100 Year Anniversary of Detroit Superior Bridge Arch

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It’s an iconic image of Cleveland – the concrete and steel Detroit Superior Bridge spanning the Cuyahoga River above the Flats.  One hundred years ago today, ironworkers pinned together two steel halves connecting the arch that crosses over the bridge.  But it’s the lower deck and its possibilities for future development that brought ideastream’s Annie Wu into the catacombs under the expanse also called the Veterans Memorial bridge.

Streetcars once rumbled from the dark tunnels beneath Detroit Avenue and West 25th out onto the light filled bridge crossing over the Cuyahoga and into Public Square.  Now, it’s remarkably quiet beneath the hustle and bustle of Ohio City.  The streetcars stopped running in the 1950’s and the railroad ties are gone.  But some remnants of the hundred year old subway station – the enameled brick walls, red brick platforms, and built-in light boxes -- remain.

Here are the streetcar tracks that went down probably westbound into the Detroit tunnel.  Over here on the south side, there was another entrance.  There’s a ramp.  There’s restrooms over there.

Bill Vermes is senior engineer with Pennoni Associates.  He helped with the rehabilitation that closed the Detroit Superior Bridge for several years in the 1990’s. 

There was a lot of debris, lotta mess.  There was garbage all over the place.  There was some homeless people living down here.  They were found homes. The area down here was secured.  It’s really been cleaned up a lot.

A few industrial lights shine on construction debris littering the space.  Deteriorating concrete is being chipped away to be replaced with new cement to ensure the bridge remains structurally sound.

Vermes says back in the 1980s, there was no chance of repurposing the lower level. 

When we were working on the rehab, my employer would get letters, “Hey can we put a restaurant down here?"  "Could we do this?"  "Could we put a streetcar down here?"  And the answer would go back to the person, “No, you can’t do that. It’s just not possible.”

Now, he senses, there might just be the momentum to make something of the space.  But first, he says, there are architectural treasures to be fixed.  Vermes points to a set of stairs leading just beneath the tracks.  But half down, the stairway is submerged in mucky water where he suspects drains may have clogged.

These were pedestrian tunnels.  So if you came in on the North side and you had to get on the W. 25th St streetcar, you couldn’t go across the tracks.  You went down these stairs, you went through the tunnels that went underneath and you’d come up on the other side.  It’d really be nice to get the water out of these tunnels so people can go down here again and get that subway feel again.

And then there are practical problems.  Sludge pipes, power lines and low hanging telephone ducts, run throughout the tunnels.

If this became a public area and you had somebody riding a bike down here, there’s clearance issues in some areas.  There’s security issues also.  Do you want people to have this close access to critical utilities?

Ingenuity Fest was held here in 2011 and until 2 years ago, people were given access to the lower level for annual public tours..  when visitors could walk to the windy center of the bridge, catch views of downtown Cleveland and if they’re brave… look down. 

Yup, right there.  You’re in the center of the bridge.  Panel point 4.  You’re standing on top of the lower deck floor beam.  Only 2 inches of steel between you and the Cuyahoga River right now.

2 inches doesn’t seem like much..

No, no.  You'd make a great ironworker.

But the thing Vermes is most excited to show a visitor is a piece of concrete only an inspector could have found.  He opens a portable ladder and climbs a few rungs.

You’ll see that a laborer – a concrete mason – carved his name in the top of the concrete and this is something only inspectors get to see when they’re out here on the bridge.  It says, R Mendoza 11/4/16.

Nearly 100 years ago, R Mendoza was here.  The bridge like Terminal Tower is one of the main symbols of Cleveland’s past.  And Vermes says it could be part of its future.

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