CLEVELAND — The Sidaway Bridge used to connect two Cleveland neighborhoods together but has been abandoned since it was set on fire during the Hough Uprising and left to rust and decay in the following decades. In the spring and summer, the bridge is barely visible as Mother Nature ensnares it in her web of ivy and underbrush. But in the fall and winter, when the cold creeps in, the skeleton of the city's only suspension bridge can be seen spanning nearly 700 feet across the Kingsbury Run valley—a reminder of the city's segregated past. But now, with city officials seeking landmark status for the 92-year-old bridge, it could soon be restored to its former glory and once again bring people together.
A LETTER OF SUPPORT
Earlier this summer, Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb expressed his support for having the bridge designated a historic landmark in a letter he sent to the State Historic Preservation Office in Columbus.
"I write in support of listing Cleveland's Sidaway Bridge, located over Kingsbury Run valley on the Cleveland Landmark Commission and the National Register of Historic Places. However, in a state of disrepair, this historic bridge connects Sidaway Avenue and East 67th Street on the Southwest Side of the valley with Sidaway Avenue near Berwick Road on the northeast," he said in the letter. "Many residents of region and city already recognize Sidaway Bridge as a historical landmark, but our shared goal is to make it official. Formally recognizing this structure's importance by listing it among other historic buildings and places will advance the larger mission to restore the bridge in the future and bring new life as a public park to the valley below."
According to the Mayor's office, several organizations are collaborating on the restoration planning of Kingsbury Run, which includes the Sidaway Bridge.
"Burten, Bell, Carr Development. Inc. and Cleveland Neighborhood Progress have been working on an initiative to clean, restore and develop the Run Valley as a community asset," Bibb said.
According to the mayor, the restoration of Kingsbury Run would lead to future development of the area. Funding for the projects could possibly come from local, state and federal grants as well as private donations. Having the bridge designated as a historic property would go a long way in securing funding through those grants.
In the last twelve months, those organizations have worked to "engage residents, share history, and campaign for the revitalization of the area," Bibb said. "That work is documented on www.kingsburyreserve.com and has laid the groundwork for this historic recognition," Bibb said.
News 5 first told you about the historical significance of the bridge two years ago. You can watch News 5's original report on the Sidaway Bridge in the player below:
RESTORATION LEADS TO GROWTH
Cleveland Ward 5 Councilman Richard Starr looks forward to the economic opportunities the restoration would have on his ward, where the bridge is located.
Starr was born and raised in Ward 5 and has been familiar with the bridge his entire life. The councilman has been working with Burten, Bell, Carr Development, Inc. on the restoration planning efforts.
"(We) have had conversations about how do we revitalize on the Sidaway Bridge, but also being able to ensure that we do it the correct way," Starr said. "Doing that —meaning the historic history of the bridge — is something that needs to be significantly remembered."
Starr wants the bridge to be a landmark and also sees it as a way to drive new business in the area.
"So when you think about the job opportunities that we're looking to have on Opportunity Corridor; when you think about Kingsbury Run and RTA, is there a way for us to do some economic development, or even if there's a community development opportunity, whether it's homes or housing, whatever we can do, it definitely starts with making sure we get the Sideway Bridge revitalized."
The councilman said the bridge will act as an anchor for those new opportunities and development in his ward when it connects the neighborhoods across the valley once again.
COLLABORATION OF NONPROFITS
Burten, Bell, Carr Development Inc. Director of Neighborhood Planning and Engagement Bianca Butts said the project is about bringing the city together.
"And those connections can be a connection between two neighborhoods that have storied history, a connection to greater access to the general city of Cleveland through potential trail ways and pathways connections, a deeper connection to environmental learning opportunities by providing great access to green space and potential recreational space for people that live in the Central and Kinsmen community and a connection to the history that this structure represents," Butts said.
"I think you can't understand where you're going or the possibilities of where you're going until you acknowledge where you've been," she continued. "That's the principle of 'Sankofa' and I think that the history that this bridge represents is valuable to charting a new course for the future of two communities." Sankofa, a word in the Twi language of Ghana, literally translates to "go back and get," and for various U.S. organizations, represents the importance of learning from the past.
One of the things the nonprofit has been working on is getting feedback from residents.
"It's a large-scale planning effort, but it requires community engagement with the residents who live and work and almost proximate to the site, but it requires a lot of engagement and collaboration with a number of stakeholders to make a project of this scale," Butts said.
The executive director for Slavic Village Development, Christopher Alvarado, said the bridge's restoration is something that his organization has thought about for decades.
"Our organization has been in existence for over 40 years and came into existence shortly after someone...presumably on our side of the Sidaway Bridge, set the deck on fire to keep folks from each neighborhood from being able to walk over for school for business, to visit friends. And for almost that amount of time, we have been interested in reopening that bridge or rebuilding that connection between our communities," he said.
Many years ago, Alvarado said, the nonprofit did an engineering study on the feasibility of rebuilding the deck and rehabbing the bridge. They have been looking for funding since. Now, with the city pushing to get the bridge declared a historic landmark, finding funding may be easier.
"This is important to Slavic Village Development—to our neighbors—because very frankly, our neighborhood has undergone a significant transition over the last 20-plus years to become a significantly diverse community that wants to be able to have those connections again and come over and experience, not just the assets that the Kinsman neighborhood has, but also to be able to make those connections, because oftentimes, for example, kids on both sides of the bridge attend the same schools. So shouldn't they be able to spend more time together and have this way to not just connect physically but also to be able to tie in better with their history and the history of our neighborhoods?" Alvarado said.
A HIDDEN LANDMARK
The current bridge wasn’t the first one to span the gap between the two neighborhoods on either side of the valley. In 1909, a 675-foot-long trestle bridge named the Tod-Kinsman Bridge was built to cross Kingsbury Run. At the time of its construction, the neighborhoods adjacent to Kingsbury Run consisted of Polish families on the south side and Hungarian families on the north side.
A second bridge was designed in 1929 by Wilbur Watson and Associates along with Fred L. Plummer, an engineer who also worked as a professor at the Case School of Applied Science.
The bridge was constructed after residents from both neighborhoods urged Cleveland Mayor Tom L. Johnson’s administration to create a way to connect the two communities together for their mutual benefit. It was later renamed the Sidaway Bridge for the roads that still carry its name on either side of the span.
The bridge uses a suspension system comprised of weight-bearing steel cables to support itself, which allows for a fewer number of support columns across great expanses.
It remains Cleveland’s first and only suspension bridge.
THE VALLEY BELOW
Named after James Kingsbury, one of Cuyahoga County’s earliest settlers, the area below the Sidaway Bridge is rich in local history.
First, it was home to John D. Rockefeller’s first refinery, where Standard Oil started. Thanks to Standard Oil, Rockefeller has been called the richest man in history. His vast wealth changed business, philanthropy and federal anti-monopoly laws forever. It all started on this plot of earth.
Following the Great Depression, homeless people, vagrants and others lived in a large temporary tent village down in the valley of Kingsbury Run.
In 1938, the people who called the area home had to leave after Cleveland Safety Director Elliot Ness, the same man who was credited with bringing down Al Capone, set fire to the makeshift village while searching for the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run, AKA the Torso Killer, who murdered a dozen people and terrorized the area for several years.
You can watch more about Kingsbury Run and the notorious Torso murders in the player below:
The photo below of Kingsbury Run from 2020 shows the Sidaway Bridge looking over the valley, which is currently used to store building materials and isn't readily accessible to the public.
RACIAL TENSIONS AND THE BRIDGE'S FIERY DESTRUCTION
Cleveland’s population changed dramatically in the 20th Century. In 1910, Cleveland was home to around 600,000 residents and was the sixth-largest city in the country. Families that came to Cleveland were mostly comprised of European immigrants who settled around industrial areas. Before cars, city families lived in walkable neighborhoods near jobs, schools and churches.
The Black population in Cleveland was low at the turn of the 20th Century. While the city itself had more than half a million residents at the time, only around 9,000 of them were Black.
Cleveland’s population bloomed to 800,000 people by 1920, when it held rank as the country’s fifth-largest city. The Black population had grown to around 35,000. By 1930, nearly 70,000 Cleveland residents were Black.
The Great Depression slowed down the growth of white immigrants. Immigration policies at the time led to a major demographic shift. At the same time ethnic white immigration slowed down, Black families fleeing Jim Crow, lynching and persecution in the South sought better opportunities.
The area known as Garden Valley (Kinsman) was built in the 1950s on a 130-acre dumping ground previously used by Republic Steel. A 650-unit public housing project named Garden Valley Estates was built there. The public housing project was later called one of the worst in the country by federal housing officials.
By the 1960s, the area on the north side of Kingsbury Run had turned into a predominantly Black neighborhood as white families moved out. Nearly 250,000 Black residents called Cleveland home at that time.
On the south side, the area remained predominately ethnic-white with Polish families residing there. Originally called the North Broadway or Jackowo neighborhood, the area wouldn’t come to be really known as Slavic Village until the 1970s.
The Hough Riots, also called the Hough Uprising by some, broke out on July 18, 1966, after a white bar owner refused to give a Black patron a glass of water at the Seventy-Niners Café, which was located near Hough Avenue and East 79th Street.
That event tipped Cleveland over the edge. A crowd grew increasingly angry and violent and eventually turned to vandalism and looting. The following day, fires were set and spread throughout the community as homes and businesses were razed by flames.
Cleveland’s mayor at the time was Ralph Locher, who called in the Ohio National Guard. Locher also ordered the closure of all the bars in the area.
In the days that followed, four Black people were killed. According to historians, two were bystanders caught in a crossfire of bullets, one was believed to have been attacked by a white person at a bus stop and the fourth was killed by a resident of Cleveland’s Little Italy in an incident that would later be ruled self-defense.
It was during this nearly week-long disturbance that an unknown person set fire to the bridge’s planks and destroyed a section of the walkway on the south side of the structure.
At the time of our 2020 report, some of the planks on the bridge were still visible.
With the bridge out of commission, Black schoolchildren who used the bridge to cross Kingsbury Run to go to a nearby elementary school in the Jackowo neighborhood found themselves having to walk to school in a roundabout way that involved more than a mile-long detour.
When Cleveland officials shut the bridge down and closed it permanently, the path that tied the two neighborhoods together was officially severed. As time passed, the area surrounding the bridge became overgrown with weeds and brush as Mother Nature tried to reclaim what humanity had left behind.
In 1976, the city's decision to leave the bridge to rot rather than repair was brought up in a landmark federal court case regarding the segregation of Cleveland City Schools.
Federal District Court Judge Frank Battisti said in a court memorandum and order that the city and the school district chose not to fix the bridge in order to keep the city segregated, thus preventing Black students from walking to a predominantly white school on the south side of the bridge.
After the bridge’s closure, no secondary route was constructed to allow residents from either side of Kingsbury Run an easily accessible way across to the other neighborhood.
Battisti called the matter an “extremely unusual pattern.”
“The omission of the city in taking any actions to establish connections between these areas can reasonably be viewed as conduct by public officials aimed at fostering the virtual total racial segregation of both these neighborhoods,” Battisti wrote in the court order. “The court is not so naive as to believe that school officials could not have worked with city officials to have such a sidewalk constructed if all of these public officials were not seeking to promote the separation of these neighborhoods."
As a result of the order, busing and an integration program were introduced to desegregate Cleveland schools.
CLICK HERE to view the 203-page landmark court memorandum about Cleveland segregation.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
On Thursday, the Cleveland Landmark Commission met to discuss nominating the bridge as a city landmark. The motion passed unanimously. The nomination approval is just the first step in having the bridge actually designated. There are a few more steps to go through before it receives its new status.
Earlier this week, News 5 spoke to Cleveland Planning Commission Director Joyce Huang about the bridge and the next steps.
"So where it is in the process is we're really looking at nominating it as a landmark," said Huang. "So it will be going to Landmarks Commission this Thursday. And then that legislation will go to city council and then be reviewed by the City Planning Commission. We're very aware of the plans for restoration and we're supportive. I think we're we're just at a point where we need to discuss the path forward."
As to why the city is now taking an interest in the bridge, Huang explained it's about healing the city and bringing people back together.
"So I think that really, the bridge is a symbol," Huang said. "It's a symbol that connects two distinct communities and with its history, knowing the city actually closed the bridge over 50 years ago due to the Hough Uprising and rising racial tensions, you know, it really is a goal of the administration to take a look at places that have actually physically divided people and physically disconnected people and really bring people together for that type of healing that needs to happen in our city, specifically around race, and so this bridge both would be that representation as a symbol of restoration and healing but then also physically connect the Central and the Slavic Village communities, as well as create a better connectivity overall through the East Side to various streets and trails."
You can watch the full Landmark Commission meeting in the player below:
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