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Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River: 50 Years after the Fire

How Two Mayors Connected Environmental Sustainability and Social Equity

On June 22, 1969, sparks from a passing train set fire to oil-soaked debris floating in the Cuyahoga River and set the river ablaze. The fire wasn’t the worst of the Cuyahoga River fires – it burned 13 times going back to 1868 – but it was the last. It ignited an environmental revolution in Cleveland and across the United States.

The river fire in 1969 wasn’t the only issue that plagued Cleveland – at the time, the city faced social unrest due to racial discrimination in housing, deindustrialization, unemployment and declining neighborhoods. As the first African-American mayor of a major American city, Carl Stokes was already under the microscope of national media.

Recognizing the Cuyahoga River fire as a symptom of inequity, Mayor Stokes, teamed with his brother, Louis Stokes, to hold a press conference at the site of the fire in the hopes of highlighting the legacy of environmental degradation in industrial cities like Cleveland. After attracting the attention of national media, including Time Magazine, Mayor Stokes charged to the nation’s capital, arguing that federal policy was necessary to support local action. This helped lead to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and the Clean Water Act two years later, paving the way for environmental progress across the country.

The legacy of Carl Stokes continues today with the work of Mayor Frank G. Jackson and his Sustainable Cleveland 2019 initiative, a 10-year plan to create a ‘green city on a blue lake.’ A native of Cleveland’s Central neighborhood, Mayor Jackson understood how environmental issues such as poor water quality disproportionately impacted communities of color. Recognizing the link between issues of environmental sustainability and racial equity, Mayor Jackson is working to ensure that Cleveland’s sustainability efforts protect its most vulnerable communities.

In 1969, the Cuyahoga River served to divide the east and west sides of the city more than unite them. Now, a healthy Cuyahoga can help bridge the two, helping to bridge racial barriers and forge community relationships. Residents and visitors can now take advantage of a thriving river and all the recreational activities it has to offer. Moreover, a continued commitment to equity ensures that residents can access clean water at affordable rates. The legacy left by Carl Stokes and continued today by Mayor Jackson serves as a foundation for equitable environmental progress by prioritizing quality of life and community resiliency.

While there is still much work to do, the Cuyahoga River is alive today with life, industry, recreation, and a vibrancy once thought unimaginable. In 2019, Cuyahoga50 is bringing Clevelanders from all walks of life together to celebrate clean water and the comeback of the Cuyahoga River, defend the laws that helped enable this progress, and as a community, accelerate this progress.

“Restoring the Cuyahoga River to its historic thriving vibrancy is part of my Sustainable Cleveland initiative. We have made great strides toward this goal with the help of residents and valuable community partners,” said Mayor Frank G. Jackson. “This summer, I ask the community to join us in celebrating the progress we have made together and to learn more about how we can all continue to build a more Sustainable Cleveland.”

In 1969, the primary water problem was industrial pollution. Today, the major threats to clean water are different than those faced in 1969: climate change, drought, plastic pollution, invasive species, agricultural runoff and harmful algae blooms, among others.

The City of Cleveland and more than 200 partner organizations are hosting the largest series of clean water events in the country, June 19-23. There will be public events, lectures and community conversations to further ignite involvement, change, understanding, and partnership. Cuyahoga50 promises something for everyone, with more than 25 events on the West and East Bank of the Flats, Rivergate Park, North Coast Harbor, above the river, on the river, and much more. A full list of events is at

Clevelanders and advocates alike recognize the positive change that took place over the last 50 years and continues to take shape today. The commitment to comprehensive sustainability, coupled with engagement by all sectors of Northeast Ohio, has produced a cleaner and more vibrant region with nonstop efforts to ensure even greater progress in the future. Today, more than ever, Cleveland is on fire – this time, with purpose and ambition.

For more information on how you can help create a more Sustainable Cleveland and bring workshops to your neighborhood, visit

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