Ask Clevelanders, what is the most important environmental story in the city’s history? Most will tell of the burning river and how it raised a national awareness of the environment. But, there is another important moment in Cleveland history that, like the last fire in 1969, can and perhaps should shape our thinking today.
1969 also marked the year of strong opposition within cities to urban highways. In Cleveland, they are referred to as the highway revolts. Cleveland was dealing with social and political upheavals. Jobs were being outsourced to foreign countries. The legacy of racial discrimination was coming to a head, and one of the negative consequences was sprawl and disinvestment.
It was also a time when progressives and conservatives could work toward a common cause. There was, perhaps, more general acceptance in Cleveland that serving the least able might mean taking on the most powerful.
Then Cleveland Planning Director, Norm Krumholtz, helped in the fight to turn back powerful interests that wanted to build a network of highways slicing through the east side of the city and the suburbs of Shaker and Cleveland Heights. In his book, “Making Equity Planning Work” Krumholtz tells of how, in 1969, NOACA voted for an east side highway that would start at E. 55th and cut east through densely populated, lower income black neighborhoods. He was asked by Mayor Carl B. Stokes to come up with a strategy to rescind that vote.
“I could find nothing to suggest that the Cleveland City Planning Commission had been anything but supportive of all NOACA’s highway plans,” Krumholtz writes. “We had made no effort to define the proposed freeway as a problem—a project that would destroy neighborhoods, reduce the supply of affordable housing available to Cleveland’s low-income populations, and deepen racial isolation and the city’s fiscal problems. (City staff) looked at it in terms of highway engineering criteria—as an ‘improvement’ to the regional traffic flow.”
Under Krumholtz, city planning developed an estimate of the costs to the city of the highways, including the local share of the building costs, loss of jobs, loss of housing, loss of income tax. And they used the numbers in their presentations that opposed the highways.
It may take some imagination to picture the city acting so forcefully to oppose an urban highway project, but remember that the urban sections of I-90 and I-77 had just been built and the city neighborhoods were still smoldering from the big, gaping paved hole it tore through them. Perhaps a generation later, the highways that were built have spread leadership around the region and made no one place, but particularly the established communities, less the center.
Cleveland sued NOACA for better representation on its board and threatened to withdraw its dues until the I-290, which includes the western portion of today’s Opportunity Corridor, was taken off the table.
The city had lost the vote 27-5. Krumholtz met with his suburban allies in Shaker and Cleveland Heights and enlisted the help of engineers with a private firm who agreed to develop an alternative route. Not unlike calls for Opportunity Corridor to align along existing, less damaging (from a takings standpoint) route, an alternative emerged to throw cold water on the state/county plan. Cleveland also called on HUD who agreed to enter into the negotiations with NOACA (HUD sided with the city because of the potential loss of affordable housing, and pressed NOACA to ensure that there was adequate housing for people displaced by the regional facility).
It was enough of a wedge for the city and elected officials from the inner-ring suburbs to leverage the anti-highway sentiments in the public and eventually stop the Clark and Lee freeways in their tracks.
“Our alternative route proposal was not a political attack,” Krumholtz concludes. “It was an attack on their rational methods by the rational methods of other technicians. Our proposal also served to keep the issue hot and before the public. To modify well-established local policy, persistent challenges must be made on many levels. These challenges both give allies an opportunity to publicly reaffirm their support and place pressure on other public officials for support.”
Such pressure led to a pledge in April 1970 by (Republican) Governor James A. Rhodes, then locked in a primary fight for a seat in the U.S. Senate, that he would never force a highway on a community that did not want it.
Think about the lessons and parallels to today. What has changed about who decides when new roads are needed and where they will go into communities? What this lesson in history holds for today is uncertain, given the record of decision on Opportunity Corridor. However, it does show the strengths that can be found when likeminded communities find common cause to question a decision that was made for them.
Even though it seems like decisions are final, it is important to ask questions and keep the dialogue going about Opportunity Corridor’s true intent.
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One of the things that strikes me as particularly relevant about the push back against the urban highway bisecting Cleveland’s east side was the question of access to green space as a basic human necessity. It was a compelling argument used by wealthy residents of Shaker Heights to put the kibosh on the Clark and Lee freeways being planned to come through their natural area that today is the Shaker Lakes Nature Center. Celebrating 50 years in 2016, The Nature Center was built at the exact spot where the interchange of the Clark and Lee freeways would have gone. There were a number of outspoken critics from the environmental community. Former Cleveland Museum of Natural History Museum Director William Scheele told the Cleveland Press in 1964 that the highway plans endangered the health of nearby Doan Brook. “It has been losing its battle with the city for many years,” Scheele said.
How relevant is the question of urban highways and access to nature in the city? The narrative of Opportunity Corridor, thus far, has been about jobs and access to University Circle from the suburbs. The Clark and Lee freeways story illustrates that access to nature is just as important to Cleveland’s east side.
Shaker and Cleveland Heights officials framed their opposition to the Clark and Lee as a question of regional priorities. They argued that we “must not permit the inner ring of suburbs to be used as mere stepping stones by the residents of the more distant suburbs,” according to an historical account. The Shaker Heights activists realized that the freeways did not simply change the physical nature of their community, but would perhaps make it a less significant part of the wider metropolitan area.
It raises an obvious question of how do the eastern inner-ring suburbs of Shaker and Cleveland Heights view the Opportunity Corridor which is essentially the completion of the Clark freeway. Do they see it as a threat to their existence as the convenient place to live and work near University Circle?
In the case of the Clark Freeway, city leaders and community activists in Shaker and Cleveland Heights established the area as a nature preserve with historic landmark designation (because of the Shakers no doubt). Is there any reason why Cleveland’s east side couldn’t also have a nature preserve? It could act as its own form of stabilizing property values and restoring a healthy environment for people to access in new ways.
With the Clark and Lee Freeways, something like 800 homes were going to be displaced, while the Opportunity Corridor is going to displace 60 (80 when you count the businesses). So, does the scale of loss and displacement make it hard to compare the two or are there similarities?
When the Clark and Lee freeways threatened to destroy the natural areas of the Shaker Lakes, county engineer Albert Porter laid claim to the idea that “highways in the park” would improve access to nature for those looking at it from their cars. What is it that makes local leaders think that highway and road development will lead to better conditions for social and economic progress?
At the same time, attitudes about transportation seem to be evolving. How would we characterize the change that has occurred between the days of Porter (who treated all non-engineers with barely veiled contempt) and the county engineer today?
And yet, the county and NOACA just like back in 1969 have gone along with the funding of more urban highways even when it appears demand for car travel is heading down and demand for urban living is rising. Why do decisions like building more roads happen despite these trends that, in fact, the county and NOACA are acknowledging in other ways like complete streets and opening up funding opportunities for transit?
As an interesting historical footnote, in the 1970s when plans emerged from the state and county to build more urban highways in Cleveland, the city (hired attorney Bill Lowry from Hahn, Loesser) and prepared a legal case, which it won, that charged the state with discriminating against Cleveland through its regulations demanding that the city pay a 5 percent share of project costs for all interstate highways. The settlement was worth millions to the city. The city saw the damage that I-90 had done to the west side, and was determined to not repeat the same on the east side.