State of the river address

The following is the keynote address delivered by Plain Dealer reporter Steven Litt to the 2001State of the River Symposium. The speech is titled, "Restoring the Cuyahoga River with Big Moves and Patient Labor."

By Steven Litt

I have to confess that before I sat down to finish preparing my remarks for today, I started leafing through the newspapers I saved from September 12, the day after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington that left us all in a state of shock.

I couldn't help it. I am drawn again and again, in spite of myself, to contemplate these images of absolute horrorthe fireballs exploding from the World Trade Center towers, the people running in terror, the clouds of dust and ash that enveloped lower Manhattan, the black pall rising from the Pentagon. When I was thinking about what to say today, I thought at first, "How can I talk about Sept. 11?" And then I thought, "How can I not?"

It seems like just yesterday. And yet so much has happened since Sept. 11. We're living a lot of history in a very short amount of time. Every day we read about Anthrax, about bombing runs over Taliban targets, about postal workers dying, about a war with two fronts: one in Afghanistan, and one right here at home.

As the fresh editions of the newspapers pile up, and as one momentous development layers itself atop another, it's important, I think, to remember the shock, the anger, the full range of emotions from Sept. 11. Because the depth of those emotions will help us to carry on, to make a better world. For that is truly a mission for all of us, whether we work to put out a newspaper, to pick up the pieces left after Sept. 11, or to bring a great American river back to life.

Like all of you, I imagine, I was moved to tears by the stories of firemen running up the stairs of doomed buildings in the hope of saving lives. And I was astonished by stories of the passengers on United Airlines Flight 93, who voted to rush the cockpit, to take the controls away from the hijackers and, apparently, to crash the plane in the Pennsylvania mountains, rather than let it continue on to do more damage in Washington.

But there was one small story about heroism in response to Sept. 11 that you may have missed. It was a small piece in The New York Times Magazine on Sept. 30 by a writer named Verlyn Klinkenborg. In it, he describes the new respect New Yorkers discovered for the common
laborers who gathered at ground zero in the days after the attack to sift through a pile of rubble that was six stories high and as big in area as the entire site where Cleveland Browns stadium is located. Armed with nothing more than five-gallon plastic buckets, these workers began the tedious, backbreaking work of clearing the site, bit by painful bit. They didn't have advanced degrees. They weren't symbolic analysts who traded futures in the commodities markets or who wrote contracts for corporate mergers. They were construction workers who sought to begin healing the city through the work of their hands.

As Klinkenborg wrote: "Like firefighters and police officers, the men and women in the construction trades went immediately to the cynosure of ground zero. Every one of them knows the meaning of hard manual labor, and every one is a gradualist, someone who understands that patient application to small tasks accomplishes great things."

Well, when I read that paragraph, quite frankly, I thought of all the people who have worked so hard for so many years to give us back the Cuyahoga River, and perhaps, one day, to give us back the shores of Lake Erie.

Let me hasten to say that I don't mean to overdraw the comparison, or to trivialize in any way the magnitude of what happened on Sept. 11. So let me be precise here. The industrialists who defiled our environment for more than a century were nothing like terrorists who attacked our nation. The robber barons were creators, not destroyers. They were brilliant people of business. They amassed great fortunes and created great cities. They endowed us with superb cultural institutions, established great charitable endeavors to share their wealth.

But they left behind many legacies. The one we struggle with today is an environment poisoned and defiled by decades of heedless profit-seeking. As we all recognize, this is a huge liability. It scars the image of our community. It prevents us from living a full life in balance with nature. It may even threaten the future existence of Cleveland and other communities in Northeast Ohio. But this need not happen. If we can heal the wounds left behind by the industrial revolution, we can make this a better place to livea greater community with a real future.

And that is why, when I came to speak to you today, I thought of Verlyn Klinkenborg's statement about construction workers at ground zero. Because, in a way, we are facing the aftermath of an environmental disaster. It didn't happen in an instant, like the attacks of Sept. 11. No, the environmental debacle happened in slow motion, over decades. To fix it, we need gradualists who understand what Klinkenborg called "the patient application to small tasks." The river cannot be reclaimed in a day. But through gradual effort, overgenerations, great things can be accomplished. And believe me, even though our nation is at war, I think nothing could be more important than continuing to fight for the reclamation of our waterways and the discovery of a new way to live in harmony with nature on this continent.

In the history of the world, American cities are relatively recent creations, and our nation is not that old. For two centuries, we have had a vast territory to conquer and claim. We live in motion, shifting from town to town and from city to city, rarely learning enough about the places in which we live to care about them, to love them and to learn about how to live in harmony with them.

We have connected our cities to a vast system of highways that has enshrined the automobile as our primary mode of transportation. And yet because the highway makes it so easy to zip from place to place, it has also demolished the unique and special characteristics that make one place different from another. We travel about madly in search of the next best place, only to find when we get there that it's pretty much like the homogenized landscapes we left behind.

In Northeast Ohio, we have tragically walled ourselves off from our rivers and valleys. We have erected concrete barriers between ourselves and the lake. And so we forget why we came to Ohio in the first place. We forget why our cities were built where they were. We suffer from geographic amnesia. Like the robber barons, we are heedless too.

Lewis Mumford, perhaps our greatest critic of architecture and urban development, understood all of this perfectly. In a 1958 essay called, "The Highway and the City", he predicted that the interstate highway system, then recently approved by Congress, would have "the same result upon vegetation and human structures as the passage of a tornado or the blast of an atom bomb."

For this, he blamed the mentality of the traffic engineer, whose task is to improve the flow of automobiles at the expense of any other priority. As Mumford wrote, "Since the engineer regards his own work as more important than the other human functions it serves, he does not hesitate to lay waste to woods, streams, parks, and human neighborhoods in order to carry his roads straight to their supposed destinations. As a consequence, the cloverleaf hasbecome our national flower and wall-to-wall concrete the ridiculous symbol of national affluence and technological status." Now, as symbols of national affluence go, the highways don't rank with the World Trade Centers. Bridges, perhaps. The Golden Gate Bridge, definitely.

But in a general sense, I think Mumford got it exactly right. By building a wildly unbalanced transportation system, we have hitched ourselves to the automobile, built our cities in a way that reinforces our dependence. We are required to drive, to spend thousands of dollars a year maintaining automobiles and filling them with gasoline. We consume far more energy that we produce. This is bad for the planet. And it has made us especially dependent on oil from the Middle East, which is one reason why we are at war now. The presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia, made necessary by the imperative to keep the peace after Desert Storm, is cited by the terrorists as one reason for their anger against us. If The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal are correct, we have propped up a corrupt and repressive regime in Saudi Arabia, feeding resentments that have enflamed hatreds that now threaten to engulf the world.

I don't mean to suggest that the root cause of our present troubles is simply that too many of us drive SUV's. Nor would I suggest that if we can reclaim a few rivers, we'll solve all our problems. But I do think it's time for us as Americans to confront the tragic inequities in the distribution of global wealth and to try to live on our own continent in a way that's more thoughtful and more sustainable.

If we can do that, we might discover whole new green economies that can create wealth based on living in harmony with nature, rather than paving everything in sight. And, perhaps, we can use our wealth to pay greater attention to the world, instead of waiting for the world to rush in upon us as it did on Sept. 11.

Part of our task, I think, is to create cities and towns that are designed on a sensitive, thoughtful and beautiful pattern that can be sustained for generations, so they are worthy of our devotion and love. We have yet to discover those qualities in places like Cleveland and Northeast Ohio.

But we're trying. We are trying to undo the damage Mumford predicted we would inflict on ourselves.

In a way, it's hard for me to speak to this group because there's nothing I can tell you that you don't already know about the importance of waterfronts in northeast Ohio. Why is that? Because you have taught me. Last year I spent five months exploring the northern Cuyahoga valley, speaking with planners, members of the RAP, and community leaders about the importance of the Ohio & Erie Canal National Heritage Corridor.

I see the corridor project in particular as the big gesture that can unite the efforts of all the patient gradualists in the watersheds of our region. It's the big design, the quilt in which everybody gets to embroider a single square, the blueprint that will let each of us swing a hammer with the confidence that the nail will go in the right place.

Best of all, by reintroducing Northeast Ohioans to our history and geography, the heritage corridor can build a political base for preservation and wise development throughout the region. And what I love about the project is that it begins with a trail system a thin green thread of public space - that can knit our cities and towns and counties together.

But just as there is a time for gradualists to do the patient labor of making a better world bucketload by bucketload, there is a time and place for the big moves that can shape entire landscapes in a single stroke. In New York, this moment will come when architects and planners sit down to design the new development that will replace the World Trade Center. And in Cleveland, another such moment is upon us, although I'm not quite sure we realize it yet.

The Ohio Department of Transportation is getting ready for a massive re-do of the Inner Belt, the ganglion of roadways, bridges and ramps that leaps over the Cuyahoga River and connects three interstate highways around Cleveland. This is the highway system that cut Tremont in half, that walled off the northern end of the valley and which put eight lanes of concrete between Clevelanders and their lakefront. At minimum, even if ODOT did nothing more than simply repave what they've already built, the project would cost at least $200 million, most of which would come from the federal government. And that's not all.

ODOT is also paving the way, pardon the expression, for a new Flats transportation system that could parallel the northern end of the Cuyahoga River and funnel truck traffic south from Whiskey Island to the highways system via I-490. That little item could cost another $150 million or more.

These are big, big chunks of urban infrastructure. They could perpetuate the damage done to Cleveland in the 1950s and 60s, and freeze the city in its current industrial pattern for another half century or more. Or, if Clevelanders can capture the design process and open new pathways to the river and the lake, these highway projects could actually be an enormous boon to the city and the entire region.

In this case, there is no time for gradualism. Cleveland desperately needs a new city planning effort. And it needs to be based on a new civic paradigm. It should not be a repeat of the top-down, public-private partnerships that proved successful in the creation of tourist attractions such as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. Highways are public investments, and they call for a massive mobilization of public will. We need an entirely new system to involve the entire region in reconceiving the lakefront and the riverfront at Cleveland. And we need to do it in a way that is uniquely our own, one that announces to the world that Cleveland values its waterways and waterfronts, and knows how to design beautifully around them.

I see no reason why this can't be done through a highway planning process. But first, Greater Clevelanders have to capture the design process and dictate to ODOT very clearly what the region desires.

My own view is that it's time to open up the river and lake with a system of linear parks that connect the hinterlands upstream to the population center of the region with a continuous network of trails, historic sites and museums. This can become the new framework for revitalization of urban neighborhoods,and the creation of new wealth based on the rediscovery of our geography.

I believe this can happen because public amenities create value. Ask any developer. Views sell. Waterfront properties sell. You build it and the people will pay handsomely for it. And that translates into the kind of wealth that can be redistributed to benefit everyone, not just the people who have a front row seat on the waterfronts.

But there are even more important reasons to reclaim our waterfronts around a vision of public space. One is that it will make Northeast Ohio a cleaner and healthier place to live. Once more people can see and use their waterfronts,
citizens will become a political force for good stewardship.
Parks also make for better democracies. They are not elitist. It should be the birthright of any Northeast Ohioan to see the sun set over Lake Erie. Sadly, today, that privilege is owned by the lucky homeowners whose backyards face the lake, or the owners of boats moored at the private yacht clubs that lease public land along the lake. That needs to change.

Finally, if we hope to foster the industries of the future, we have to make Northeast Ohio a better place to live. Knowledge workers in high-tech industries can live wherever they want. High-tech communications make it possible for software designers and computer technologists to pick and choose among desirable locations. If we can't make Northeast Ohio more desirable, we won't be able to adapt as our manufacturing industries fade and new industries arise.

Believe me, the highway project in Cleveland is pivotal to any of this. If we blow the ODOT design process and miss the opportunity to improve our connections to the water, we're going to make a 50 or 100-year mistake. And that we cannot afford to do.

So how can we plan for a better future? There are so many good examples to follow in American urban history. From where we stand, it's easy to envy the Chicago lakefront. But it's more important to understand how Chicago got its lakefront. It didn't happen because government wanted it to happen. It happened in spite of government. The lakefront was the result of generations of civic activism in which people sued the city to prevent construction of museums in Grant Park, or chained themselves to trees to stop bulldozers in Jackson Park.

Today, the spirit of activism is alive and well on Chicago's lakefront. The Friends of the Parks recently agitated successfully for a redesign of Lakeshore Drive, in which the northbound lanes of the highway got flipped from one side of the Field Museum to the other, like a garden hose. In a single stroke, this created a whole new unit of public space on the lakefront around the city's museum campus. We could do something similar at Gordon Park in Cleveland, if only I-90 could be flipped over the CEI power plant, so the two halves of the park could be reunited.

Another example to consider is the Riverlife Task Force in Pittsburgh. This is a two year-effort, masterminded by Mayor Tom Murphy and a host of civic leaders. What made it different from the top-down methods of previous plans in Pittsburgh is that the entire vision was shaped in public meetings. Over the past two years, the task force held more than 100 public sessions, building a broad consensus over the shape of future development on the riverfronts. Their work was just completed earlier this week, and you can read about it on the Internet at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Web site.

Of course, we have our own home-grown planning efforts on which to build. The Ohio & Erie Canal National Heritage Corridor is the outcome of 15 years of steadfast activism and public involvement. And I think, finally, elected officials in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County are beginning to understand the significance of the project. Building upon that central spine, the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission has prepared the vision for a new county Greenprint, which would create a vast new system of trails and parks connecting the county's three great riversthe Rocky, the Cuyahoga and the Chagrinto each other, and building a web of pathways that could inspire revitalization and renewal.

During the past year, I've witnessed many positive steps in the larger effort to reclaim our rivers and streams. Just to name a few:

  • A film documentarian is preparing a program about the Cuyahoga River, to be aired nationally on PBS.
  • Last April, four nationally-known architects and landscape architects came to Cleveland for a weekend-long charrette to create concepts for the future of Canal Basin Park, which would be the northern terminus of the National Heritage Corridor. The Kent State University Urban Design Collaborative in Cleveland played a key role in organizing this event, along with Ohio Canal Corridor.
  • Last month, one of those designers, a Columbia University professor named Stan Allen, brought his students back to Cleveland to work on a landscape plan for the entire northern section of the valley. Their work will be done in December.
  • Next winter or spring, if all goes well, the Canal Basin charrettes will go into a second phase.
  • Schmidt Copeland Parker Stevens, the Cleveland architecture and landscape firm, has been hired by Cuyahoga County to create a detailed design for the northernmost section of the towpath trail, leading into Canal Basin.
  • Cleveland State University is planning a yearlong series of public forums on the future of our lake and waterways, with the stated goal of building community consensus.
  • Case Western Reserve University's new master plan calls for the daylighting of Doan Brook and a redesign of the university's ugly cliff wall of buildings facing Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in University Circle.
  • The Cleveland Museum of Art has chosen Rafael Vinoly as the architect for its renovation and expansion, and Vinoly has publicly stated that he understands the importance of giving the museum a new frontage on Doan Brook and Rockefeller Park.
  • The Ohio Department of Natural Resources is about to start a public master planning process for Dike 14, the 88 acres of new landfill on the Cleveland lakefront.

Despite all this good news, there's a long way to go in Cleveland and Northeast Ohio. There are still active construction and demolition debris landfills along the Cuyahoga. In Valley View, the community is degrading the quality of the towpath trail by building truck routes right next to the canal and the bike path. We need to continue redoing our sewer systems, to keep waste from pouring into streams and rivers after heavy rains. If we build next to our waterways, we need the highest quality urban design, architecture and landscape architecture and that goes for every community in the watershed, not just Cleveland. We need a green web connecting all our communities, helping pave way for new economy.

We need to make Northeast Ohio a place known for its incredible beauty. We need to undo forever the image of the burning river. We can do all this one bucket at a time, like those heroic workers at ground zero. And we can do it in a big stroke, by making sure that when the highways are
done this time, they're done in the best possible way.

If we can devise the right ways to plan, and hire the best designers money can buy, I have no doubt we can become a beacon for the entire nation and reclaim our greatness as a city and region.

Thank you.


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The industrialists who defiled our environment for more than a century were nothing like terrorists who attacked our nation. The robber barons were creators, not destroyers. They were brilliant people of business. They amassed great fortunes and created great cities. They endowed us with superb cultural institutions, established great charitable endeavors to share their wealth.

But they left behind many legacies. The one we struggle with today is an environment poisoned and defiled by decades of heedless profit-seeking. As we all recognize, this is a huge liability. It scars the image of our community. It prevents us from living a full life in balance with nature. It may even threaten the future existence of Cleveland and other communities in Northeast Ohio. But this need not happen. If we can heal the wounds left behind by the industrial revolution, we can make this a better place to livea greater community with a real future.


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