Sunday, July 24, 2016

The bridges of Cleveland

     As a child, I was terrified of the bridges in Cleveland. I have a hunch why. They must have loomed into my subconscious during our family's regular drives from the suburban flatlands of the West Side to the industrial East Side to visit my grandmother. As we drove across them, they vectored out in all directions, the city a vista of factories and steelwork and smokestacks, with no comforting ground in sight. I would have nightmares about these bridges: me, lying sprawled face down on the deck of a bridge, without guardrails, as it quickly lowered like the elevator of an aircraft carrier. They were so scary I remembered them for the rest of my life.
     Maybe it was because there are so many Cleveland bridges: more than 100 within Cleveland proper. And Cleveland bridges are enormous. The city sits on a series of bluffs that rise steeply from the lakeshore, requiring bridges that can span a half mile, a mile, or longer.
View from the Veterans Memorial Bridge
     Chicago bridges are puny by comparison, as dictated by the easy hop from one sandy bank, over the trickle of a Chicago River, to the marshland on the other side, barely above the water itself.  The Wabash Avenue Bridge is 345 feet across. 
     Compare that to Cleveland's Main Avenue Bridge, running a mile and a half—8,000 feet across.  Chicago bridges are mainly bascule bridges—bisected stubs that open and close—while Cleveland's are high fixed spans, huge multi-deck concrete viaducts, steel edifices, along with lift bridges with their massive superstructures.
     I was covering the convention last week, not studying bridges. Though of course I saw them, and thought about my unease about them. Then suddenly, at one point, Wednesday night, before dinner, I found myself standing at the foot of the Veterans Memorial Bridge at sunset and, sensing my opportunity, impulsively decided to walk to the other side, a journey of some 3/4 of a mile. 
     It was not stressful. A lovely summer evening stroll. There was little traffic—you'd have to be insane to drive into downtown at that point—and I easily scampered across the four lanes to see the view from the other side. It wasn't isolated though—other pedestrians and bicyclists were there as well. I was rewarded with beautiful views of the city on both sides. 
      The Veterans Memorial Bridge's steel span is 591 feet long, and contains 4250 tons of steel, the work all fabricated by the King Bridge Co. of Cleveland, founded in 1858, which built three of Chicago's earliest bridges, which no longer exist.
Hope Memorial Bridge
     There was nothing scary about the walk across the bridge, no sense of vertigo, no fear of the railings. I felt I was finally making my peace with Cleveland bridges, and that they'd trouble me no more. 
      That really is the only way: address what frightens you, overcome it. Had I just stood there and stared, trembling, at the bridge and not crossed it, had I fled in fear, were this were a screed, railing ignorantly against the scariness of bridges, cataloguing their proven dangers, that would be, well, in a word, stupid.
      The next day, I found myself on a march across the even more beautiful Hope Memorial Bridge—named for Bob Hope's father, a stone mason in Cleveland., I considered my trek across Hope Memorial as a kind of reward for conquering my fears. Then again, there is usually a reward in overcoming your baseless anxieties toward unobjectionable entities like bridges. I only wish the people at the Quicken Loans Arena could figure that one out.  


  1. while there are around 30 MOVABLE bridges in chicago there are hundreds more of various types. cleveland a place i hold dear has hundreds of bridges of many types as well . i don't see it as a contest. just a matter of accuracy. congratulations neil, on confronting your fear.

  2. The CTA alone has at least 65 bridges over streets in Chicago, Evanston, Skokie & Oak Park. The railroads have perhaps a thousand bridges over streets in the city, including at least a dozen movable bridges, plus about 6 that are in fixed open positions, because they're no longer used & our lunatic city council has landmarked them. All of those are rusting away & I'm waiting for a landmarked non-working bridge to collapse & kill people. Then the city will be sued for millions, because it didn't maintain the "landmark" & the council will then unlandmark those bridges!. Then there's the Steel Bridge over the Calumet River on the Skyway, plus all the expressway bridges, where either the expressway crosses over a street or a street crosses over an expressway.

  3. Point taken. I had a lot of trouble trying to find good numbers for either city. I'll fix.

  4. Neil- a beautiful column. The bridge is a wonderful metaphor, though as you note- they require painstaking work to build and preserve. Let us hope we find folks who let go of their fears before they burn their bridges.

  5. Fear of bridges (or maybe it's just a fear of heights)is a phobia I share. When my work required frequent visits to Washington
    D.C. I often stayed in Arlington and had to walk across the high bridge over the Potomac going to dinner in Georgetown. It was my practice to walk in the roadway if traffic was light, or at least at the inside edge of the walkway.

    That fear of bridges is not totally irrational is brought to mind by a famous work by the Scottish poet William McGonagall, widely acclaimed as the worst poet in the English language, memorializing a famous railroad disaster involving a bridge.

    "Beautiful railway bridge of the silv'ry Tay
    Alas, I am sorry to say,
    That ninety lives have been taken away,
    On the last Sabbath day of 1879
    Which will be remembered
    For a very long time."

    Tom Evans

    1. I thought the worst poet was Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings of Essex, followed by the Azgoths of Kria and the Vogons. Sorry, couldn't resist a little Hitchhikers reference there. Must be the heat.

  6. Neil reads a lot of poetry. Perhaps he could judge.


    1. Not so much as to decide that without sleuthing. It is a particularly awful poem though, I can see that.

    2. Vogon poetry is of course, the third worst in the universe. The second worst is that of the Azgoths of Kria. During a recitation by their poet Master Grunthos the Flatulent of his poem "Ode to a Small Lump of Green Putty I Found in my Armpit One Midsummer Morning" four of his audience died of internal haemorrhaging and the president of the Mid-Galactic Arts Nobbling Council survived only by gnawing one of his own legs off. Grunthos was reported to have been "disappointed" by the poem's reception, and was about to embark on a reading of his 12-book epic entitled "Zen and the Art of going to the Lavatory" when his own major intestine, in a desperate attempt to save civilization, leapt straight up through his neck and throttled his brain.
      According the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the very worst poet of all was Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings of Essex, England....

      No sleuthing necessary, just an attempt at being silly with some Douglas Adams. I really spent too much time outside the last few days.

  7. Judging the relative awfulness of bad poems seems a job for pro's. Perhaps Poetry Magazine. In the U.K a consensus formed around "The Fairies" ("Up the airy mountain, down the rushy glen.") as the worst poem by a serious author. McGonagall wasn't taken seriously, but became sort of a Florence Foster Jenkins of poetry when he took to giving public readings of his doggerel. He drew large, appreciative crowds but often ended up being pelted with rotten tomatoes.

    Tom Evans


This blog posts comments at the discretion of the proprietor.