By Mike Templeton
One of the most important issues for the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition, and Urban Appalachian Council before us, has been environmental justice, as so many urban Appalachians have lived in parts of Greater Cincinnati that have borne the brunt of environmental damage. One of the main areas of concern in Greater Cincinnati for many years has been the Mill Creek watershed and the largely urban Appalachian neighborhoods that line the Mill Creek. In recent years, this area of concern has improved dramatically.
In the early 1980s I was enrolled in an environmental science program at what was then Raymond Walters College, now UC Blue Ash College. One of our many field work exercises was to wade into the Mill Creek in hip waders and learn to do some field measurements for water quality—simple things like pH and dissolved oxygen. I don’t remember what the measurements were, but I do clearly remember that the water was a kind of cobalt blue, a color that does not occur in nature. Back then, the Mill Creek was not just a thoroughly polluted waterway, it was so polluted that it had become a symbol of polluted waterways. According to the Mill Creek Alliance, by 1997, “the national river conservation group American Rivers designated it the “most endangered urban river in North America.”
Even to this day, the majority of people who live along the Mill Creek are urban Appalachians and African Americans. People who are already at an economic disadvantage bear the brunt of the environmental damage from things like the polluted Mill Creek. The Urban Appalachian Council and the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition has long been active in combatting this kind of environmental racism. The Mill Creek Alliance, with the help of a great many people over the years, has transformed this historical waterway back to something of its natural state. There is wildlife in and on the Mill Creek, and this is due in large part to the work of the Mill Creek Alliance.
The Mill Creek was once called Mahketewah, which is roughly translated as “it is black,” by the indigenous Shawnee nation. It is an historic waterway, and of the many important roles it has played in Cincinnati history, it has been something of a lifeline to urban Appalachians as they settled areas like Lower Price Hill, Elmwood Place, and Camp Washington. In our presentation on urban Appalachian neighborhoods, Core member Mike Maloney has shared that the settlement patterns for Appalachian people formed something of an upside-down T in which people settled into neighborhoods along the Ohio River and formed a line along the Mill Creek. Industries once lined the Mill Creek, and Appalachians found homes in these areas. The Mill Creek, along with the river, were the central lines for what we now call urban Appalachia in greater Cincinnati. At the same time that urban Appalachians settled along the Mill Creek, the industries where they found work in the city were destroying this natural waterway with all manner of pollution ranging from common sewage to toxic and carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyls. Where they discovered a new life far from home and created the cultural phenomenon of urban Appalachia, they also found threats to their lives in the form of environmental degradation.
The Mill Creek has been a central feature for all of Cincinnati’s history, but what bore down in the creek leading to its ultimate fate was the growth of industry along the creek and the surrounding watershed. Just as the Mill Creek offered a resource for early settlers to build inland, it just as easily lent itself to industrial production. All the industry that grew along the Mill Creek became the sources of pollution for the very thing that made them possible. Waste from soap production, pork processing, and later chemical production all found its way into the Mill Creek and sealed its fate in becoming the most polluted and endangered urban waterway in America.
The Mill Creek Alliance is a non-profit organization that has been working to rescue the Mill Creek from the toxic legacy of the Twentieth Century. The mission of the Mill Creek Alliance is to “champion the resurgence of the Mill Creek watershed as a natural and community asset.” To this end they maintain partnerships with all 37 jurisdictions along the Mill Creek watershed to monitor the water quality and take action to protect not only the Mill Creek but all the rivers and streams attached to it. This involves everything from restoring natural habitats to building public green spaces along the creek to engage the public towards creating a healthier relationship with the water system. The Mill Creek Alliance also runs educational programs to help people in Greater Cincinnati understand the importance of restoring the Mill Creek. They do offer many volunteer opportunities for anyone who would like to get involved. Information on all of this can be found at the link below.
There have been tremendous strides in restoring the Mill Creek in recent years. Thanks to the work of the Mill Creek Alliance and the many people who have gotten involved in the work of cleaning up and monitoring the creek, it has returned to some semblance of a natural waterway. Urban Appalachians in Cincinnati have often been at the forefront of environmental justice, and these issues remain central to the concerns of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition.
More information about the Mill Creek Alliance can be found at this link: https://www.themillcreekalliance.org/.
Cover image source: https://www.themillcreekalliance.org/about-the-creek
Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. He is the author of the forthcoming The Chief of Birds: A Memoir. Available later this year from Erratum Press, and Impossible to Believe, forthcoming from Iskra Books. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.