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Fifty years after the fire: A hinge in the fabric of time

David Beach  |  12/22/08 @ 11:00am

In the fascinating "Earthworks" exhibit shown recently at The Cleveland Museum of Natural History, a scientist talks about how ancient peoples built earthen mounds that were oriented toward the heavens to mark significant times of the year. These were times of transition or "hinges in the fabric of time" when the environment changed, animals migrated, food sources disappeared.

I think that we in Greater Cleveland are rushing toward such a hinge in the fabric of time. It is the year 2019, the 50th anniversary of the Cuyahoga River fire.

The fire of 1969 was a great turning point of collective consciousness. It marked the culmination of decades of wanton industrial pollution in the U.S., helped launch the modern environmental movement, and spurred passage of the Clean Water Act. After the fire, the massive glacier of industrialism began to retreat, revealing a raw, new landscape in the Great Lakes region (in the words of Toronto architect Ken Greenberg). We have spent the past 38 years trying to figure out what comes next. What kind of place is this? What can we do here?

It hasn't been easy. The industrial glacier has retreated in fits and starts. It's been hard to be confident that a different future is possible. But in the last few years a transformation has been gaining momentum. People have begun to see new possibilities in the landscape -- clean industries, a beautiful lakefront, regeneration of the Cuyahoga River valley, a green city of revitalized neighborhoods, a countryside of protected farmland and natural areas, regional collaboration and strategies to reduce concentrated poverty, wind turbines, greenways, bikeways, healthy local food, and countless other visions of sustainability rooted in the potential of this place.

All this could come together by 2019. If we focus our efforts during the next 12 years, Greater Cleveland can truly become the green city on a blue lake of our dreams. We can walk through the door to a different time.

If 2019 is your deadline, what would you like to do to transform this place?

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