Nightfall On The River


We went to a wedding reception at Windows On The River last night in Cleveland.   Windows On The River is a former power plant that has been turned into an event venue, and anyone who went to last night’s great reception will attest that it is well suited to that task.

 It was a beautiful evening, and with a rib-cook off, a live concert, boat tours, and our wedding reception, the Cuyahoga reverfront was hopping.  It’s a great view, too.

Congratulations, Annie and Kyle!

The Flats

IMG_5406“The Flats.”  It’s been the name for the heavy industrial area around the Cuyahoga River, next to downtown Cleveland, since time immemorial.

“The Flats.”  The moniker is apt.  The topography is low and level, perfect for unloading barges and freighters and running railroad track to haul the ore and coal and other raw materials off to Lorain and Youngstown, Akron and Dayton.

IMG_5410It once must have been an extraordinary, crowded bustling place, one of the engines of the American industrial age, chock full of shouting men and whistles, pallets being hoisted into the sky and swung wide, carts and rail cars rolling ponderously past, pellets and cinders and smoke and dust.

“The Flats.”  It’s an area that has been squashed and crushed by countless heavy loads and heavy machines.  Now it’s been left prostrate and depressed by economic forces beyond its control, empty and desolate on a Sunday afternoon, with only seagulls circling overhead, crying out to the scudding clouds.

The Flats.  It’s still there, with its many special bridges that lift far above the water to allow the freighters to glide slowly by, its rusting railroad spurs, its loading areas and piles of slag and cracked, weedy concrete and brick and highway overpasses that loom far overhead.  It served before, and it could serve again.

If you want to get a sense of how the wheels of commerce turned back at the turn of the 20th century and how things have changed since those long ago days, the Flats is a good place to visit.IMG_5412

The Engines Of Commerce

IMG_2851I was up in Cleveland yesterday, in a high-rise building near Lake Erie, when one of the immense lake boats came in.  These are huge, ungainly vessels — the photo above that shows this boat in comparison to Cleveland Browns Stadium gives some sense of its enormous size — but they engage in a delicate dance with the tugboats that position them to move slowly down the channel to the Cuyahoga River for a delivery or pick-up.  The two vessels move with practiced care as hundreds of sea birds wheel overhead.

This is the nuts and bolts of commerce in America:  ships, trucks, and trains carrying tons of raw materials, or component parts, or finished goods ready to move to market.  It’s somehow awesome and beautiful and commonplace, all at the same time.

Burn On, Big River

The 1969 Cuyahoga River fire

The 1969 Cuyahoga River fire

On June 22, 1969 — 40 years ago — the Cuyahoga River caught fire.  It was, I think, the third time that had happened over the years.  People will say, in retrospect, that the fire helped to increase environmental awareness, led to the passage of the Clean Water Act and various environmental regulations, and therefore ultimately was a positive thing.  As a kid growing up in Akron at the time, I didn’t think about any of that stuff.  It was just another black eye for Cleveland and northern Ohio, and it hurt to hear comedians make jokes about the city.  But, who could blame them?  What could be more outlandish than a river catching fire?

I knew that the river was a mess, because I had visited it with my Akron City Schools grade school class for a cruise on the Good Time II.   The river smelled horrible and looked horrible; it was a black, oily mess that flowed sluggishly and was chock full of debris.  At one point on our cruise we passed a police boat that we suddenly realized was fishing a dead body from the river.  The teacher made us all go to the other side of the boat so we wouldn’t see it.

The PD has a good story today about the fire and its aftermath.  The picture of the man’s oily hand reminds me of the Good Time II cruise.  Interestingly, the river story has a happy ending; the regulations have worked, the river is clean again, and is the home to fish and the site of pleasant recreational activity.  But, when many people think of the Cuyahoga River, they will think of Randy Newman’s Burn On, which provided the title for this posting.  The facts have changed, but the city’s embarrassment still lingers.