April 30th offered a sneak preview of NEO's newest and most interesting "regional gateway" park, the Whiskey Island "Wendy Park" - a restoration of the only natural shoreline in downtown Cleveland. Hosted by "The Friends of Whiskey Island ", scores of area environmental and social activists assembled with Cuyahoga Commissioner Jimmy Dimora and many other community leaders and representatives to share visions of the remarkable landscape surrounding this "urban oasis" and vision for the future of the Whiskey Island property that has been subject of blight and political battle for many years.
Anyone who knows this region knows of Whiskey Island, though few people appreciate its value to the community, much less know how to get there. Exit the Shoreway, aka Route 2, or walk or ride your bike to Edgewater Park, and just inside the entrance turn right and look for signs to "Whiskey Island" and "Wendy Park" - travel back east along the barely recognizable road behind the water treatment plant, past the rock-piles and marinas that litter the lakefront, running parallel to the railroad tracks, across a one-lane bridge, and surface at the surprising, charming little Bourbon Street Cafe, nestled by Cleveland's only public marina - you'll feel like you're trespassing, but this is your land, thanks to a recent acquisition by Cuyahoga County. The question being addressed at this get together was: will this remain your land?
The battle of Whiskey Island has gone on for some time. Local businessman Dan Moore has for five+ years led efforts to put the land to good use - the Cuyahoga County Commissioners recently paid over $6 million to buy it - the City of Cleveland wants to get its hands on it to deal with the Cleveland Cuyahoga Port Authority for a comprehensive lakefront development program and the Port Authority has sued to claim Whiskey Island by eminent domain. This classic political wheeling and dealing is a mess, even as suddenly this remarkable little island has been cleaned up.
Friends Of Whiskey Island Director Ed Hauser told the group touring the island that the clean-up had removed 10 containers of trash, over 100 tires, and 500 tons of concrete, all of which was recycled. The beachfront was cleared of driftwood, which is now stacked for chipping for use in the new park, and the Natural History Museum is assisting to replant the habitat with native varietals. Having been to the site last year, before the clean up began, I can say the reclamation so far is truly remarkable.
Walking east from the marina and Bourbon Street Cafe, the parkland features several volleyball courts and then acres of open fields and bluffs overlooking Lake Erie to the north and the industrial grit and grime of the Cuyahoga River and Flats to the south and east - in the distance is the best view of Cleveland available without a boat.
As the tour reached the Cuyahoga River bank, one of Cleveland's greatest architectural landmarks came into clear view - the 1940 Dyer designed Moderne-style Coast Guard station now owned by the City of Cleveland. As described on the Ohio Trespassers website , it "just sits there, beautifully decayed". See an insightful expression of Cleveland past and present below.
The story of this National Landmark building is especially telling of the decay of Cleveland, and foretelling of what may happen to Whiskey Island if left to the wrong hands. As reported in a candy-coated but informative article in the Free Times , Jacob's Investments bought the building in good shape in 1984, operated it for a year as a private club, and then drove the building into ruin, and the has city allowed it to be demolished by neglect for two decades since - for the last seven years the roof has been collapsed and now only the shell remains.
The architect who designed the Coast Guard station also designed Cleveland City Hall, but that hasn't led to the city showing their most prominent lakefront landmark any respect. The city allowed Jacobs to demolish the building, without pursuing them for building code violations, and then for $1 and other favors the city took on the burden of solving these problems that Jacobs caused society. Since the city took on responsibility for the building, condition has been allowed to decline further.
It doesn't take a visionary to realize this is a disgrace that must be corrected. Knowing it is the fault of decades of corporate and city mismanagement excuses the current city administration from responsibility for the past neglect, but immediate action must be taken. The city pursues a 50 year plan for lakefront development, and seeks to take control of Whiskey Island, yet isn't taking the small steps to show responsibility for the community that they already own and control. Perhaps a symbol of commitment and competency restoring the Coast Guard station would help the city earn the community's trust. Until then, urban trespassers can savor the past glory of the Cleveland skyline from this beautifully decayed disaster.
It takes no imagination to envision the Coast Guard station restored by the city to past glory, connected to the Whiskey Island park being restored by the county, all enjoyed by NEOans of all ages, for ages.
And that was the point of this preview party by the Friends of Whiskey Island - to make obvious the value of imagining a better life in Northeast Ohio, where citizens take action - save islands - clear 100s of tons of trash - collaborate with County Commissioners - restore our environment. Imagine a society where developers do the right things, and environmentalists work with government leaders, and all of them work for all the people... see the reality of Whiskey Island today.
The tour of Whiskey Island ended with Ed Hauser speaking to the group about how Whiskey Island went from an industrial wasteland to a public park - the story of Dan Moore pursuing a deal that guaranteed a park in memory of his daughter Wendy, who passed away in a skiing accident, which led to Cuyahoga County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora and then Commissioner Tim McCormick buying the island for the county, and then many people working to turn the dump into an urban oasis. Most important, attendees were warned that the park is at risk, as the slate of county commissioners has changed since it was acquired by Cuyahoga and support of county ownership is not unanimous, and the city of Cleveland is collaborating with the port authority to take the park away and make the island an extension of the port. The story the city and port ask us to envision is one of a 50 year plan - a vision looking many unknown city administrations and a generation of port administrators into the future, with an equally uncertain present. If reality means anything, it is safer to say we now have a park owned by our county that is in ascent, bordered by a national landmark owned by the city that is in decline, surrounded by a port that is hideous. True, the city has big plans for the future, it seems largely secured by the prospect of Casino Gambling, brought to you by the same Jacobs Investments that was allowed to destroy the Coast Guard station. Where do you place your bets for your children and grandchildren to play?
Read more about the battle for Whiskey Island at the links below: