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Freeway City A Moving Places Presentation

"Politics is but a narrow field and that still narrower highway yonder leads to it." -Henry David Thoreau
Walking in nature gives a sense of permanence to the world- the swirl of life over millennia passing through like birds on ancient migration routes.
But all too often, map-makers in high offices draw thick, criss-crossing lines all over these places.

Freeway City looks at the history of the 1960’s Freeway Fights which halted a series of freeway projects that would have devastated neighborhoods, commercial distrcts, and greenspace on Cleveland’s east-side. What does that legacy mean for us today?

The Shaker Lakes on Cleveland's east-side sit as one of few remnants left behind by the Shakers as they built their utopian Christian settlement over parts of what are known today as Shaker Heights and Cleveland Heights.

Shakers working in hay field. Photo courtesy of Shaker Historical Society

Since their abandonment by the Shakers in the late 1800s, the Lakes and the riparian corridors of Doan Brook that connect them, provide an important oasis in one of Ohio's most densely populated areas.

Deer crossing Doan Brook near the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes

In the 1960’s, the sacred connections many residents felt to this place fueled a fight when a proposed freeway threatened to eliminate the lakes and the historic neighborhoods surrounding them. In 1966, residents formed the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes at a site favored for a highway interchange.

The People's Trail at the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes

But scenic lakes and historic homes would not be the only casualty of the freeways. Down from the Heights, the highway threatened to displace hundreds of homes and businesses in Cleveland along the mostly African-American neighborhoods in its path.

Survey image of east-side neighborhood slated for demolition. Photo Courtesy of Cleveland Public Library.

This, in an area where highways and urban renewal projects already displaced 42,000 residents in a mass migration from Central to Hough during the 1950’s. Following a historic election in 1967, Carl Stokes became the first Mayor in Cleveland to actively oppose further highway development in the city.

"We set about building these things called freeways. It has not helped to move people better. The freeways have taken taxable structures, created great problems by the way of the congestion in our cities, the great parking problems, and the pollution of the air and the environment in which we live." -Carl Stokes, Mayor of Cleveland

Governing a city in crisis as residents and businesses followed the freeways out to newly growing suburbs, Stokes confronted a declining tax base in a city confronted by rising poverty, crumpling infrastructure, and a loss of good paying jobs. Meanwhile, in the Heights, a fierce grassroots opposition rose, much of it led by women who became politically activated in an arena traditionally reserved for men.

Of course, we had to fight apathy. We had to fight people who thought it couldn't be stopped anyway, so why try? -Jean Eiken, Freeway Fighter

How did a Mayor struggling for political control of a city in crisis and activists with nothing but pens, feet, and voices stop something as seemingly inevitable as an interstate highway development?

What is the legacy 50 years later? In Cleveland, common folklore points to the east-side of the city as dis-advantaged by a lack of quick highway access. But would the highway have been worth the cost? Would you trade in Buckeye neighborhoods in Cleveland, the Shaker Lakes, the Larchmere District, and the Cedar Lee district to chop a few minutes off of a commute?

The Cedar Lee Theater, located along Lee Road- part of a planned corridor for the north-south Lee freeway.

Today, Cleveland grapples with the challenges of a transit system dominated by the automobile. The land area devoted to parking takes away from other city features, like green space, housing, or more businesses. Street-life has become less active and pollution exacerbates asthma and other health problems. What is the future of the Freeway City? Will a move to electric cars reduce tail pipe pollution? Will continuously circulating, self-driving cars reduce parking needs? Will the Opportunity Corridor, built along part of the corridor favored for highway development in the 1960’s, improve access?

The Larchmere Porch Fest converts a public street into a neighborhood concert space.

Like cities across the country, Cleveland is working to reduce the dominance of the automobile in urban neighborhoods. A growing bike network connecting Cleveland and its inner-ring suburbs makes it easier to navigate the city by pedal. An open streets movement is working to reclaim streets as public spaces for building community, not just moving cars. Safely walkable and bikable neighborhoods make the city more livable and improves the health of its residents. Perhaps, 50 years after the defeat of the east-side freeway, this can be our legacy for Cleveland to celebrate 50 years from now.

Freeway City is a part of the Moving Places series, a project of Blue Heron Productions, based in Cleveland Heights. Writer-director Brad Masi provides a unique blend of natural history and engagement with sustainability issues facing the city today.

Brad Masi, Writer/Director of Freeway City

Click here for more information about Blue Heron Productions.

This program is made possible in part by Ohio Humanities, a state affiliate for the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional support generously provided by Joe and JoAnne Masi.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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