Bridge over the River MaumeeWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | firstname.lastname@example.org
Observing life is like reading a compelling novel. There is no control over the book’s chapter breaks, its starts and stops — or its ending. But there is endless potential for imposing symbolism, theme and meaning on the narrative.
As part of a healthier lifestyle, I walk 60-90 minutes every day, which provides my brain a lot of time to wander and ponder. As many as three times a week, my walk follows a path through the Warehouse District in Downtown Toledo, where I have studied the scenery on Monroe, Summit and Washington streets and their connecting cross streets. Each time I turn south on Summit Street, my eyes are drawn to the Anthony Wayne Bridge, or High-Level Bridge as I have always called it.
I knew at some point I wanted to walk across the High-Level Bridge and back; it’s not Mount Everest, but I used to break a labored sweat by just changing my mind, so it represented a goal on my way to fitness.
On Good Friday, for no real reason and without thinking about it, I did not turn west on Washington Street as I have so many times; I kept walking south on Summit Street, knowing I could cross on Clayton Street and start the walk across the bridge.
I expected the adventure to be a mild triumph, but nearly everything I saw was disheartening and depressing.
The decay that has chewed into much of the South End begins as Downtown Toledo gives way just past the Owens Corning campus and Summit Street turns into Broadway Street. The litter of plastic Sprite bottles, glass Corona bottles, crumpled Winston cigarette packages and discarded scratch-off lottery tickets begins at the south end of the River Walk just past Owens Corning and thickens as the sidewalk leads south.
The Swan Creek apartment building is a rare sign of life on the way to Clayton Street, now that the Spring Gardens Family Restaurant is closed.
While crossing Broadway Street to get to the base of the High-Level Bridge, it is necessary to step over broken glass and items of clothing; I was saddened to see a child’s blue winter hat with a faded, sewn-on patch of the explorer from “Go, Diego, Go!” lying discarded and unraveling. A black bra was tangled in the barbed wire fencing protecting the Howard T. Moriarty Company, waving in the wind like a pirate flag.
At the north side base of the bridge, I stared up at the long incline and the sky-blue towers reaching nearly 1,200 feet into the air. I started walking the first of the nearly 3,120 feet of the bridge’s length.
The bridge’s concrete sidewalk is crumbling in proportion to the rust eating at its rails and steel supports. As the ascent begins its arch across the muddy Maumee River, there are endless signs of human debris; graffiti in black, white and purple paint marks nearly everywhere the eye can land. Someone placed several dozen circular orange stickers reading “2/$4.00” along the girders and columns of the bridge. I wondered if they were gang signs, left by members of the Kroger, Meijer or Aldi gangs. The first vista to the north looks at the Owens Corning parking lot, across tree tops hosting large bird nests and strips of plastic wrapped around branches. Along the west side of the river, discarded tires and debris line the shore. The cranes, ducks, geese and gulls seem to regard this man-made topiary as a part of the landscape, like the large tree which is stuck just past the bridge.
Then there is just brown water.
At the center of the bridge, the purple graffiti takes the form of long wavy lines, as if Harold took his Purple Crayon and randomly dragged it along the bridge’s steel. I stopped at the center to survey the view. It occurred to me that only twice in my Toledo experience have I been higher — once when I stood on the roof of the Fifth Third building and once in a South End basement apartment with a girl named Jennifer.
From the center of the bridge, on that clear Good Friday, I could see as far as the Hollywood Casino Toledo sign to the south; the University of Toledo bell clock tower to the west; and as far out across the lake as the Downtown skyline and Veterans Glass City Skyway will allow to the north. Facing east, all I could see was more bridge to walk.
The dedication plaque proclaims the bridge was built in 1931, more than 80 years ago. I could drive across the bridge 10 times a day and never think about the toll more than eight decades takes on such a magnificent piece of architecture, but somehow, standing on it made me feel vulnerable and uncertain. Rather than contemplate what it would be like to fall 100 feet with an avalanche of concrete and steel into the rushing waters below, I hurried my pace.
As the water gave way to Miami Street on the East Side, I approached the second stairwell leading down. I had walked right past the first stairwell, but stopped to think about entering this second one just out of curiosity. About seven steps down, a glimpse of what looked like feces-stained pants and other wadded-up clothing drove me back to the surface.
I looked down on the first neighborhood under the shadow of the bridge, its houses close together and in various states of disrepair and ownership, so much like the South End Toledo neighborhood where I spent several years. Roofs sag and may be stripped of tiles, but often support satellite TV dishes. Alleys are full of litter, tires and rubble. Many backyards have kids’ toys and playsets in them. McDonald’s wrappers and plastic waste blow across the area like tumbleweeds in a Western movie.
There and back again
I reached the bottom of the bridge, then turned west and started back up. I wasn’t physically tired, but the dreary surroundings made me weary.
There is plenty of rail and concrete between the road and the pedestrian section of the bridge, but it is disconcerting to have the traffic rushing up behind you as it passes. The whooshes add to the sound of the wind to make the highest point of the journey feel like an alien place, and again I felt that vertigo.
The last interesting piece of graffiti on the north side of the bridge is a black-and-gold scrawl reading “Capitalism is slavery!” It was something to consider as I walked back to work.
Nearing the bottom of the bridge, as the road curves back to Broadway Street, I was greeted by billboards. An image of Crystal Bowersox smiled down from a fading Blade billboard on the left. A colorful ad for Biggby Coffee’s Hot Fudge Brownie Latte loomed on the right. Both images looked sweet, tempting — and equally forbidden.
Walking back along Summit Street and passing by the Swan Creek Apartments, I saw a woman standing up against a wall in the parking lot, one foot raised behind her, not unlike the cranes I’d seen on the waterfront. A theater-size box of candy rested on the ground in front of her. It’s rash and unfair of me to assume either the woman or the candy were being offered for public consumption, but it occurred to me that if I were forced at gunpoint to choose sampling one or the other, I might ask if I could enter a third option and offer to drink a glass of water from that muddy, brown Maumee River.
I stopped, startled by the base and crass nature of that train of thought.
The Anthony Wayne Bridge is slated for major repairs soon, and will be closed for almost two years. But that might be for the best. If one walk across its crumbling structure along with the decay of the neighborhood it shadows were enough to symbolically lower me to such themes and meanings, I am better off sticking to my regular path — earthbound, familiar and relatively free of … litter.
The real and mental varieties.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. Email him at email@example.com.
Tags: Aldi, Anthony Wayne Bridge, Biggby's Coffee, Crystal Bowersox, Harold and the Purple Crayon, High Level Bridge, Hollywood Casino Toledo, Howard T. Moriarty Company, Kroger, Lighting The Fuse, Maumee River, Meijer, Michael S. Miller, Swan Creek Apartments, University of Toledo