It’s a hot summer day at Cleveland’s E. 72nd Street Pier. Cars and motorcycles are streaming in and out of the parking lot, families are setting up tents on the green grass, and grilling has commenced. It’s like the Muni Lot before a Browns game.
But there’s one thing that distinguishes this scene from a comparable day on the other side of town: a beach. Here at E. 72nd Street, and indeed along the entire near east side shoreline, there’s no beach and hardly a natural area.
There are, however, plenty of other ideas to define and improve this public space. Indeed, if any one of several plans materializes, the east shore of the city along Lake Erie could soon look a little or a lot more like that on its west side.
“We are not short of plans in Cleveland,” said Glenville resident and Northeast Ohio parks advocate Shanelle Smith. “We need the leadership to turn these plans into action.”
Today, lake-bound visitors on the near east side can access the water only by boat, at the Gordon Park boat ramp, or by foot, at the E. 55th fishing pier or a concrete pier at E. 72nd St. largely hidden by boulders.
Overall, the area is a user-unfriendly landscape of rust, concrete, and stone, bordered by a high-speed freeway. Improvements have been made, including an outdoor grill, restrooms, and sand volleyball courts, but many believe the eastern shoreline still lacks a cohesive vision and a natural beach.
Contrast this with Edgewater Park on the west side. Since taking over the property in 2013, Cleveland Metroparks has built a beach house, improved park trails and trash pickup, and begun hosting live events. On warm summer days and nights, the park is a hotspot.
Many also look to Chicago’s lakefront as a model for Cleveland, with its many beaches and widespread options for families. After a recent visit, Smith said, “My in-laws kept saying, ‘We need this in Cleveland.’”
It wasn’t always this way. Cleveland’s east side lakefront in the Glenville and St. Clair Superior neighborhoods was once a beach destination where visitors could easily dip their toes in Lake Erie.
Photos from the Cleveland Memory Project document a thriving area packed with beachgoers between E. 72nd St and Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. Men in seersucker suits and women in formal dress gazed from a pier and bathhouse upon children wading into the surf.
This idyllic setting existed until the 1950s, when residents of the then-predominantly white and Jewish neighborhood began moving to the suburbs, pollution tainted the water, and Interstate 90 expanded into a six-lane highway, bisecting Gordon Park.
Kelly Coffman, a planner with Cleveland Metroparks, called the placement of I-90 through a changing neighborhood, thereby exacerbating “white flight” and leaving the remaining residents without easy access to the lake, the “elephant in the room” of environmental inequality in Cleveland.
Bringing the east side lakefront up to par with Edgewater Beach and righting the environmental wrongs wrought by I-90, a lakeside power plant, and the filling in of Doan Brook are no small tasks. Still, interest in the future of the area has been growing since at least 2015, when FirstEnergy shuttered the power plant and Cleveland converted the west Shoreway to a boulevard.
One vision by the Cleveland Metroparks centers on removing a bridge and wastewater canal from the former power plant to form a fishing cove and artificial island near E. 72nd St. That vision includes reducing the impact of waves and forming grassland and fish habitats as well as pockets of woods for migrating birds.
This is the recommendation of the Cleveland Harbor Eastern Embayment Resilience Study, or CHEERS plan, released this spring.
“The priority is that cove,” Coffman said. “We would like to start building that and (improve) recreation. We want people to try out paddle sports or walking along the lake shore in a way that doesn’t feel super dangerous…It’s exciting to think about.”
Another option takes inspiration from the Cleveland Lakefront Nature Preserve. Out of silt from the Cuyahoga River, the Port Authority of Cleveland many years ago created an artificial peninsula initially used as a disposal site. That area is now a regional treasure home to an 88-acre woodland park and stopover for migrating birds and monarch butterflies. The Metroparks assumed management of the preserve in 2013.
“It’s the best, local example of unintended consequences,” Coffman said. “It recovered and provides shoreline habitat and a place of respite.”
Hand-in-hand with this vision goes the reintroduction of a natural edge between land and water. Coffman said the Metroparks is considering “pulling the shore back” between Gordon Park North and the Lakefront Nature Preserve to afford more “interplay” between residents and the landscape.
Funding and permission for such a project would have to come from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a process Coffman said could take up to 15 years, unless climate change forces swifter action.
The city of Cleveland, meanwhile, has its eye on biking and walking conditions in the area. It has applied for a grant from the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA) to examine pedestrian connections to the eastern shoreline.
It also has deployed a multi-disciplinary group from city planning, public works, and its office of sustainability to evaluate park options within a ten-minute walk for residents of the area.
Already, Cleveland is faring relatively well on that front. The city enjoys a Parkscore rating of 85, meaning that percent of low to moderate income households are within walking distance of a park.
Of course, the city and its residents may not agree on what makes for a good park. Sean Terry, interim director of the Cleveland office of the Trust for Public Land, the organization that compiles Parkscore, said when it comes to improving park and lake access, it’s vital to take input from neighborhood residents. Additionally, the City of Cleveland currently lacks a parks master plan and the division of parks and recreation is housed within the Public Works Department. Both are things that advocates hope to change in the next administration.
Meanwhile, partners are stepping in to solicit ideas. The Cleveland Metroparks is tapping local nonprofits like Bike Cleveland, the Famicos Foundation, and The Black Environmental Leaders to gauge interest in potential improvements. It also plans to host a conversation about the east lakefront on July 24. Meanwhile, Famicos has slated an August walking tour called “Glenville for Me” and the Ingenuity Fest has settled on South Gordon Park for its 2021 event in September.
Smith, the Glenville resident, said she views a more user-friendly east lakeshore and nearby parks as critical to the city’s future. What’s more, she said, the two go hand-in-hand. Quality, accessible parks are the gateways to the lake, literally and figuratively.
“We need investment in neighborhood parks because even if we get lake access, not all of us have access to the lake,” Smith said. “If I don’t have the experience of the outdoors in my own neighborhood, I may not be comfortable going to the lake.”
Join CHEERS for “Community conversations about equitable lakefront access” on Sat. July 24 at 2:30 pm. Register here.
This story was produced as part of an environmental justice reporting initiative involving partners Ideastream Public Media, The Land, The NewsLab at Kent State University, WKSU, La Mega, and the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative (NEOSOJO).
Marc Lefkowitz is a journalist and sustainability expert who lives in Cleveland Heights.