Dear Cuyahoga River,
It must be tough to be you.
My parents remember June 1969, when you burst into flames. Or, technically, when an unknown spark ignited an odious soup of oil and detritus floating top of you. It was your 10th fire in a century. And even though the blaze smoldered for less than an hour, it earned Cleveland four decades of America’s disdain. Clevelanders lost a good deal of dignity and blamed you.
I don’t know how you handled it.
We bathed you in our oil, clothed you with our trash and fed you with our sewage. And then we burned you.
Clevelanders cringe when people bring up the fire. We don’t like to be reminded that our city was once so polluted that even the water could ignite. In fact, we dislike any reminder of those brutal two decades after 1960, when pollution spoiled our health, warring mobsters killed each other with car bombs and race riots exposed the city’s de facto segregation.
It seems we don’t even like to be reminded of Cleveland itself: people have been abandoning it for the past half-century. In 1950, nearly a million people lived within the city proper. Now, less than 500,000 do. People have fled south, east, and west, to the suburbs and beyond. The region’s heart deflated in America’s archetypical display of white flight.
Moving vans sped across bridges above you, ferrying people away to live nearer to your watery cousins. On the shores of the Rocky River and the Chagrin River, new communities blossomed and thrived, expanding every direction but inwards. People are trying to flee you.
The city was a foreign place to me until high school. It wasn’t your fault. You flowed on, oblivious to me anyways.
When I cross you on my bike or on a bus, I see a downtown drained of its energy. There are parking lots where there should be skyscrapers and hungry people sleeping on streets who deserve beds and meals. I work in a building that is gradually being abandoned. Its shops are suffocating, its patrons are leaving.
People say you smell bad.
We celebrated you once. You gave us the Flats, those blessed strips of land on your banks that we cultivated as a social center. Water taxies drove us across you from dance floor to bar, restaurant to concert. But we broke your trust. We let drunken fights and crime destroy your home. The Flats are abandoned now. You have no one to keep you company but the stunted trees perpetually seeking their own reflections in your water.
I’ve realized something, river. We are not invested in this city.
We may identify ourselves as Clevelanders when abroad, but for most of us, Cleveland is not home. Cleveland is where we arrive at nine and leave at five. Cleveland is the 11-o’clock news: failed schools, men and women jingling change cups. Cleveland is shootings and foreclosures and boarded-up windows. Cleveland is you, on fire.
Let me make you a promise. I’ll come back to you. I’ll work for you. Write for you. I’ll fight to clean you, to feed those who wander around you aimlessly. I’ll live near you. Every morning you will greet me when I wake, your murky smile almost reflecting a sunrise. I’d like to think of it as a misty glow.
It is well past 2 a.m. in Evanston. You and Cleveland are far away. I know you’re asleep now, rolling on a bed of putrefying mud, stirring only enough to tug on a blanket of fractured white ice.
Sleep well, river.