CLEVELAND (WJW) – When you see something every day, it just becomes a piece of visual noise. It’s just something in the background, a tool, a convenient thing.
You don’t see it for what it really is, a piece of the fabric of this city.
“I think when you look at streets and buildings, we need to find structures that reflect what ordinary people experienced,” said John Grabowski, a history professor at Case Western Reserve University.
Grabowski is one of the creators of the online encyclopedia of Cleveland history. He says the history of Cleveland in many ways comes down to the everyday place and things that people remember and use.
Some of those things are waiting for a new purpose like the old neighborhood business districts. The small buildings housed beauty shops, repair places and mom and pop stores.
“I’m thinking of Cedar Avenue, the entrepreneur street for African Americans. So much of that is gone. The churches are still there and I think we need to focus on some of the small business stores to see if they can be preserved,” Grabowski said.
You can also look at ordinary places where people worked. Cleveland was one of the top industrial cities in the world and industry is still a cornerstone of what makes Cleveland, Cleveland.
But a lot of industries have faded and new ones have taken their place. Hamilton Avenue on the eastside gives you a glimpse of both.
“If you visit Hamilton Avenue, there are fantastic buildings. The Brownhoist company building, which is just huge. The brick work is extraordinary and that’s a place that people don’t’ know. They always go down St. Clair or the Shoreway. If you use Hamilton Avenue to go downtown, you see a different Cleveland,” Grabowski said.
But industry in a city like Cleveland needed another one of those pieces of visual noise — bridges and a lot of them.
Before the big highway bridges over the Cuyahoga, there were a lot of small bridges that did a lot of true heavy lifting.
Most still work, but quite a few are rusting away — too expensive to repair or just no longer needed. They’re locked in time from the days when dozens of railroad lines crisscross the river.
“The bascule bridges in the Flats that are permanently up because they’re on the old Baltimore and Ohio line that wasn’t used, those are reminders of the city’s history. When I go down into the Flats and look at the bridges, the Columbus Street bridge that still operates, the railroad bridges that still operate, the ones that are permanently up, it just really tells you what the community was like, what the city was like,” Grabowski said.
The old railroad bridge on Main Avenue next to the Improv is overgrown with ivy, but you can see it close up.
All the steel and gears are still intact and you can get on the deck and get an appreciation over just how massive and well-built this bridge is.
The other closed bridges are off limit, but you can see a lot of the engineering that went into lifting so much weight from a distance.
However, like all things, the needs of the community have changed. What was demanded from the river bridges when they were new is not what a lot of folks are looking for now.
A lot of old abandoned things serve as reminders of the past, but they also can find new purpose in the future.
“Each of those generations that knew a city at one time watched it change to something else and we’re watching it change to something else now, and our descendants will watch it change to something else again,” Grabowski said.