassination: A Cast of Characters.” New York Times, October 25, 2017.
“Martin Luther King: Assassination and Aftermath.” CBS News Special Report, April 5, 1968.
“MLK: The Assassination Tapes.” Smithsonian Channel. 1895 Films, 2012.
“POV Shorts: Earthrise.” PBS, Go Project Films. 2018.
“President Richard Nixon Announces Environmental Program.” Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. YouTube video, 02:08, August 2, 2010.
Rotman, Michael. “Cuyahoga River Fire.” Cleveland Historical Society, April 27, 2017.
Scott, Michael. “Scientists Monitor Cuyahoga River Quality to Adhere to Clean Water Act.”Plain Dealer, April 12, 2009.
“The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson: Rare Pre-EPA Look at America.” YouTube video, 44:47, January 28, 2017.
Stradling, David, and Richard Stradling. Where the River Burned: Carl Stokes and the Struggle to Save Cleveland. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015.
“Year of the River: A Look at the Cuyahoga River 40 Years after It Caught Fire.” Special series, Plain Dealer, 2011.
“Vietnam War Protest in Washington.” YouTube video, 01:54, November 29, 2011.
“Yakov Smirnoff.” YouTube video, 06:32, June 23, 2009.
The Myth of the Cuyahoga River Fire
The blaze that sparked the modern environmental movement . . . or did it?
The Return of the Cuyahoga, documentary film: June 22nd, 1969. A quiet night on the Cuyahoga River. Temperature in the low 80s. No rain or wind to speak of. As usual oil and debris accumulate at the base of the Norfolk and Western Railway Bridge. And as usual a railroad car carries molten steel across the bridge spewing sparks. The three essentials for fire: oxygen, material, and ignition.
Alexis: Hello and welcome to Distillations. A podcast powered by the Science History Institute. I’m Alexis Pedrick.
Lisa: And I’m Lisa Berry Drago.
Alexis: In each episode of Distillations we take a deep-dive into a moment of science-related history in order to shed some light on the present.
Lisa: Today our story starts in the summer of 1969, when the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio defied the laws nature and caught fire.
Alexis: Six weeks later, on August 1, 1969, Time Magazine covered the fire in what would become one of their most popular issues. Why was it so popular? Because Ted Kennedy graced the cover, in a neck brace. Under a banner that read “The Kennedy Debacle: A Girl Dead. A Career in Jeopardy.”
ABC News, July 21, 1969: At midnight last Friday Senator Edward M. Kennedy drove a car off a narrow bridge and into a pond on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. A young woman in the car with him was drowned.
Lisa: Many of the Americans who picked up the issue to read about the scandal would go on to read the article about the Cuyahoga river fire. And even more importantly, they’d see the image that went along with it.
John Grabowsi: There’s an incredible photograph of it, which is really, you know, Armageddon on the river. You can’t believe how big the fire is.
Alexis: The image that accompanied that Time Magazine story shows a small boat on the river, engulfed in huge clouds of black smoke. Flames crackle on the water itself. Off to the left are just a couple of firemen trying to put out the fire with a small stream of water. They look tiny compared to the massive cloud of smoke.
Lisa: Common lore says that it was this image that captured the country’s attention and brought to light the environmental hazards of Cleveland, and the country as a whole. And it went on to spark the modern environmental movement. Which all sounds like such a nice, tidy story.
Alexis: And one we’re here to ruin for you.
Lisa: Reporter Larry Buhl set out to uncover the true and complicated story about his hometown, and now we’re going to turn things over to him.
Alexis: Chapter One. Cleveland’s Inferiority Complex.
Larry: I grew up about thirty miles from downtown Cleveland. Close enough to get all of their TV stations. Everybody cheered the Cavs and the Browns and the Indians, even when they lost. Sports were big there. They still are. But growing up if I asked my family to take me to a baseball game in downtown Cleveland, they’d respond like I suggested eating deep-fried dirt. For as long as I can remember Cleveland has had a bit of an inferiority complex. I wanted to find out how other Clevelanders felt about their city today. And how the 1969 fire fits into how the world thinks about our hometown. So I decided to talk to some people on the street. The only problem is that I live in West Hollywood, California now. But I decided to try there anyway. It only took a few minutes to run into another native Clevelander.
Man on street: Are you for real?
Larry: Yeah, for real.
Woman on street: I’m from Cleveland.
Man on street: She’s from Cleveland.
Larry. Oh my gosh! What do you remember or what do you think about the 1969 river fire? When it the Cuyahoga River caught fire?
Woman on street: Oh, when it caught on fire? Yeah. I mean, I know it like makes Cleveland the butt of every joke. I don’t know. I think it’s kind of funny.
Larry: Five minutes later. I found another person from Cleveland. There are a lot of us out here.
Woman on street: That’s where I’m from.
Larry: Really? Seriously? I just met someone else who’s from Cleveland too.
Woman on street: Yeah, like the east-side suburbs. I think that Cleveland gets a bad rep for their sports teams and no one really gives a [expletive] about the fire. They just use it as a punch line.
Larry: The 1969 fire became the symbol of national pollution because you know rivers shouldn’t be fire hazards, and Cleveland became International fodder for jokes.
The Return of the Cuyahoga: Have you any idea how Governor Reagan plans to keep Russia from invading Poland? He’s going to rename it, Cleveland.
Larry: This is Russian comedian Yakov Smirnoff.
Smirnoff: Anybody from Cleveland by chance, anybody? They made me feel at home in Cleveland. So I had to escape again. Now I make fun of Cleveland because everybody makes fun of Cleveland. Is that correct? I mean every country has one city people make fun of. In Russia we used to make fun of Cleveland.
Larry: And in my experience Clevelanders and those around Cleveland didn’t push back much on that image. At least not until fairly recently. Decades of feeling like the city was kind of a joke can be traced back to the ‘69 fire. The little gift that kept on giving.
Lisa: Chapter Two. The Other Fires.
Alexis: Part of Cleveland’s reputation problem has to do with its history of pollution. But it was hardly the only industrial city with a pollution problem. And while the Cuyahoga River was once one of the most contaminated rivers in the U.S. it also wasn’t alone in that department. And it wasn’t the only one to catch fire.
Lisa: The Rouge River in Detroit was also set ablaze in 1969. The Buffalo River was ignited the year before, and for the same reason: toxic sludge and trash. And our own Schuylkill river, here in Philly, has caught fire on more than one occasion. So just keep all of that in mind as we walk you through Cleveland’s messy industrial past.
Cuyahoga River Pollution Ohio 1967: The Cuyahoga River as it reaches Lake Erie after a one-hundred-mile twisting and turning journey from its headwaters is an exhausted stream. Abused and misused by man and his machines.
Larry: Like its industrial counterparts Cleveland used its river to serve its industries. Historian John Grabowski of Case Western Reserve University notes that the river started out as a transportation system through the Great Lakes.
Grabowsi: In the 19th century it also became, literally, a sewer and it’s not that Cleveland alone does that. Every, you know, I think every major city throughout time at one point or another dumped their stuff somewhere. And if there was a waterway it carried it out.
The Return of the Cuyahoga: Rivers have always been considered as handy dumping places. The Cuyahoga is no exception.
Larry: It was sewage befouling the river but also millions of gallons of untreated waste from heavy industry. Industry that brought jobs and prosperity. Sherwin-Williams, Standard Oil, Republic Steel. These were titans of industry that all started in Cleveland.
Grabowsi: So I think it was, you know, how did you fix it? And what’s going to be the cost of fixing it? Who’s going to pay for it? And then if the payee is the manufacturer they’re simply going to want to go elsewhere.
Larry: Cleveland’s industrial growth took off after the Civil War with petroleum. By the 1880s its industry focused on iron and steel and everything you could make with iron and steel—from cars to roller skates.
Grabowsi: Which makes Cleveland not only the fifth largest city in the nation in 1920, but its industrial production is fifth-highest.
Larry: And pollution in Cleveland wasn’t just sludge in the river. It was choking particulates in the air.
Grabowsi: I can cite, you know, somewhat light-hearted anecdotal evidence that the steel workers were doing really well in the 1960s with union wages. And many of them have moved out to the suburban areas to get away from the mills, and they had two cars. One was the good car for the family and the other was the beater that they drove to the steel mills because they knew every day after they got out they’d be covered with red dust.
Larry: And it was also Lake Erie, where the river flowed. In the summer of 1969 the city wouldn’t let anyone swim in the lake until they put a curtain around the swimming area and chlorinated it to kill the bacteria. Basically a makeshift swimming pool inside the lake. By the 1960s the Cuyahoga River was incredibly polluted.
The Return of the Cuyahoga: The waters of the Cuyahoga’s Industrial Flats area move very slowly. It may take water from eight to thirty days to move through the channel to the lake. By this time the waters of the crooked river are legally dead.
Larry: By 1969 the Cuyahoga River—at least the six-mile stretch meandering through downtown Cleveland—was basically a brown oily slick of runoffs from chemical plants and paint factories located on its banks. Add in some raw sewage and the occasional pile of trash floating on it and it was just a spark away from disaster. And on Sunday morning, June 22nd 1969, near the Republic steel mills, one of those trash piles caught fire.
Grabowsi: They think it was a brake line or something on a train car that was going over the railroad bridge and that led to a conflagration. The flames shot up about five stories, according to one report.
Larry: The fire department showed up and put out the fire quickly.
Grabowsi: It was over so rapidly that there are no photographs of it that exist. And so that was it. It was another day on the river so to speak.
Alexis: Just another day on the river. No photographs.
Lisa: So maybe you’re wondering how Time managed to capture the image that historian John Grabowski described earlier as—
Grabowsi: Armageddon on the river. You can’t believe how big the fire.
Lisa: The answer is they didn’t. No one did. The only photo you’ll find of the 1969 fire is one of a railroad trestle bent out of shape by the heat. That’s it.
Alexis: To be clear, John Grabowski was describing the photograph Time used with the story earlier. It just wasn’t from the 1969 fire. It was from an earlier fire on the Cuyahoga River, in 1952.
Lisa: 1969 was not the first time the river caught fire. It wasn’t even the second time. Or the fifth! It happened at least thirteen other times, including in 1868, 1912, 1936, and 1952. And that 1952 fire was a big one. Much bigger than the 1969 fire. Again, here’s historian John Grabowski.
Grabowsi: That was about million, 1.5 million dollar’s worth of damage. And that’s noted because there’s an incredible photograph of it.
Alexis: So incredible that Time used it for their article about the 1969 fire.
Larry: Was the photo captioned? Did that say 1952?
Grabowsi: No. No, it was it was uncaptioned, as far as I know. Yeah, and if it was captioned people immediately believed that that was the ‘69 fire which was minuscule compared to that other one.
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Alexis: We tell stories about the intersections between science, culture, and history.
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Lisa: Back to the show!
Alexis: Chapter Three. Why this Fire Captured the World’s Attention.
Lisa: So if there had been other, bigger fires before 1969, why is this the one that made it into Time magazine? And makes it into national lore? The whole national consciousness. It shows up in songs by REM and Randy Newman. Why is that? The way we see it, it boils down to two things: timing, and who Cleveland’s mayor was.
Alexis: First, timing: In 1969 people were becoming increasingly concerned about the environment in ways they just hadn’t been in 1952.
Lisa: And just Seven years earlier, In 1962, a pivotal environmental book about pesticides had been published.
The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson: This is one of the nation’s bestsellers, first printed on September 27th, 1962. And Silent Spring has been called the most controversial book of the year.
Alexis: And just six months before the 1969 fire, a different photograph went viral. It was an image of Earth from outer space, captured by an astronaut aboard Apollo 8.
POV Short: Earthrise: Okay. Now we’re coming up on the view. We really want you to be at the view of the earth. Yes hold her steady, it’s really looking good.
Lisa: That’s a clip from a POV documentary called Earthrise, which is also what the photo came to be called. It would go on to be described as “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.”
POV Short: Earthrise: The question that we always receive is what was the most indelible view? What do you bring back? What do you remember after this flight? And I must confess that all of us, when we saw the Earth rising over the lunar landscape, said this was it.
Alexis: It was the first time humans saw their home from this perspective so clearly, and in color. And many saw it as a vulnerable blue and white marble floating in black space.
Lisa: Concern for the condition of the environment had been building throughout the 1960s.
Larry: In fact, the Cuyahoga River had already been getting cleaner before the fire, in the late 60s. Not that you’d want to go near it yet, but it was certainly cleaner than when it burned in 1952. Businesses that had been dumping toxic sludge in the river had started to self-regulate and cut back a bit. The city had built a sewage treatment plant, which didn’t completely alleviate the problem, but it helped some. And a year before the fire the city passed a 100-million-dollar bond initiative to clean up the river.
Richard Stradling: What changed was people’s attitudes toward the river, you know what was acceptable.
Larry: Richard Stradling is a reporter with the Raleigh News and Observer and co-author of a 2015 book about the fire, Where the River Burned.
Richard Stradling: What was acceptable in the 1950s was no longer acceptable in the late 1960s, and going forward into the ‘70s and ‘80s. And that’s why this one fire is remembered as a singular event. People assume that the river just got worse and worse and worse until it burst into flames and woke everybody up to how bad everything was. When in fact the river was getting cleaner and it had burned many times before. So really what had changed was not the Cuyahoga River but people’s attitudes toward rivers in general and this one in particular.
Larry: Time Magazine launched a new subsection under Science called Environment for their August 1st, 1969 issue. And the first story in this new section was about the Cuyahoga River. The reporter wrote about how it oozes rather than flows.
Alexis: But why did Time focus on Cleveland? Why did they give the story so much attention when local media largely ignored it? Why were national reporters even in Cleveland?
Lisa: The answer gets back to timing and who Cleveland’s mayor was. First timing. We probably don’t have to tell you that the 1960s was a tumultuous decade.
The J.F.K. Assasination: A Cast of Characters, The New York Times: The president has been assassinated. The president is dead.
Vietnam War protest in Washington: Protest sounds.
Anti-Vietnam War Protest, King Rose Archives: Thousands of demonstrators opposed to the Vietnam War assemble in the nation’s capital for a mass protest.
MLK: The Assasination Tapes, Smithsonian Channel: The King has been shot at the Lorraine.
Martin Luther King – Assassination and Aftermath. CBS News April 5, 1968: Washington, Chicago, Detroit, Boston, New York. These are just a few of the cities in which the Negro anguish over Dr. King’s murder—presumably by a white man—expressed itself in violent destruction.
Martin Luther King – Assassination and Aftermath. CBS News April 5, 1968: The violent afternoon faded into a red sunset, mixing eerily with a black pall of smoke blowing from burning downtown buildings.
Jim Rokakis: Cleveland itself was going through very difficult times. There were race riots here in 1965. There were even deadlier race riots in 1968. The ‘69 fire really, for many, was a metaphor of what was happening in Cleveland. It was a city going down in flames. Or going up in flames.
Larry: Jim Rokakis grew up in Cleveland and served on the Cleveland City Council for nineteen years. Now he’s vice president of Thriving Communities, an organization revitalizing Ohio cities. He says Cleveland was reeling not just from water and air pollution, but racial strife and poverty. And many communities and industries that were starting to move out.
Rokakis: My memory of it was that it was just one more bad thing that happened in Cleveland, right?
Larry: The national media had been paying attention to Cleveland and other cities that had race riots, but they were also interested in Cleveland for another reason.
News 5 Cleveland, November 7, 2017: Don’t vote for me because I’m a negro, but don’t vote against me because I’m a negro!
Rokakis: Cleveland made national news back then when they elected the first African American mayor of a major U.S. city.
Carl Stokes, Mayor of Cleveland: We want Stokes! We want Stokes!
Never has one man owed so much to so many. Truly never before have I ever known, to the extent that I know tonight, the full meaning of the words: God bless America.
Larry: Reporters from national outlets even moved to Cleveland just to cover everything he said and did. Some have speculated that the media was waiting, even expecting, or hoping that he would fail. So they were there when the river caught fire.
Lisa: Chapter Four. How Carl Stokes Played his Hand.
Alexis: The Cuyahoga River fire didn’t make national news on the day it happened. It didn’t cause much of a stir at all locally. There were no pictures, no TV footage. Remember, the fire was put out too fast. A different mayor might have shrugged off the event, minimized it, issued no comment. Carl Stokes leaned into it. The day after the fire, he held a press conference at the site of the burned trestle.
Lisa: He took reporters to an industrial site and sewers that contributed to the river’s sorry condition. He said that the local bond measure passed the year before to upgrade the sewers wasn’t nearly enough. And he explained he couldn’t do much about preventing industry from dumping its waste. The river flowed through too many other municipalities that were out of his control. His intended audience weren’t Cleveland residents, but lawmakers, in the state and federal government.
David Stradling: Carl Stokes is a very singular politician in the late 1960s. He describes urban problems, he describes the problem of race in a way that most whites will hear even if they have racist inclinations of their own. Will I think understand that something needs to be done.
Larry: This is David Stradling, Richard Stradling’s brother, who we heard from earlier. Together they co-wrote Where the River Burned.
David Stradling: He was raised in poverty himself by single mother. He lives in public housing while growing up. He understands the value of an interventionist activist government, and can speak to the ways in which government can make the lives of citizens better. And he does so with a rich understanding—not just this personal connection—but a rich understanding of how policy works.
Larry: Most Clevelanders were taken aback by the growing attention to this one fire because people didn’t actually live near the river, at least not then.
Richard Stradling: It struck people more who lived outside of Cleveland because they didn’t really know the Cuyahoga. They didn’t know that it was a place that that nobody went. There was no reason to go down there. It was industrial place. And so, you know as this became a symbol, I think a lot of people initially in Cleveland were, you know, somewhat dismayed. The number one environmental problem to most Clevelanders was air pollution because that was that hit them where they live, no matter where they lived.
Larry: But now, and for the next several decades, Cleveland came to be identified with a burning river. The national media and then comedians saw to that.
Richard Stradling: So you have this mayor drawing attention to the fire, that got it some more press, and you have the press nationally looking for stories to write about the environment. It became a symbol of what the environment had become all over the country.
Larry: Carl Stokes didn’t set out to make his city a laughingstock. He wanted federal intervention. He had already been trying to clean up the river before the fire. In fact, when he entered office, he pushed for and passed funding to clean up the Cuyahoga River, but the city couldn’t clean itself up without outside money, especially with a declining population and a shrinking tax base. And the state of Ohio wasn’t doing its job in regulating polluting industries.
So Stokes came to Washington repeatedly while mayor and he testified not only on pollution, but on a wide variety of issues from transportation to housing. Basically, he nationalized Cleveland’s problems.
Stokes never called himself an environmentalist. To Stokes pollution was one of the problems in what he called the “urban environment.” In Cleveland that urban environment, like it was in a lot of older American cities, was in crisis. And Stokes saw the connection and articulated it between jobs housing pollution and race.
There were many people of color living in substandard housing. Slums basically. Stokes understood that African Americans tended to suffer disproportionately from air pollution, mostly because they tended to have the worst jobs and their neighborhoods were clustered near the worst air quality. In the 1960s many whites were fleeing the city for the suburbs. African Americans were much less mobile for economic reasons and because of racist restrictions, like redlining, which made certain neighborhoods off-limits.
Just like the Cuyahoga wasn’t the only polluted river in the nation, Cleveland wasn’t the only city weighed down by poverty. But in Cleveland federal urban renewal dollars had been stopped because of compliance issues. In his visits to Washington Stokes advocated for the improvement of urban lives generally. Which meant jobs and decent housing, but it also meant clean air and water. His ultimate goal in testifying before Congress was to shake money loose for urban America and for Cleveland in particular. And if his testimony made Cleveland the poster child for cities in decline, then so be it.
David Stradling: There are two things that are driving people toward federal solution to environmental pollution. One of them is jurisdictional, and this is something that Carl Stokes learns a great deal about in his first two years in office. He recognizes that he literally does not have control over polluters who are outside of City Limits. So the Cuyahoga River flows into Cleveland from other municipalities that are dumping sewage into the river. In other words Cleveland inherits part of its water pollution problem from industry and housing outside of the city limits.
Larry: Stokes didn’t have the power to tell people outside of Cleveland what to do. He also didn’t have enough money to solve all of Cleveland’s problems. He needed help from the federal government. And Carl Stokes had some help in his mission when he came to D.C. as mayor of Cleveland. He stayed with his older brother Louis who was a freshman Congressman in 1969. Louis Stokes would go on to serve thirty years in the House and he was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Both Stokes brothers used the Cuyahoga River in their testimony advocating for what would become the Clean Water Act in 1972.
Alexis: Chapter Five. The Cleanup.
NBC: Earth Day demonstrations began in practically every city and town in the United States this morning. The first massive nationwide protests against the pollution of the environment.
Lisa: The first earth day, in 1970, had a huge impact. In its aftermath there was agreement across the political spectrum that something had to be done about the environment. President Richard Nixon, who was considered a staunch conservative, created the EPA and eventually urged Congress to pass the Clean Water Act.
Richard Nixon: The environmental agenda now before the Congress includes laws to deal with water pollution pesticide hazards ocean dumping
Nixon: We can make 1972 the best year ever for environmental progress.
Alexis: The Clean Water Act of 1972 mandated that all rivers throughout the United States be safe enough to swim and fish in, by 1983. Another law that directly affected Cleveland and Lake Erie was the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement that was signed by the U.S. and Canada to lower the amount of pollutants entering the Great Lakes.
Larry: Getting companies to stop dumping waste in the river was one thing, but something had to be done about the trash and sludge and oil that was already there. One man named Frank Samsel, a man who had already made his living on the river, turned his fishing boat into what he called “The Putzfrau.” That’s German for cleaning lady. He rigged up a vacuum with a huge hose and went around and sucked up the debris and sludge floating on the surface. He found everything from balls to park benches to screen doors.
The Return of the Cuyahoga: In about a sixteen-hour day we would move a hundred yards of debris and. About fifteen to 20,000 gallons of oil. Now that’s not bad. The way the river looked in the beginning I was sure that I would retire and there’d still be plenty of work to do.
Larry: But there wasn’t. And the river began to get much cleaner, thanks to a new era of environmental protections. So were all these laws passed because of one burning river in Ohio? No. Did Mayor Stokes amplify the need to do something by shining a light on his city? Richard Stradling says yes.
Richard Stradling: One of the main arguments that Carl Stokes was making over the years was these problems are not just Cleveland’s problems. These problems are not just Cuyahoga County’s problems. Everything is connected. And we need to think about them in a regional and even in a national way.
Larry: Clevelanders will say the Cuyahoga River fire of 1969 was a catalyst for a lot of federal legislation. It’s a story that something good came from something very bad. And the city needed a good story to tell. Again, David Stradling.
David Stradling: There’s a real psychological need to elevate the importance of the Cuyahoga River fire of 1969. It helps people feel better, particularly people in Cleveland, feel better about their polluted river. That it, in fact, was terribly important to the national narrative. And quite honestly, I think there’s nothing wrong with conveying myths that have some truth to them. But that mythology hides a much more complicated, and I think more important story, about how the environmental crisis gets a lot of attention, and the urban crisis that Carl Stokes was very concerned about really does not.
Larry: In his two terms of two years as mayor Stokes didn’t fix poverty and he didn’t achieve all the environmental gains he wanted. But in explaining how environmental conditions affect the poor and minority communities more than others Stokes was ahead of his time. And he was constantly frustrated that ecological issues were getting most of the attention at a press event for the first Earth Day in 1970. He said that he was fearful that the priorities on air and water pollution may be at the expense of what the priorities for the country ought to be: proper housing, adequate food, and clothing. In 1972. He parlayed his media savvy into a media job: taking a gig with TV station WNBC. He was the first black anchorman in New York City. In 1980 he came back to Cleveland to practice law. His legacy may be mixed, but he succeeded in getting federal urban renewal money flowing back to the city, especially in helping the city build sewage treatment plants.
David Stradling: Lots of historians and journalists have really used the Cuyahoga River fire to stand in for a national problem. It simplifies the story obviously, but that’s really just to allow us to understand how intense the problems had become.
Larry: It might be a stretch to call Cleveland of modern echo city, but it’s a much different city than it was fifty years ago. Now the Cuyahoga, described fifty years ago as biologically dead. is alive. Tankers still use it but you can fish in it, and people do. Heavy industry isn’t gone but its footprint is smaller and it isn’t allowed to self-regulate. Around the year 2000 condo started going up in the flats, the industrial area next to the river—formerly home to bars and strip clubs. Jane Goodman is executive director of Cuyahoga River Restoration. Since 1988 they’ve been working on reaching clean-up targets set by the federal government, as part of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement with Canada.
Jane Goodman: I grew up in an East Side Cleveland suburb. It wasn’t “Look here’s a river, it’s a natural resource, it’s a natural feature, it’s a cool river.” Because it wasn’t.
Larry: Jane took me to near the place where the river burned nearly half a century ago.
Jane Goodman: This is a river that works, and now it’s a river that lives.
Larry: We’re outside on the patio of popular restaurant, Merlin’s Wharf. Jane described to me all the ways the city has changed. Many ways.
Jane Goodman: The river itself would have been covered with oil soaked trash. Not a pretty sight, and nowhere where you would have put a restaurant for sure.
Larry: Cleveland is also a smaller city. The populations in the three hundred thousands now. A fraction of its peak in the 1950s. But that means there’s less traffic and more affordable real estate—something you don’t find in Los Angeles. And it’s much, much cleaner. But so is Pittsburgh, and Toledo, and Buffalo, and nearly every other industrial city. It’s just the Cleveland took the reputational hit for all of them for fifty years. So you can dis the city for its lousy weather. They’ll remind you that it takes a hearty person to make it through the winter. Make fun of their sports teams, with or without LeBron James, you might be in for a fight. But say you’ve heard the city’s polluted and they’ll wonder what you’re talking about. And mention the Cuyahoga River blaze they’re likely to laugh. They’ve learned to stop worrying and love the fire. For Distillations. I’m Larry Buhl.
Alexis: Distillations is more than a podcast. We are also a multimedia magazine.
Lisa: You can find our podcast, videos, and stories at Distillations DOT org.
Alexis: And you can follow the Science History Institute on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. This story was reported by Larry Buhl and it was produced by Mariel Carr and Rigo Hernandez.
Lisa: And this episode was mixed by James Morrison.
Lisa: Audio from the film, The Return of the Cuyahoga, was used courtesy of Bullfrog films.com
Lisa: For Distillations I’m Lisa Berry Drago.
Alexis: And I am Alexis Pedrick.
BOTH: Thanks for listening.