The Biggest Victory at Richfield Coliseum

July 25, 2010

Don’t it always seem to go

That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?

They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.

– Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi”

The Coliseum in Richfield, Ohio

Twenty years ago, this arena sat at the intersection of two highways between Akron and Cleveland.   It was home to the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team, and the site of musical events too numerous to recount.  In 1987, probably bedecked in ruffles and paste pearls, I saw Madonna perform there.

Cuyahoga River, photo by Kevin Payravi, Wikimedia Commons

As you can see, the arena was surrounded by acres and acres of parking lot.  It sat atop a rise over the Cuyahoga River valley and was visible for miles around.  Beyond the sea of asphalt, the Coliseum was bordered by the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.  Created in 1974 as the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area, the CVNP encompasses waterfalls and forests, as well as preserving sections of the Ohio & Erie Canal towpath and historic farms.  The CVNP exists due to the tireless efforts of the citizens of northeastern Ohio, lead by Congressmen Ralph Regula and John Seiberling.  President Ford was reluctant to approve the legislation creating the park, but upon being shown a list of local supporters, reportedly said, “If I don’t sign this bill, my name will be mud in Ohio.”

Brandywine Falls, photo by Analogue Kid at Wikimedia Commons

In the early 1990s, the Gund family, who owned the basketball team, decided to build a new arena and placed it in downtown Cleveland.  This contributed significantly to the revitalization of the city, and was one of the first instances of a growing trend among professional sports organizations to relocate or improve their facilities in inner cities.  In 1994, the Cleveland Cavaliers played their last game at Richfield Coliseum, and that sounded the death knell for the arena.  Many were concerned about what would become of the site, with developers clamoring to acquire it for shopping centers, office buildings, and the like.  By 1998, sixty developers had approached the Gunds with offers to buy the property.  While the developers offered them more money, the Gunds chose to sell the site to the Trust for Public Land, and it was transferred to the National Park Service.
This week, I visited the former site of the Coliseum in Richfield, and took a picture.

Coliseum Grasslands, Richfield, Ohio

A visitor to the area would never guess that the concrete and glass behemoth pictured above stood here.  The meadow has never been mowed, and it’s filled with hundreds of grasses and other plants.  I went there to watch birds.  In particular, I was looking for this bird.  This is a Henslow’s Sparrow.

Henslow's Sparrow (Ammodramus henslowii)

The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America describes the bird as “uncommon, local, and declining.  Restricted to damp grassy meadows with old matted vegetation and a variety of weeds and other groundcover.  Solitary and very secretive; difficult to see except when singing … Song a dry, insect-like, feeble hiccup.”  Because it prefers this particular type of habitat, and such meadows are harder and harder to find, the population of Henslow’s Sparrows has been steadily dropping.

My friend and I arrived at the Coliseum grasslands around 7:00 PM, right after a sudden drenching rain.  We waded through waist-high grasses and wildflowers, listening intently for the sparrow’s song.  It didn’t take long to hear what Sibley called an insect-like hiccup, and persistent following the song led us to see a little juvenile, perched atop a stalk of grass.  We did find several other Henslow’s Sparrows that night, along with Bobolinks, the famously shy Sedge Wren, and many other birds.

I was filled with amazement that what is now home to an uncommon bird so finicky about its habitat, not two decades ago was a monument to Americans’ love for commercial spectacle on a grand scale and their ability to get there by automobile.  While I watch and worry about what will become of the Gulf, all covered in sludge, it was balm for the soul to see the tangible results of human intervention in our environment come to something so very, very, very good.  If you worry about our planet, if you fear for the loss of wild places, if you despair at human exploitation of our Mother Earth … think of the efforts of concerned citizens, the generosity of a wealthy family, and the dedication of a few public servants.  Think of an asphalt parking lot that is now a meadow in Ohio.  Think of the Henslow’s Sparrow, and reflect that sometimes the good guys win.


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