The City of Cleveland has had many nicknames over the years. Whether they were used as a hallmark, a trademark, a landmark, or a blemish on its reputation, they each defined an important point in the city’s history and its continual quest for reinvention. Former labels have included, “The New American City”, “The Rock ‘N’ Roll Capital of the World”, “America’s North Coast” and the disparaging and unfortunately best-known epithet, “Mistake on the Lake” after the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969. Older titles were “The Metropolis of the Western Reserve” and “The Sixth City”.
Oddly, Cleveland’s oldest designation seems to be it’s most unlikely. The huge manufacturing metropolis hardly seems worthy of the title “Forest City”. However, the original frontier village, founded by Moses Cleaveland at the end of the 18th century, was once a heavily forested area with lush green rolling hills that sloped to the lakeshore. Ironically, the Old English name Cleaveland means “land of cliffs” or ‘hilly area”, which indeed reflects the topography along the southern shore of Lake Erie within the boundaries of Cuyahoga County.
There is very little account of the primitive people and forests that greeted the original settlers, however records of early surveyors using living trees as property boundary markers provide enough information to reconstruct the nature and content of the landscape. The lands maintained by the Cleveland Metroparks in an extensive system of nature preserves unofficially known as the “Emerald Necklace” are also an excellent resource and encompass old growth forests that look much the same as they did when Moses Cleaveland arrived.
From 1930 -1940, Arthur B. Williams, an ecologist for the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and a park naturalist, surveyed the flora and fauna of the Cleveland park reservations. He found the majority of the trees were American beech, sugar and red maple, red oak, tulip, white ash, basswood and cucumber trees. The soil at the higher elevations was well drained and not only conducive to ample forest growth, but also contained an abundance of wildflowers, ferns, birds and mammals, including Virginia deer, wild turkey, fox, bobcat and black bear.
The floodplains of the Chagrin, Cuyahoga and Rocky rivers supported entirely different ecosystems with plants and trees that could tolerate frequent flooding, such as cottonwood, American sycamore, black walnut, butternut, elm and the Ohio buckeye. An abundance of birds such as the heron, sandpipers and wood duck all sought refuge in and around the rivers. Mammals suited for this type of ecosystem were also present, including squirrels, raccoons, muskrats and mink.
As Cleveland began to grow, many trees were cut down to build new businesses and some of the land was cleared for farming. Industry began to expand and factories cut in to the natural habitats that once flourished in the area.
According to The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, credit for coining the phrase “Forest City” is widely attributed to William Case, Secretary of the Cleveland Horticultural Society in the 1840’s and also Mayor of Cleveland from 1850-51. Case was a man before his time and organized a citywide campaign to plant shade and fruit trees to beautify the city and compensate for the trees lost to the city’s growing manufacturing industry.
The Forest City also experienced more “new growth” in the 1930’s when Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) planted more than 13,000 trees in Cleveland. According to a tree count in 1940, over 200,000 trees were found in the city and 100,000 more in city parks.
While the origins of Cleveland’s original nickname remain largely forgotten today, the “green” movement has sparked new interest in incorporating more green spaces into urban areas. Cleveland has plans to rehabilitate the parks and beaches in and around downtown areas, allowing better access to the lakefront. Proposals have been made to transform Public Square into a central park and construction is underway on the Mall that includes expansive civic green space according to the original Group Plan of 1903.
Last year on Earth Day, the Cleveland Metroparks planted 95 trees native to Ohio forests to celebrate its 95th anniversary. The park staff and area volunteers will also plant more trees leading up to its 100th anniversary.
Additionally, the City of Cleveland held the first Sustainable Cleveland 2019 Summit in 2009, committed to transforming Cleveland into a “Green City on a Blue Lake” within ten years. The organization plans to integrate sustainability and economic development into future plans for the city that will ultimately maximize investment opportunities in growth sectors such as alternative energy sources and local food production, thus creating new businesses and jobs, and also make good use of our natural resources and human capital. Good progress has been made so far and the goal is to create a sustainable Cleveland by the 50th anniversary of the infamous river fire – once and for all ridding the city of its unfortunate misnomer, ”Mistake on the Lake”.
It seems that the old adage that originally defined Cleveland as “The Forest City”, may very well become one of the precepts that saves it. Time will tell.