John Drescher

The river burned: What cities learned from Cleveland

As a boy growing up in Cincinnati in the 1960s and ’70s, Richard Stradling took long journeys through the night to visit relatives, sheltered in the back seat of the family car – a Ford Falcon station wagon, then a Pontiac LeMans, later a Pontiac Ventura, always an American-made car.

Even half asleep, he knew when they’d hit Detroit or Cleveland by the smell, a noxious industrial odor that indicated the Stradling family had arrived in those muscular manufacturing cities.

Bad air wasn’t Cleveland’s only environmental problem. On a Sunday morning in the summer of 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught fire. Cleveland barely noticed; the river was so polluted, it had caught fire at least 10 times.

Before long, though, the country knew about Cleveland’s filthy river. Later, Stradling wondered how the river fire became a national symbol of what was wrong with our stewardship of air and water.

His curiosity led to his new book, “Where the River Burned: Carl Stokes and the Struggle to Save Cleveland,” published by Cornell University Press.

Stradling, 50, is The News & Observer’s deputy metro editor. He co-wrote the book with his younger brother and former backseat trip mate, David, a history professor at the University of Cincinnati.

Richard Stradling will discuss the book Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Quail Ridge Books at Ridgewood Shopping Center in Raleigh.

Stokes, the first black mayor of a major American city, believed that Cleveland’s environmental problems were intertwined with the city’s social problems.

Cleveland was losing industrial jobs and residents were fleeing its polluted urban core for the suburbs. The air was dirty and the river was clogged with industrial waste and raw sewage from the city’s malfunctioning treatment system. In some neighborhoods, rats thrived.

The New York Times described Cleveland’s Hough section then as “one of the sickest and most sinister neighborhoods in the nation.”

The day after the ’69 fire, Stokes gathered reporters to show them where the river burned. Stokes said Cleveland needed help from the state and federal governments to clean its air and water. “He drew attention to the river in a way you wouldn’t expect the mayor to do when something embarrassing happens in your town,” Stradling told me this week.

The Cuyahoga became part of a larger story about a global environmental crisis. Time magazine listed several troubled urban waterways and said the Cuyahoga was among the most polluted. Time ran a dramatic photo of a boat engulfed in flames on the river, although the magazine failed to note the photo was taken 17 years earlier.

“After the Time coverage, the 1969 Cuyahoga fire evolved into one of the great symbolic environmental catastrophes of the industrial era,” the Stradlings wrote. Reports on the fire appeared in many other publications and became part of the political debate about protecting the environment.

Cleveland’s problems perhaps were more dramatic, but many U.S. cities of that era were troubled. Eventually, Richard Stradling said, city leaders figured out that in a new economy built around knowledge and not brawn, cities needed to become more centered on people and their talents.

For decades, industrial cities like Cleveland were a good place to find work but not a good place to live. “Quality of life has become the business of cities,” Stradling said. “That’s become an economic strategy.”

That’s why cities like Raleigh, he said, focus on improving parks, greenways, safety and traffic. Many people can live where they want. Cities are only as strong as the people they attract. No one wants to live near a burning river.

Drescher: 919-829-4515 or