Join the Cleveland Scene Press Club. Because No News is Bad News.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Most Disgusting, Perfect Description of the Cuyahoga River

Posted By on Tue, Jun 11, 2013 at 9:34 AM


Journalist Edward McClelland, author of Nothin' But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times and Hopes of America's Industrial Heartland, will speak tonight at the Happy Dog as part of the Write to Assemble series in conjunction with Ohio City Writers.

McClelland's book is fantastic, chronicling the auto industry's rise and fall and the familiar wastelands of rust belt America. Among other things, he's got one of the most vivid descriptions of the pre-1969 Cuyahoga you'll ever see:

To midcentury Clevelanders, the Cuyahoga was not a river. It was not even a body of water. It was, as a staff writer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote, a "liquid Mesabi range," shaped like a lower intestine and performing the same function for Republic and for Jones and Laughlin, the two largest steel mills on its banks. Discharge pipes, as misshapen as gargoyle mouths, vomited sulfuric acid into the water. Iron scale and fleece dust tinted the surface a liverish hue that locals described as "terra cotta" or "a marroonish blush." Upstream of the Sherwin-Williams plant, the color depended on which batch of paint had gone bad the night before. Every day, factories polluted the river with 550,000 gallons of wastewater. The pickling acids, discharged by the steel mills, contained ferrous sulfate, which absorbed so much oxygen that the shoals were open graveyards of fish, bleached of color, gasping to death. Dark oil slicks floated on the water, like whorls of black ink. The calcium sulfate excrescence from Harshaw Chemical topped the river with a cream of white soda. Slaughterhouses pumped blood, animal organs, and offal into the river.

And here's an extended excerpt from the Cleveland section of the Housing Crisis chapter, just to give you a taste.

If houses go to heaven, then Classen Avenue, in the Cleveland neighborhood of Slavic Village, has been the scene of a mass Rapture. Ted Michols watched it all happen. A retired trade magazine editor, a bachelor, a man who likes to sit on his porch and share the neighborhood with passersby he’s known fifty years, Michols has lived his entire life in a little square house his grandfather bought in 1923. It was the kind of house that used to be good enough for everyone in Cleveland: 800 square feet of domesticity in the middle of a pond of grass where a Virgin Mary is flanked by floral suns of marigolds, and an American flag. He shared it with his brother, another bachelor who died in 2005. Now he’s alone. His old school friends want to know why he never followed them to the suburbs. To them, Slavic Village is the Old Neighborhood, but no longer the neighborhood they grew up in. “It’s changed,” they say delicately. That’s Cleveland code for, “the element moved in,” which in turn is code for “black.”

Michols stayed because Slavic Village is Polish—unlike many urban neighborhoods, where integration is the period between the arrival of the first black and the departure of the last white, Slavic Village only changed halfway. At Seven Roses, the cabbage and pierogi buffet on Fleet Avenue, the newspapers and lunchtime gossip are about doings in Krakow and Warszawa. And staying in Slavic Village meant staying in the parish of Immaculate Heart of Mary, where he had been baptized.

“The one good thing about living here is you have a lot of friends,” Michols said. “We were working on the sidewalk, about 10 people stopped and talked. You don’t get that in the suburbs. People don’t talk.”

But he had fewer friends than before the housing crisis. The house next door disappeared first. The couple who lived there had paid $17,500 for it, in 1977. At that price, they should have been sheltered for life, but “they liked to buy stuff,” Michols observed, so they borrowed and borrowed against their equity until, in 2004, they lost it to the bank. A fireman picked it up for $25,000. Like a slumlord, he painted it and rented to a woman on Section 8, who was so clueless about housekeeping that Michols had to mow her lawn. From owner to low-income renter, the house was moving down in the world. Eventually, a corner of the foundation collapsed, causing the floor to sink four inches. The tenant moved out, and the house was demolished, leaving in the grass only the outline of its basement. The same thing happened across the street, where an absentee landlord bought out an owner, and rented to tenants who sold drugs. After they set the house on fire, Michols went to court to have the place demolished.

Frugality was easy for Michols. Having inherited his house, he’d never made a mortgage payment. Having no children to educate, he never thought of borrowing. So he was astonished by the appliance repairman who divorced his wife and abandoned his house, owing $83,000. And by the speculators who were paying double what the old-line neighbors knew the properties were worth.

“Sometimes, we’d look at some of those homes and we said, ‘This is going for $86,000? What is going on.’ The bank wasn’t looking at applications.”

As the loans went bad, and the houses emptied, the scrappers arrived, tearing out furnaces, aluminum siding and water pipes right in broad daylight. To discourage scavengers, signs reading THIS HOUSE DOES NOT HAVE COPPER PLUMBING were posted in windows. But Classen Avenue became such a magnet for thieves they even broke into occupied houses. A kid from down the street tried to burgle Michols, but Michols chased him off. Only a neighbor who mowed the vacant lots prevented Classen Avenue from reverting to pre-settlement prairie.

Clevelanders have a saying: “Cleveland’s pain, the nation’s gain.” It means, “A lot of shitty stuff happens here, but we hope the rest of America can learn from our misfortune and avoid the same crap.” The foreclosure crisis that would drag the American economy into its deepest slough since the Great Depression arrived first in Cleveland, and nowhere was it more severe than Slavic Village. The 44105 zip code, which covers southeast Cleveland, was the scene of more housing speculation than any place in the country. Unfortunately, the rest of America wasn’t paying attention.

There's an even longer excerpt available here. Books will be available for purchase at tonight's event, which begins at 7:30 p.m.

Tags: , , , ,

We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Cleveland Scene. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Cleveland Scene, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at

Cleveland Scene works for you, and your support is essential.

Our small but mighty local team works tirelessly to bring you high-quality, uncensored news and cultural coverage of Cleveland and beyond.

Unlike many newspapers, ours is free – and we'd like to keep it that way, because we believe, now more than ever, everyone deserves access to accurate, independent coverage of their community.

Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing pledge, your support helps keep Cleveland's true free press free.

Read the Digital Print Issue

October 21, 2020

View more issues


Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.


© 2020 Cleveland Scene: 737 Bolivar Rd., Suite 4100, Cleveland, OH 44115, (216) 505-8199
Logos and trademarks on this site are property of their respective owners.

Website powered by Foundation