Lake Erie starts here

At various points around Cleveland Heights and University Heights, you can find the message “Lake Erie Starts Here” stenciled on residential streets. In each case, an arrow points to a storm-drain grate. These words remind us that any litter or toxic waste dumped in the roadway will eventually be washed into a drain, and from there into our local streams—which in turn empty into Lake Erie a few miles north of here.

Lake Erie, of course, is the source of our drinking water, as well as home to food fish and the organisms they eat, and a place where residents of and visitors to four states and the province of Ontario come to swim and sail.

“Lake Erie Starts Here” began on a very small scale back in the spring of 2012, as a group of residents planned a clean-up day in Grant Deming’s Forest Hill Historic District. Neighbor Susan Miller recalled having seen “Puget Sound Starts Here” stenciled on the streets of Seattle, and the group decided that such an activity would be a great addition to the day’s events.

The components of the project came together quickly. Graphic designer and neighborhood resident Laurie Garrett generously agreed to design the stencil as a gift to the community. Members of a Heights High student group called Project Build volunteered to wield the cans of spray paint. For its part, the city agreed to pay for the stencils, supply the paint, and provide two service department employees and a pick-up truck for the initial effort.

On Earth Day 2012, residents walked the neighborhood, picking up litter and yard waste, and sweeping the storm drains clean. Project Build members followed, stenciling every storm drain in the Grant Deming district. The attractive design and compelling message elicited smiles and approving comments. Inevitably, a passer-by documented the project on Facebook, and word really began to spread.

The Doan Brook Watershed Partnership (DBWP) asked Garrett for permission to use her design, which she graciously granted. DBWP began organizing volunteers to extend the project. Today, many streets around Cuyahoga County, and some as far as Lorain and Sandusky, have storm drains proclaiming “Lake Erie Starts Here.”

Even as we and our neighbors in the Great Lakes region face a certain future of ever-higher water and sewer rates, we enjoy a jewel beyond price: access to one-fifth of the surface fresh water on Earth. Every way we can spread the message to protect and sustain it is surely worthwhile.

Making a difference in one’s community can be a daunting prospect. Pressing for legislation, supporting a candidate, or campaigning for a citizens’ initiative require hours of research, meetings, organizing and canvassing. These efforts are vital. But it is refreshing to know that we can have a small but significant impact with tools as simple as a stencil and a spray can.

You might visit another city, observe an example of civic involvement, and think, “Wouldn’t that be a good thing to do in the Heights?” Or a solution to a hyper-local problem might simply come to you. Instead of letting those thoughts drift away, share them with your neighbors. Envision the steps it would take to make your idea a reality. Gather your tools and your team and begin.

While DBWP continues to sponsor storm-drain stenciling throughout its service area, there are many streets in Cleveland Heights and University Heights where stencils have not yet been applied; even where they have, the paint must be refreshed every couple of years. Come spring, we have access to the stencils and other materials. E-mail for more information.

Carla Rautenberg and Deborah Van Kleef

Carla Rautenberg is a writer, activist and lifelong Cleveland Heights resident. Deborah Van Kleef is a musician and writer, and has lived in Cleveland Heights for most of her life. Contact them at

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Volume 11, Issue 11, Posted 12:16 PM, 11.01.2018