The magnificent buildings of Cleveland’s historic downtown reflect commercial activity that was once a feature of its riverfront.
For nearly a century, Cleveland’s location on Lake Erie at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River made it one of the nation’s premier commercial hubs.
The river has carved its bed through the bluffs on which the city is perched.
The low-lying area along its banks has long been known as “The Flats”.
In the 1820’s, Cleveland was first connected to the Ohio River by a canal which was the region’s primary commercial traffic route until railroads replaced it in the 1860’s.
In the years following, Cleveland grew into a major rail hub. The New York Central, Erie, and Nickel Plate railroads all connected here.
Today, parts of the canal are preserved under park service stewardship, and a restoration of its towpath has created jogging and bike trails.
The river’s water quality and fish populations have improved every year since 1970.
Lake freighters carrying Mesabi Range iron ore south and railroads carrying West Virginia coal north converged in Cleveland to fuel one of the nation’s largest steel-making centers.
In The Flats, the smelters and rolling mills of U.S. Steel, Republic. Bethlehem and Jones & Laughlin along both sides of the river became the pillar of the city’s economy, as well as a major source of river pollution.
On the East Bank, the refineries of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company leaked oil into the river for decades.
The Cuyahoga River has caught fire more than a dozen times since 1840. The last fire was in 1969, and the story which appeared in TIME magazine was a wake-up call both for Cleveland and the nation.
Beginning in the late 1960’s, the migration of steel-making to China and Europe triggered massive layoffs and plant closings, leaving The Flats populated by decaying buildings and the river plagued by persistent pollution.
In the mid-1980s, the Flats saw a resurgence as warehouses and other historic buildings were converted into nightlife destinations.
The Flats became an entertainment mecca for the region
By the early 1990s, The Flats had the highest concentration of bars in the Midwest, but its heyday was short-lived.
Current plans call for a new mixed-use development on the East Bank that aims to create a new downtown riverfront neighborhood.
Rivergate Park, a public park devoted to rowing, canoeing, kayaking and dragon-boating, officially opened May 2011.
The West Bank has fared better. Many older establishments still remain open, and new housing and retail venues like the Steelyard Commons have breathed fresh life into this neighborhood
The Powerhouse, which once generated power for the city’s streetcars, has been renovated to include multiple bars, restaurants, and an outdoor music venue. A National Historic Landmark, it is also home to the Greater Cleveland Aquarium.
The story of Cleveland is the story of immigrants.
In the 1820’s, the West Bank was home to the heavily Irish immigrant workforce that built the Ohio and Erie Canal in the 1820’s.
In the twentieth century, the neighborhood was a center for the city’s Eastern European immigrants.
(The West Side’s St. Theodosius Russian Orthodox Cathedral was the location of the wedding scene in the movie The Deerhunter.)
The West Side Market has been there through it all.
Opened in 1840 at the corner of West 25th and Lorain, it is Cleveland’s oldest publicly owned market.
It was first operated as an open air market, and the current structure dates from 1912.
Today it is home to more than one hundred vendors selling fine meats and produce, fresh seafood, baked goods, dairy and cheese products, and even fresh flowers.
Many booths also sell ready-to-eat foods, and products often reflect Cleveland’s melting pot history. More than a million people visit the market annually.
The next post wraps up my visit to Cleveland with a walk through the city’s historic and scenic Lakeview Cemetery.
Many of the places picture in these posts figure prominently in my recently published novel Lifelines: An American Dream, available on Amazon.
See my related posts on Cleveland:
See also more public markets in my related posts: