A new vision for the subway level of the Detroit- Superior Bridge

In his "Metaphors of a Magnifico," American poet Wallace Stevens wrote about individual perspectives on the same experience: "Twenty men crossing a bridge/Into a village/Are twenty men crossing twenty bridges/Into twenty villages/Or one man/Crossing a single bridge into a village."

Last week, Ingenuity Festival director James Levin took about 30 people across the subway level of the Detroit- Superior Bridge. How you see that iconic bridge — with its lace of white concrete arches reaching 3,112 feet across the Cuyahoga river valley, 96 feet above it, and the graceful hump of grey steel girders in the middle — is certainly a matter of perspective.

The bridge's subway level is where the streetcars used to run. They descended into openings in the middle of Detroit Road on the west side and Superior Avenue on the other. In between, beneath the cars and trucks, streetcars carried people in and out of downtown until 1954. The entrances were paved over, and more than half a century later, entire transit stops with glazed porcelain tile walls remain entombed there. Like a catacomb of trolley transportation, the place has been sitting empty, quiet, all but forgotten, save for the county engineer's twice-yearly, free, self-guided tours.

Levin was showing the place to people with a different perspective. What if this arc — with views up and down the Cuyahoga, including downtown and the lake — were open as a venue for performances and art installations?

"It's a strategy for a shrinking city," says Terry Schwarz of Kent State University's Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative. "When Cleveland was bustling with people, we needed this to move them. Now we don't need it. But it's still here. It's publicly owned."

Levin and Schwarz see the obsolete infrastructure as a resource, a distinct piece of Cleveland that could be used again as an attraction, at least for a weekend. They and a handful of other collaborators — including the engineer's office and All Go Signs director Chuck Karnak — are calling the idea "The Bridge Project." It's slated for 4 p.m.-midnight Friday, September 25, and noon-midnight Saturday, September 26. Admission will be free, but donations will be accepted.

What will actually happen those days is still taking shape. The first-time event has almost no budget and is dependent on the cooperation of not only the county engineer's office, but also the Flats Oxbow Association, the restaurant Massimo di Milano (which is in a former bank building at the west side of the bridge; its basement has a defunct doorway to the transit stop), plus a slew of individual artists, many of whom were involved in Ingenuity Fest.

Among the committed projects are a café setting at the west end, which will present Opera Per Tutti's performance of Act II of Puccini's La Bohème. Levin hopes to secure a liquor license for that location. Poet and band leader Ray McNiece will present a spoken-word-and-music program based on "The Bridge" by the early 20th-century American poet Hart Crane of Garrettsville, Ohio. The Tom Jarmusch film Sometimes City will screen. NASA engineers Jay Horovitz and Rich Reinhart will present a video installation using NASA-based images and animation. Video artist and CSU professor Qian Li will show a site-specific video. Artist Laila Voss also plans a video installation, which will be projected on the still and crystal-clear surface of water that has filled an old staircase down to a lower level of the bridge. Shannon Gallagher, a representative from the county engineer's office, says the water is from a spring that was disturbed during bridge renovations years ago.

Several groups will present visions of design and architecture. A round-robin design and architectural showcase called Pecha Kucha will feature local luminaries discussing ideas. Graduate students from Kent State University will present site-specific ideas as part of a class.

Several of the artists who came on the bridge tour last week were still forming their plans. Some of them were seeing under the bridge for the first time. The question seemed to hang over the entire proceeding: What could you do if you had a weekend's access to this? Filling an iconic old bridge with performances and art is the kind of project that could get the world's attention. Levin says that if Ingenuity was a 26-ring circus, the Bridge Project will have less activity.

"The bridge itself is what we're showing off," he explains. But it doesn't end there. "This will be the suggestion of something that might happen on a larger scale in the future."


More by Michael Gill


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