When ladies stopped the freeways and saved their cities

As the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes wraps up its 50th-anniversary year, we wish to reflect on the struggle that birthed it—a struggle that succeeded in preserving the wetland along the border of Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights and, indeed, both cities as we know them today.

Were it not for seven years of sustained effort by residents, elected officials and members of civic organizations, Cleveland’s near east side and adjacent suburbs would have been chopped into fragments by a heavily promoted system of freeways.

Announced in 1963, the [freeway] plan was the brainchild of Cuyahoga County Engineer Albert S. Porter, who also chaired the county Democratic Party. It consisted of four multi-lane, limited-access highways, all of them passing through some portion of Cleveland Heights. These included three east-west arteries: the Heights freeway, through East Cleveland, Cleveland Heights, South Euclid and Lyndhurst; the Central Freeway, following Cedar Road; and the Clark Freeway, a concrete slash running up Doan Brook through the middle of Shaker Lakes. In addition to connecting I-90 with the proposed I-271, these roads would all be linked by the north-south Lee Freeway. Each would obliterate a broad swath of homes, businesses or green space that lay in its path. Cleveland Heights was projected to lose 1,000 homes, either to the freeways or the blight that would follow.

Two major interchanges were prominent: the intersection of the Clark and Lee freeways would squat on 67 acres of Shaker parklands just east of the Lower Lake; and the meeting of the Central and Lee freeways, according to historian Marian Morton, “would have eliminated everything at the Cedar-Lee intersection except for [Cleveland Heights] High School.”

Shaker Heights was the first city to take action, with Cleveland Heights quickly following suit. With the support of their respective mayors, newly formed residents’ committees conducted letter-writing and media campaigns, held community forums, and met with their U.S. and state senators and representatives.

The controversy was thoroughly covered by the daily and weekly print outlets. The Cleveland Press and Sun Press wrote sympathetic editorials. The Plain Dealer, however, supported the project. Its editor, Phillip W. Porter, was the brother of the county engineer.

By 1965, suburban ladies kicked into gear, with more than 30 local garden clubs joining the campaign, along with the Cleveland Heights-University Heights, Shaker Heights and Cleveland chapters of the League of Women Voters (LWV).

In 1966, gutsy activists established the Shaker Lakes Regional Nature Center—right on the site of the proposed Clark-Lee freeway interchange.

Still, Albert Porter clung to his plan. In 1969, the citizens committees of Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights, the garden clubs and LWV formed Citizens for Sane Transportation and Environmental Policy (CSTEP). In the Plain Dealer, Porter notoriously referred to Shaker Lakes as “a dinky little park and a two-bit duck pond.”

On Jan. 29, 1970, CSTEP held yet another public forum, this time with 2,000 in attendance. Eight days later, on Feb. 6, Ohio Gov. James A. Rhodes announced that the state would not build the Clark Freeway. That decision forced Porter to abandon the entire project, and enabled area residents to preserve their cities’ essential characteristics—walkability, diverse housing stock, and green space accessible to all.

Fifty years later it’s easy to see this victory as inevitable, but in fact it was not a foregone conclusion. It took hundreds of people, most of them women, seven long years, doing the hard day-to-day work of organizing—making the phone calls, writing the letters, pestering the media, arranging the meetings, and constantly recruiting neighbors, friends and family members to build a local grassroots movement.

As you jog around the lake, walk or roll on the All People’s Trail, enjoy a film at the Cedar Lee Theatre, or walk to Cain Park, take a minute to remember how much organized "people power" it took to make these experiences possible today. Better yet, ask yourself what it is you care about enough to write a letter, make a phone call, or attend a meeting.* Then take that first step and do it.

* Speaking of meetings, the fourth annual Cleveland Heights Democracy Day Public Hearing will be held on Jan. 25, at 7 p.m., at city hall. The topic will be the political influence of corporations and big money in elections. Come to offer testimony (up to five minutes), or just to listen and learn.

[Sources: “The Clark, Lee and Heights Freeways,” by Marian Morton, When Bad Ideas Happen to Good Suburbs, Cleveland Heights Historical Society, www.chhistory.org, and Preserving the Shaker Parklands: The Story of the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes, by Lauren R. Pacini and Laura M. Peskin, Artography Press, Cleveland, 2016]

Carla Rautenberg and Deborah Van Kleef

Carla Rautenberg is an activist and a lifelong Cleveland Heights resident. Deborah Van Kleef is a musician and writer, who grew up in Cleveland Heights and has lived here as an adult for over 30 years. Contact them at heightsdemocracy@gmail.com.

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Volume 10, Issue 1, Posted 11:51 AM, 01.03.2017