Environmental Justice IS Social Justice

On June 22, 1969 the Cuyahoga River caught fire for the thirteenth time in its recorded history, which helped ignite our country’s public interest about environmentalism on a macro stage at the heels of the civil right movements of the 1950s and 60s.

The aftermath from that afternoon in ’69 on the Cuyahoga (pronounced KY-ə-HOG-ə), along with a catastrophic oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara (CA) a few months prior, influenced the first Earth Day ten months later (on April 22, 1970), and assisted President Nixon and Congress in passing the official creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in December 1970 and the Clean Water Act of 1972.

When water burns, people clearly take notice. So, why did it take thirteen times before widespread outrage occurred for more awareness and regulation at the Federal level about the long-term effects caused by untamed industrialization? As it turns out, the image used by Time Magazine – which fueled most of the emotion about the dreadful state of the river, weren’t even from that day, rather from a previous, more serious, fire in 1952. But, despite its evident decades of instability, no pervasive pushback ensued for a need to hold those accountable who financially gained for its demise.

Additionally, when media attention focused on the Cuyahoga’s dire conditions after its ’69 fire – calling it ‘dead’ due to the lack of oxygen vital for fish and plant life to survive, it made one believe this problem was unique to Cleveland. But, waterways all across the U.S. – in Buffalo, Detroit, among others, spontaneously were set ablaze caused from severe pollution, suffering from the same illness exploited on the Cuyahoga.

You have to have thick skin to be from this place. We’re an easy target for outsiders due to our city’s well publicized hardships. For Clevelanders, those shortcomings of our past seem to have defined us and opened doors for mainstream mockings on late night television, giving us an inferiority complex passed down from generation to generation like a family heirloom.

In order to fully comprehend how this even happened, we must first understand the significance Cleveland played in American history. For this, we will need to turn the clock back an additional one hundred and twenty years to 1849 when Cleveland’s total population was right around 17,000 residents. That was also the year the Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati (C.C & C) railroad was built, and rapid development of other railways connecting into cities such as New York, Chicago and St. Louis, which turned Cleveland into a major player as an industrial capital and eventual landing spot for hundreds of thousands of European migrants leaving their native lands in pursuit of the American dream and the possibilities it presented for a perceived better quality of life.

The entryway of these railroads into downtown Cleveland ran across and alongside Walworth Run – an approximate 2.5 mile stream of water that flowed directly into the Cuyahoga River. This tributary served as the body of fresh water for the area’s near westside residents – who were mostly immigrant laborers of the nearby mills and factories, who used it for their clean water supply.


“Complaint is made of animals’ intestines found floating in Walworth Run which undoubtedly were thrown out from some of the slaughter houses.”

Cleveland Plain Dealer | June 27, 1872

By the 1870s, these residents grew increasingly upset over the negligent conditions of Walworth Run, and began assembling against the intentional dumping of waste and other runoff produced from the slaughterhouses, breweries, oil refineries and railroads. It took a couple decades of continuous protest until the late 1890s when Cleveland City Council finally funded a plan that would bury Walworth Run and turn it into an extension of the city’s sewer system. Sections of it were then paved in 1906, and that became Train Avenue as we know it today.

By now, Cleveland’s population is soaring at an estimated 560,000 in 1910 – the sixth largest in the U.S., becoming home to some of the country’s wealthiest families, who built expensive properties along Euclid Avenue on the city’s inner eastside that became known as Millionaire’s Row. One of those men was John D. Rockefeller. Yes, that Rockefeller – the oil tycoon and industrialist who monopolized on his creation of Standard Oil Company (in 1870) and became America’s first billionaire by 1916. One of the many of his oil refineries operated near Mill Street (now called West 30th), which was located at Walworth Run.

(L) 1868 Map: Red Line = Walworth Run; Yellow Line = Mill Street | (R) 2022 Map: Red Line = Train Avenue; Yellow Line = West 30th

The solution to Walworth Run’s problems was the birth of Train Avenue; Bury Walworth Run, and the problems would be buried along with it. But, that’s not what happened. City officials were only addressing the issue on its surface, rather than tackling all the symptoms to a much larger illness.

Years before the plans to convert Walworth Run were hatched, newspaper accounts periodically detailed its incremental but steady decline with regular warnings about the lack of safety – environmentally, as well as the increase in robberies, rapes, homicides and other violent crime all occurring at or near the Walworth Run. So, it should come as no surprise these collective crimes continued once Train Avenue was born.

The Cuyahoga River was by no means cleaner or safer than Walworth Run, either. When the railroad transportation system became the way industry moved goods across country more efficiently, they were often positioned at or near our lakes and rivers. Documented fires on the Cuyahoga occurred in the years 1868, 1883, 1887, 1912, 1922, 1936, 1948, and 1952, so, this was nothing new to Clevelanders; Pollution appeared to be the inevitable cost of doing business – a necessary evil of sorts for a booming local economy and city population still growing (eventually topping off at 914,000 in 1950).

The decade of the 50s marked the beginning of Cleveland’s fast-track to its incredible decline. Unbridled industrialization put the city on the map as a destination for opportunity; Deindustrialization nearly shot the fatal bullet in the heart of what remained in Cleveland.

In the five decades that followed (between 1950-2000), Cleveland proper lost nearly one half of its residents (1950: 914,808; 2000: 478,403) due to massive job layoffs after the closing of factories and manufacturing plants. Some went to the suburbs or other parts of Ohio such as Columbus, while others left the state completely. This population loss continued into subsequent decades, where our current total now sits just above 372,000 per the 2020 U.S. Census.

When the construction of interstate highways accelerated in the 1950s, it brought in a new era of problems for residents of already struggling urbanized cities, including the displacement of primarily low-income families from their homes who were in the direct path of the proposed multi-lane roadways, as well as contributing to ‘white flight’ – the term generally used to describe the mass exodus of mostly caucasian middle and upper class households uprooting to the clean air and open land of the suburbs, escaping the urban decay and decline of many major inner cities ravaged by industry and leaving the most socially and economically vulnerable to fend for themselves.


“Plans for the superhighway’s route from W.65th Street and Train Avenue through the west side”…”approximately 1,400 residences and 100 commercial and industrial buildings lie in the freeway path.”

Cleveland Plain Dealer | November 27, 1962

Have you ever heard of the expression – ‘the wrong side of the tracks‘? Its origin comes from the understanding that the railroads were intentionally built through towns and cities, designed so the poor neighborhoods were in the path the wind blew to take on the majority of the smoke and smog trains produced. The phrase has become synonymous with neighborhoods who experience higher rates of poverty and crime, but more telling is how one’s social and economic status dictated what the acceptable amount of contamination our bodies are subjected to in the places where we live and breathe.

When I initially began researching Train Avenue in January 2014 for the original concept of a documentary film examining it, it was based on the years of continuous discoveries of dead dogs found in garbage bags randomly discarded along Train and its intersecting roads. The piles of actual garbage which ceaselessly showed up weekly – and sometimes daily, were the secondary storyline. But, it occurred to me both were symptoms of the infection…and not the infection itself.

My fondest childhood memories driving downtown with my family seem to be viewed through an Instagram filter replicating the grainy appearance of photographs from the 1980s; Abandoned factories tagged with graffiti and broken-out windows set upon a backdrop of a city skyline on decades of life support.

Venturing down Train Avenue brings back some of that nostalgia from my youth of Cleveland’s industrial grit of yesteryear, providing a strange sense of comfort in a place typically only brought up for the literal – tons of old tires and other trash picked up annually, or the random acts of violence it’s become notorious known for.

And, it’s easy to view Train Avenue as a hopeless cause based solely on the press it receives. I’m sure the same was said about the Cuyahoga in the middle of the 20th century before it became a symbol for a movement that sparked political pressure and turned it into environmental action. Reinvestment helped restore many of its natural habitats, incrementally reversing history back to a time when it was a crown jewel for the city and its people. Saving the Cuyahoga River may have even played a role in saving the city of Cleveland, as well…even if progress has been painfully slow.

As for Train – it’s quite apparent that horrible things take place along this two mile road, tucked away in a valley somewhere between Wall Street and Main Street. For anybody who has walked it’s winding road less traveled, it’s impossible to not also feel a conflicted aura of peace in its solitude – A contrast of thriving plant-life and nature up against rusted metal and graffiti-laced walls.

Like the Cuyahoga, this is not an illness Train Avenue suffers alone. Major cities all across the nation are experiencing high rates of illegal dumping in alleyways and other known spots, which almost always occur in the poorer neighborhoods without much, if any, investment to prevent such crimes from being allowed…aside from a dedicated city hotline to report illegal dumping.

Rivers and roads are clearly different pathways of transportation, but it hasn’t been lost how the Cuyahoga and Train Avenue were once connected together when Walworth Run last flowed above ground level over a century ago. And, that is the bigger lesson to this story – Everything is connected. You. Me. The planet, and everyone else we share it with.

Environmental justice is social justice. What makes environmental campaigns unique from other social movements is the consequences are felt directly, and impact the health and wellness of every living being on Earth. This also makes their appeal as a potential vehicle to unify and open additional doors for dialogue on social issues where one’s own self-interests oftentimes dictates who participates (class, race, sexual orientation, etc).

My hope is this documentary film – “2 Miles Unchanged“, will implant the kind of consciousness about our growing trash issues much in the same way the Cuyahoga was able to influence for water pollution.

Like diamonds, beautiful things occur when the right amount of pressure is applied.

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