Skywalk: the word conjures up a dusty Jetsons-era vision of the city of the future, one in which people stream through a metropolis in plastic tubes and bubbles, all without ever coming into contact with something as old-fashioned as a sidewalk.
In the last decades of the 20th century, many American cities built skywalks in a desperate attempt to seem modern, hoping to create a sanitized urban experience that would compete with the sanitized suburban experience of indoor malls.
For the most part, it didn’t work, and now cities such as Baltimore and Cincinnati are tearing down the skywalks they once built with such fanfare, in an effort to return pedestrian life and vitality to the street.
Meanwhile, in Cleveland, the owners of the year-old Horseshoe Casino downtown are planning to build a brand-new skywalk, and the county government is looking to refurbish another one just a few blocks away. For many of the young people moving to Cleveland in search of a 21st-century urban experience – pedestrian-friendly, with lots of people out and about – it seems like a step backward in time.
"I’m not typically the activist type," says Joe Baur, a 26-year-old writer who moved downtown two years ago and has now started a group called OurCLE to fight the skywalks. "I’m more a satirist. But this is like – well, you may not like kids, but if you see a kid about to touch a hot stove, you’re going to stop them." Baur says Cleveland is that kid, and the skywalk is the hot stove.
The elevated walkway has been proposed by the casino’s owner, Rock Ohio Caesars, in a bid to improve its financial position for a purchase of the historic Higbee Building, part of the national landmark Tower City complex, where the casino has been operating. The walkway would connect the casino to its parking garage. Currently, a shuttle bus is available to carry gamblers unable or unwilling to walk across the street.
Baur and other opponents of the skywalk have started a petition drive to stop the construction, saying it would deaden the neighborhood, make residents more vulnerable to crime, and block sightlines of other historic buildings in the neighborhood. A couple of people have made videos to get the word out, one focusing on the safety issue, and another showing the way Detroit’s skywalks suck people off the streets and create a dead zone around some of its densest development.
Baur worries the 170-foot-long glass-enclosed tube could have a similar effect in Cleveland, which is finally starting to see signs of life after generations of decline. "It flies completely in the face of what they said the casino would do, which was to get people downtown and see what else there was to see," he says. "It was pitched to mesh with the downtown fabric." Instead, says Baur, the proposed design would be all about keeping gamblers focused on the gaming floor. "From the casino perspective, it’s the science," he says. "They get the consumer in, and they keep you there."
According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Moody’s Investors Service has issued a report saying that the walkway could help the Cleveland casino boost revenue, which has yet to meet predicted levels. The plan has been opposed by the Ohio Historic Preservation Office, but is supported by the Cleveland Planning Commission and by the mayor.
Baur counters that downtown Cleveland should be about much more than a casino, and young people like him are moving there because of the city’s potential to develop a thriving street life. He cites events such as Walnut Wednesdays, a weekly gathering of food trucks during the warmer months, as an example of what Cleveland is doing right.
A new skywalk, he says, will stall the city’s momentum just as it’s beginning to pick up, making downtown streets less inviting by reinforcing old stereotypes. "It adds to the perception that the city is dangerous," says Baur.
He knows a lot about that stereotype, because he used to believe it. Raised just 20 miles from Cleveland in the suburb of Mentor, he might as well have been in a different state.
"I grew up assuming Cleveland is dangerous," he writes in an email. "The idea of living in the city never crossed my mind, and I know I wouldn't have been able to name a neighborhood." Spending some time in Chicago after he graduated from college opened his mind to the idea of cities in general, and that "people who look different than me aren’t going to hurt me." He moved to Cleveland after visiting several times, and now he loves where he lives. As uncomfortable as he says he is with the activist role, he says he will play it if he has to.
"We are really on the cusp of being a 21st-century city," Baur says. A city where outmoded 20th-century infrastructure like the skywalk has no place.
Top image: A rendering of the proposed Horseshoe Casino walkway. (KA Architecture)