Industrialization to Urbanization: How economic changes directly affect the Cuyahoga River

The Flats East Bank – left circa 1987 | Cleveland Public Library, right circa 2019 | George Hahn, idea stream

Years ago before the bars, nightclubs, and restaurants Cleveland’s most popular and growing area known as the Flats was considered as the hub of industrialization. The area siting between the river and the plateau of the city, would forego many changes before it became what it is today. These changes would have a direct effect on the Cuyahoga River and its purpose.

Industrialization – A Growing Economy & A Neglected River

In the late 1820s settlers created the Ohio-Erie Canal, establishing the first connection between Cleveland and Akron, prompting the evolution of industry that would last decades. The birth of the Canal brought in the perfect opportunity and space needed for shipyards, docks, and warehouses. However, the river itself didn’t satisfy the growing need for the accommodation and expansion of industry in Cleveland.

The federal government and the state of Ohio formed an agreement to widen the mouth of the river by digging a trench through the Flats. The trench allowed ships to transport more smoothly, and the agreement between Ohio and the government still remains in place today. There weren’t any raised concerns of how this change could effect the river at the time the agreement was made.

By the 1850s, railroads came into existence and propelled industry in the area even more. Cleveland’s economy had been dominated by industry, yet the river remained treated as a tool rather than a resource, and soon it would cry loudly for attention and care.

Republic Steel Co. picture acquired from the Cleveland Plain Dealer

The area became home to big well-known oil refineries, steel mills, and chemical manufacturers that lived alongside the river. Famous steel mills such as Republic Steel took over the area and used the river to dump its chemical waste.

In 1969 the infamous “burning river” incident took place. The river caught fire due to over pollution and waste. It burned for 20 minutes. Environmental history professor David Stradling says the heavy congregation of industrial companies produced heavy pretrochemicals (chemicals that are flammable) on top of the water making it susceptible to burning. However he also believed industry alone was not the only cause for the 1969 fire.

David Stradling, University of Cincinnati Professor

David goes on to explain that the geography of the river also played a factor in its burning. “It’s a very slow moving river. It’s a river that’s crossed by a lot of bridges, and it’s a river that drains a rural area which sends down a lot of drift wood,” he continues.

This driftwood becomes a usual cause of fires on the river. The driftwood dries out as it piles up behind the bridged piers and kindles as its small flames spread across the oil slicked water.

The industrial boom did not cause the river to catch fire by itself, but it did end years of neglect for the river. Industry slowed down, and soon after the fire The Clean Water Act was put in place. This changed the way industrial companies engaged with the river.

In the years ahead the area became more interested in entertainment and society’s concern about the river raised.

Urbanization – Economic Shifts & a New Use For the River

Cleveland’s economy began to shift after the Great Depression. Many successful oil refineries and steel mills slowly vanished, leaving few left behind. Clevelands mark on manufacturing and industry ceased.

As a result the flats no longer served as the industrialization hub, but instead it slowly began its evolution into a destination for entertainment. Around the 1970s bars and restaurants made their appearance into the area. Workers and sailors that remained from the few industries left would make up most of the population, along with college kids, and others who lived nearby.

Almost simultaneously, the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972. Policies were put in place that helped restore the health of the river. Chemical waste was monitored closely through this act, and organizations dedicated to restoring the river began to arise. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency was established October 23rd, 1972. They became responsible for reviewing and issuing permits, monitoring and meeting environmental standards, reinforcing environmental laws, and providing technical assistance for regulated facilities. Since establishment they have collaborated with numerous stewards and organizations such as the Cuyahoga River Restoration, Cleveland Metroparks, Cuyahoga National Valley Park, and many more.

Cleveland Flats circa 1999 | Thom Sheridan

The river had finally gotten the attention it had been neglected in the shadow of the manufacturing industry.

Despite its growing evolution, the Flats struggled to create a safe and efficient relationship with the river. Three individuals drowned in the river over the course of four weeks in early 2000s summer. The incident raised safety concerns, and the bars and restaurants took majority of the blame. Though with the shift from industrial to entertainment there was little concern given to river safety. As with the industrial age, the river remained viewed as a tool rather than a source for recreation. There was little human interaction with the river besides the workers who used it for shipping. Therefore establishing safety precautions was an after thought.

Former city councilman Joe Cimperman whom represented the flats during the time of the drownings expressed how poorly developed it was for humans interacting with the river that were not industry workers. Cimperman told The Downtowner podcast,

“The fact the flats had made its mark as being this industrial place where iron ore freighters came through completely neglected the fact people were so close to the edge of the water so often. The real tragedy of those deaths was that had there been ladders in place, or had there been life boys…those people would have potentially survived.”

Following the deaths, city officials began to put those kinds of repercussions in place. Officials also cracked down on code violations amongst bars, and because of this many bars evaporated the scene. The flats went from an industrial hub, to a poorly monitored entertainment district, to becoming a deserted area awaiting rebirth.

A New Phase & New Concerns

The rebirth of the flats that caused it to become what it is today would happen on behalf of two individuals, Scott & Iris Wolstein. Both are the principle developers of the East Bank Flats.

The project began in 2005, and has since brought a hotel, new restaurants and bars, apartments, and an esplanade along the Cuyahoga River front.

“I will make the argument that it is infinitely better today than it ever was when I was eighteen years old,” Joe Cimperman tells The Downtowner.

According to Crains Cleveland about $750 million has gone into the project thus far. Developers are currently in what they call phase three of redeveloping the area. This phase is set to bring even more urban use to the area including 320 apartment units, a movie theater, and retail space. Their current undertaking includes constructing two buildings designed for more nightclubs, restaurants, and bars that are set to sit on land abutting the river. The site for development sits between current restaurant and bar Alley Cat and FWD Day & Nightclub.

Completed Phase II of the redevelopment of east bank flats. | Dimit Architects

“I will make the argument that it is infinitely better today than it ever was when I was eighteen years old.”

Joe Cimperman to The Downtowner

Developers have not voiced concerns or plans for how the development will impact the river itself. Though both architects and Scott Wolstein himself are very excited on how the riverfront can improve the satisfaction of entertainment. Originally intended for condominiums Scott explains how the shift for using the riverfront for entertainment was important.

“I felt that land was too important for giving more access to the river for entertainment and food and beverage. I think it’ll be the most exciting waterfront property in Northern Ohio, maybe the Midwest. I’m very excited about it,” he tells the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Despite the growing excitement of the current state of this area and the amount of entertainment it brings to the city, there is a distinct pattern that is occurring.

With the evolution of the flats along comes what some may consider as a continuous disregard for one its biggest assets, the river itself. The continuous development of urban land puts a strain on the river’s natural flow which could in part lead to bigger issues such as flooding or the flushing out of beneficial resources for the river.

Urban development along the river makes it more susceptible to impervious surfaces which are surfaces that water cannot infiltrate as easily. This leads to problems concerning stormwater. When it rains storm water cannot easily infiltrate in urban developments causing it to alter the rivers flow disrupting the overall health of the river.

Though land developers may not be aware of this problem Cleveland and the state work with companies and developments to minimize these threats. The Northeast Ohio Sewer District manages stormwater within the Cleveland area. They authorize a stormwater utility to landowners that allows them to manage the stormwater of these developments.

Working with landowners and land developers the sewer district can provide innovative ways to create green infrastructure. An example of this could include putting a small garden somewhere inside of parking lot that allows the garden to soak of water from the rain.

This kind of collaboration and innovation could strike a positive balance between urban development and retaining natural resources, a world wide issue.

Though with the rapid growth of urban development in many cities this alone may not stop or alter the overall economic environment. However, in the Cleveland Flats’ third round of evolution an acknowledgement of the river as a natural resource rather than a tool or beautifier could be the answer to sustaining both economic and environmental growth in the area.

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