It’s easy to paint the second half of the 20th Century as a time of decline for Hartford and most other American cities, but let’s remember the work of environmentalists who succeeded back then in forcing a clean-up of our rivers—a vital precursor to all the waterfront revivals we see now, including Hartford’s. Without laws like the federal Clean Water Act of 1972, there probably would be no Riverfront Plaza today. After all, who’d want to hang out by a stinky, polluted Connecticut River?
One of those instrumental in writing and securing passage of the Clean Water Act was David Zwick, who died on Feb. 5 in Minneapolis, at age 75. The New York Times has published an inspiring obituary of him, including quotes from activist Ralph Nader, who recalled recruiting the young Vietnam-veteran-turned-law-student for “Nader’s Raiders.” In 1971 Zwick and Marcy Benstock wrote “Water Wasteland,” a lengthy report that detailed the nation’s failures up to that point in trying to control water pollution. He then went to work on drafting the Clean Water Act, helping to make it bulletproof from opponents’ attempts to undermine it.
The Times noted that when it came time to commemorate the Act’s 25th anniversary in 1987, then-Environmental Protection Secretary Carol M. Browner remarked: “By any measure, this landmark legislation has been hugely successful. Once-dead rivers, lakes, and estuaries are now pulsating with life. People are returning to them — to swim, to fish, to ply the waters in their boats and to relax on their shores.”
The work of connecting people to the Hartford and East Hartford riverfront is continued today by Riverfront Recapture, founded in 1980.