Chuck Karnak’s Go Dream, on the Veterans Memorial Bridge

Artist and event producer Chuck Karnak at work. Photo by Ken Blaze.

In many Cleveland neighborhoods that have been revitalized in the last twenty or thirty years, artists have led the charge with their own dollars and sweat equity. Consider Tremont, or Waterloo, or Gordon Square. Even in Playhouse Square, the arts were the point.

In what’s probably the region’s largest single rediscovery of urban infrastructure, it has gone a different way. While the arts community thinks of the subway level of the Detroit-Superior bridge—officially the Veterans Memorial Bridge—as a majestic venue for Ingenuity and other festival-type events, artists have mostly played a supportive role there, invited or hired to draw attention to the potential of a three-quarter-mile, publicly owned thoroughfare—beneath the roadway, ninety feet above the river—that has not been used as such since streetcars stopped running the 1950s. Several urban planners in the region, including Cuyahoga County Executive Chris Ronayne, see possibility for a new, iconic feature of the urban landscape. The phrase “Low Line” has been floated, an allusion to New York City’s railway-turned-park-path, known as the High Line.

The Subway level of the Veterans Memorial Bridge. Photo by Clifford Benjamin Herring, courtesy of Terry Schwarz, KSU Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative.

The county has quietly shown the space to the public in annual walk-through events for 25 years, but it has been more intentionally promoted since 2009, when Kent State University Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative (CUDC) Director Terry Schwarz, working with Cleveland Public Theatre founder and Ingenuity co-founder James Levin, presented “The Bridge Project” there—an art and performance experience that showed the idle, publicly owned piece of Cleveland in fresh light. Subsequently, for two fondly remembered years, it became the site for the Ingenuity festival.

Responding to questions by email, Schwarz says “while Ingenuity focused on creating a festival atmosphere under the bridge, the CUDC’s interest has always been about the physical space of the bridge, its architecture, and its role as civic infrastructure. To that end, CUDC staff, students, and our artist collaborators have striped temporary bike lanes across the lower deck. We’ve organized temporary retail shops on the bridge in partnership with Cleveland Bazaar. We converted a space on the bridge into a temporary lecture hall and classroom space. We designed and built several variations of seating on the bridge (including benches that our students built in 2009, which somehow still exist). Last year, we worked with the County and Max Housing of Ohio to conduct a preliminary accessibility audit of the bridge to get an idea of how the space is accessed and perceived by people who use wheelchairs and people with vision impairments. Through these and other efforts, we’ve tested some of the ways the lower deck could be used by the public, if it were open on a permanent basis. We’re especially interested in how the bridge can function as a public space, bike and pedestrian connection, and event venue.”

County Executive Ronayne shares that vision. And in 2024, art is once again being deployed to engage crowds on the lower level of the bridge, and to stoke interest in that possibility. With a $50,000 grant from the Cleveland Foundation, Cuyahoga County issued an RFP (request for proposal) to create art and spectacle, and engage crowds on the subway level June 21 and 22. The potential of the bridge recently moved closer to reality thanks to a $7 million grant from the US Department of Transportation’s Reconnecting Communities and Neighborhoods program. The $7 million grant is to cover the cost of feasibility study, design and engineering for long-term public access to the lower level of the bridge. The eventual plan would likely include a bike and pedestrian thoroughfare with connections to the street, public spaces along the lower deck, with security, maintenance, and operations built into the plan.

“I would love to see Irishtown Bend, Canal Basin Park, and the subway deck designed cohesively as a treasured public space in the city. The bridge literally connects the dots,” Schwarz said.

According to County Director of Communications Kelly Woodard, 9,000 people visited the subway level during a weekend walk-through in 2023. They anticipate greater numbers for this event, programmed with art and performance.

The $50K RFP for an art installation and event drew nineteen proposals. From those, Chuck Karnak was a natural choice. Years ago, his multi-performance All Go Signs events became the model for Cleveland Public Theatre’s Pandemonium. His track record also includes having managed a performance space on the bridge when James Levin and Terry Schwarz first activated it as an art and performance venue for The Bridge Project, in 2009. Karnak subsequently managed production for Ingenuity on the bridge in 2010 and 2011. He’s handled production for many of the region’s best-known festivals for years. His West Side warehouse space has also been home to the One Way avant-garde free jazz series.

“There is a lot of personal attachment to that place,” Karnak says. “I was bummed out when we [Ingenuity Festival] left in 2011.”

“As far as I know, I’m the only person who has produced events like this on the bridge, except Squid Soup,” Karnak says. Squid Soup is a UK-based lighting design and art installation collaborative brought to the bridge by Terry Schwarz and the Kent State University CUDC in 2019, with support from the Cleveland Foundation’s Creative Fusion program, coinciding with the fiftieth anniversary of the famous fire on the Cuyahoga River.

Appropriately for the bridge’s potential, what Karnak is creating for the June event is called Go Dream. It’s an illuminated, kinetic wind sculpture made from 120 nine-foot “sails,” which are kite-like structures that will be suspended along the length of the bridge’s arc. Each sail represents a dream. They will be clustered at performance areas near the ends of the bridge, seeming to pop out of the water at the east end, and to grow from the ground on the west end, moving toward the center of the arc, where they’ll cluster near another performance area. They’ll all be illuminated. He plans to spend about 20% of the project budget on performers, and the rest on materials, installation, and labor.

Karnak is pleased to be installing art on the bridge again. “To be able to go back a decade later with all I have learned—there was no hope of me lighting the bridge end to end in 2011,” he says. “Now with LED technology, I am going to be able to put lighting effects on the bridge from end to end. It is as much a lighting installation as a sculptural installation.”

Woodard assures that the county is committed to collaborating with partners to secure a place for local artists in the future of the Veterans Memorial Bridge. “We understand the vital role arts and culture play in our local economy and for the well-being of our residents.”

For now, though, the art is mostly there to help draw crowds to the walk-through event that will build public awareness of the bridge’s potential for pedestrian and bicycle connections between Downtown and Ohio City. The Towpath Trail will eventually cross underneath the bridge, following the river around Irishtown Bend.

Rediscover Veterans Memorial Bridge

Go Dream installation, performances, and walking tours

4 to 11 pm Friday, June 21

Noon to 11 pm Saturday, June 22

Veterans Memorial / Detroit-Superior Bridge

Entrances at the Downtown and Ohio City landings

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