- Where the River Burned: Carl Stokes and the Struggle to Save Cleveland by David and Richard Stradling
In David and Richard Stradling’s interesting and welcome new monograph, Where the River Burned: Carl Stokes and the Struggle to Save Cleveland, the author-brothers, one a historian, the other a journalist, argue that the wrenching transition of urban America from an “industrial city” model to a “service city” model during the 1960s and 1970s was fueled not only by shifting largescale demographic and economic trends—such as suburbanization, deindustrialization, and white flight—but also “the growing influence of ecological thought in America” (11). They see in the urban politics of Carl Stokes’s pioneering mayoralty in Cleveland from 1968 to 1971 an opportunity to study “environmental policy and the growing influence of ecological thought in American culture” and thereby craft “a new, more inclusive” history of postwar urban America and the environmental movement (3). [End Page 88]
In most ways, Cleveland’s deepening urban crisis during the 1960s and 1970s was typical and emblematic of the broader calamity occurring across urban America. Many U.S. cities, particularly those that had been built upon the old industrial order, were grappling with “concurrent environmental and urban crises.” What made Cleveland unique, according to the authors, was not the crises it faced, but the distinctive perspective and positioning of its mayor, Carl Stokes. “Never had a black man raised in poverty grown up to run a major industrial city,” the authors explain, which “allowed [Stokes] to see the city more completely than any of his predecessors . . . the boundaries that ran through his community, the barriers that held Cleveland back.” This authentic perspective gave Stokes a legitimacy and authority “that no other mayor had” (3).
Immediately, Stokes faced the reality that decades of unmitigated industrial growth (and now decline) had left many of the city’s neighborhoods in ruins and its various natural features (like Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River) alarmingly polluted. If the city was to make a successful transition toward the new “livable service city,” one where public health and access to recreational opportunities were central, it would need to not only clear blight and revitalize a flagging economy, but also clean up these natural resources to make the city a more desirable place to live, work, and play. In this telling, demands for environmental improvement were generated not merely (or mainly) by economic growth and the desire of affluent suburbanites to preserve recreational wilderness and protect suburbia’s natural amenities, as many scholars have previously emphasized, but also by urban decline and a growing sense of crisis.
The book is organized in a nonlinear fashion around two critical months: June 1969, when the Cuyahoga River caught fire, bringing national ignominy to Cleveland, and April 1970, which included the first Earth Day. The authors spin their analysis outward from these two snapshots in time, providing historical context and analysis as necessary along the way. In the end, the Stradlings, while not uncritical of the Stokes administration, give the mayor significant credit for a host of policies and other actions that effectively put Cleveland on the path from the old industrial model to the new service city model. Yet, they also note that cleaner air, waterways, and beaches; new office buildings; expanding educational resources; and more open space “all made Cleveland a better place to be, but fewer and fewer people chose to live there” (15). Nevertheless, rather than seeing the Stokes Administration as a failure, the authors offer a quasi-heroic portrait of a determined and hard-working [End Page 89] leader battling a host of large-scale forces that made his job extremely difficult and his ultimate vision for the city, in the end, unachievable.
There are many lessons from Where the River Burned that should make it valuable to a wide range of scholars, students, and policy makers. The authors effectively demonstrate that environmental thinking was a significant dynamic in...