The Biggest Victory at Richfield Coliseum

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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12 Responses to The Biggest Victory at Richfield Coliseum

  1. Oh, wow. That just made my day. What a beautiful nature preserve.

  2. Mary says:

    I second the wow, raise it to an awesome…

    As I was reading your post I thought of the David Byrne song, “Nothing but Flowers,” wherein, “Once there were parking lots, now it’s a peaceful oasis.”

    I wish we’d do more similar acts.

  3. Genie says:

    The last concert I ever went to, Depeche Mode, was at the Richfield Coliseum in the nineties. Haven’t thought ofthe place in years but am so happy to see what the area is today.

    Thanks for the update.

  4. Leslie says:

    Well said, Laura. Thanks for focusing on that ray of hope. Birding has been very, very good for you!

  5. sulafaye says:

    I like to reserve my use of the word awesome for things that do in fact inspire awe. This is awesome. Thanks for the great post.

  6. Sarah says:

    What an amazing post! We’re lucky to have the Gunds and their commitment to the environment (among many other things.) I had no idea that this is what had become of the arena… Reading this made my day.

  7. domesticshorthair says:

    This is wonderful! Thank you for posting about it. It makes me happy to know that someone decided to do the opposite and put nature back where a building once stood.

  8. Lori on Little Traverse Bay says:

    The CVNP is such a gem! We took the CVSR train from Akron along the river up to one of the towpath stations in August (and back again)—what fun!

    How wonderful for the Gund family to have the vision and the generosity to add this parcel to the park system. And kudos to the people who worked tirelessly to create the park in the first place. I’m glad you’re able to enjoy it!

  9. Brad says:

    I never liked the Richfield Coliseum; it was nowhere near Cleveland (not even the same county), and Clevelanders without cars were SOL trying to get there. Nonetheless, I saw the Circus and the WWF (now WWE) there when I was a kid, so I have a few good memories of the place and was always vaguely curious about what happened to it. I was Googling it tonight and came across your blog. I figured it had been demolished, but I would have never guessed that the space was turned into a nature preserve. The meadow looks gorgeous and I loved your story of finding rare birds there. This whole piece was beautifully written, and you’re right, it’s good to know that there are people in power who still care about nature.

  10. Jennifer says:

    stopped by to catch up with you + have to say how much i loved this post. i grew up not far from there at the hey day of concerts + basketball, but have always loved and appreciated the valley below. we still head there to bike the towpath, eat at fishers’ and take in the streams and falls. next time, however, we may head up the big hiss to listen for the sparrows’ call :)
    hope all is well with you + yours! xoxo

  11. Donald Liles II says:

    This is beautiful. Go Cavs!

  12. What a bittersweet way to begin this post – and so glad it ends the opposite way! I found your site while trying to identify the sparrow most recently caught in LLELA’s Winter Site Fidelity Study (https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.502884499824220.1073741858.175655922547081&type=3). You helped me get the identification correct! And furthermore, you gave me a bright spot of hope in the day, because I see more and more pavement, and want to be assured that we can restore land to its former glory. Or at least a new form of glory. Thank you.

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