Where the River Burned: Carl Stokes and the Struggle to Save Cleveland (Stradling and Stradling)

I loved this book! Taking as their starting point the first Earth Day in 1970, the brothers Stradling move back and forth in time to analyze the term of Mayor Stokes as he attempted to manage the transition of Cleveland from an industry city to a service city. One of the most compelling elements of this historical narrative is the notion of boundaries. Stokes himself breaks one by becoming the first black mayor of a major (though not as major as it once was) U.S. city. He quickly faces issues of water and air pollution. Whose problems are these? Who do they impact? Whose responsibility is it to fund necessary changes? These all become questions as Stokes and his administration navigate issues of city vs. suburbs, county vs. country, industry vs. environment, government department vs. government department, city vs. state, Cleveland vs. the country / world, downtown vs. neighborhood, industry vs. environment, and, inevitably, human beings vs. environment.

The book, especially the first half of it, made me think a lot about the word ‘environment.’ Consider its immediate connotations – trees, rivers, etc.. But what about the notion of an urban environment? Are abandoned and dilapidated houses an environmental problem? What about rats? For the first half of the book, I thought the Stradling brothers were making the link, but in the second half, they seem to divide the issue. Perhaps they were just following Stokes’ lead. It seems that late in his final term, Stokes began to wonder whether all of the attention given to issues like air and water pollution was coming at the expense of attention to the more immediate needs of neighborhoods like Hough, namely safe housing, jobs, and a decent living, well, environment.

I only had two minor quibbles with the book. First, there were not enough signals about time. I’m fine with them using Stokes’ time in office as a kind of hinge in Cleveland’s history, but I sometimes lost track of when in history they were discussing. And, while the issue of water pollution is central to this book, I’m not sure we needed all of the detail on the proposed solutions to the problem.

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