Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Cleveland via the RTA

There's a feeling people get when they visit a place in their time off. Where they can picture themselves living there, caught up in the naivety that actual life in a place would be just like visiting on vacation. For me, I never thought I'd get that feeling with Cleveland, Ohio, that I'd find such an appreciation for this fellow midwestern city. Cleveland, however, lives up to the pride that so many people take in it.

- Red Line tracks of the Cleveland RTA.

Despite implied civic rivalries, I didn't think poorly of Cleveland. I always enjoyed visiting there in the past, but this most recent trip gave me a true feel for the city. By the end of our two days there, I developed such an admiration for Ohio's northern metropolis that I genuinely wanted the Indians to win the 2016 World Series (and not just because they were playing the Cubs). Like my trip to Columbus earlier this year, I came away feeling a true sense of place, a deeper understanding of this city than I had ever felt before. You certainly can't get the full feel grasp of Cleveland in two days, but in the time I had, I felt a genuine connection thanks to the locals we stayed with and the help of its transit system.

I came here once as an eight year old kid to watch baseball in 97, went to a concert up here in 2005 or so, but the only real time I had spent in Cleveland before this was 2009. I drove up to take a tour of its abandoned subway beneath the Veteran's Memorial Bridge. That was a good trip, but it was single minded with a direct goal, up North and back to Cincinnati within a day. This time, I really wanted to see the city. Like many others I've been to, I utilized the transit system to get a diverse look. Despite the abandoned tunnels for its former streetcars, the city still boasts a fairly robust rail and bus system. Like the 2009 venture, this trip had transit in mind, but for different purposes.

- Cleveland's former "subway" tunnels beneath the Veteran's Memorial Bridge as seen in a QC/D update from 2009

We made our way up there on a Friday night, completing a pass through of all three of Ohio's "C's." Left work in downtown Cincinnati, passed through Columbus, and finally arrived in the city of Lakewood just outside of Cleveland.

As a group, we made our way to an RTA park-and-ride, purchased a few passes at the ticket vending machines, and then waited for the next train. We departed at Ohio City, walking to The Market Garden Brewery. On a beautiful fall day, the outside biergarten was packed with fans bound for the American League Championship Series between the Indians and Toronto Blue Jays. The burger was great along with most of the beer. The last beer I tried was called a "Cap-Lifter Quad," which features 15.5% alcohol by volume. Brewed in honor of Ohio recently lifting the ABV limit, the brewery's website describes it like this:

"A big, beasty Belgian quad brewed in honor of the state’s newly raised ABV limit, named for its power (three times your average glass) slick with toffee sweetness and warm to the palate, and strong enough to blow your hair back."

My best way of describing it though would be like this: "the closest you can get to consuming actual gasoline." Despite really enjoying every other beer, this one was a bit too much. Nevertheless, the local brewery was a great spot.

- The "cap-lifter" and a burger at Market Garden Brewery.

We then visited the West Side Market, a public market similar in vein to Cincinnati's Findlay Market and Columbus' North Market. Housed in a gorgeous building dating back to 1912, the market is a longtime tradition in Northern Ohio.

- The West Side Market.

We spent the rest of Saturday walking around and touring the city, strolling across the Hope Memorial Bridge to the downtown area near Jacob's Field, the "Q" arena, and Public Square. The bridge itself is a beautiful art-deco artery that features historic stone pylons depicting the "Guardians of Transportation." In the late 70's, these sculptures were almost removed, yet remain today as a reminder of the ornate details of 20th Century architecture, almost looking more fitting as stand ins for Gotham City.

- Cleveland street.

- Cleveland skyline and one of the "Guardians of Transportation."

- Cleveland as seen from the Hope Memorial Bridge. 

- RTA tracks looking towards downtown Cleveland.

- For years Cleveland has embarked on an ambitious promotional campaign that has helped further raise an already strong civic identity.

- Looking down Superior Ave. towards Public Square.

To end the day, we stopped by Edgewater Park to take in its view of the city before having dinner in the neighborhood of Little Italy.

- Edgewater Park.

- The skyline of Cleveland as seen from Edgewater Park.

While the first day had been great, and it's always nice to have locals show off the place they live, there was still more I wanted to see. So at 6:30 am on a Sunday, I got up and walked out of the house to go see Cleveland via the Regional Transit Authority.

Like Cincinnati, Cleveland's RTA system has a free app you can download to purchase fare from your phone, see schedules, etc. I couldn't find a nearby bus, so I decided to walk to the nearest rail station. A little over a mile from Lakewood and into Cleveland proper, I arrived at the Triskett Station to watch a train go by and wait for the next one.

Apparently most of the RTA park and ride stations were renovated in the 1990s, but these days they show some age and it's not a bad thing. They're not clean and brand new, but they're not dingy or dirty either. The sights and sounds are reminiscent of New York City's system, but far more hospitable. Cleveland's rail system has its own vibe, a unique contribution to the city's identity.

For about 15 minutes, it was just the pigeons and I taking in the surroundings before one of the Red Line's Japanese made vehicles came rumbling down the tracks. While they may have a similar look to that of Chicago and New York, the vehicles feel wider with cushioned seating as opposed to hard plastic.

I boarded a train light with early Sunday morning passengers, but bright with fluorescents overhead just as the sun was starting to come up. The train gained speed on the straightaways and took it slowly on curves as we passed through open-air culverts below neighborhoods. A few passengers would come and go, while several boarded donning uniforms for the Jack Casino.

After awhile, we crossed above the Cuyahoga River and into the Tower City Rapid Station.

- Bound for Tower City.

Almost everybody disembarked, leaving me in the quiet of what's normally a crowded transportation center. Apparently, due to some track work, outbound train boarding had been temporarily relocated within the complex.

I made my way up into Tower City Center, once originally known as Cleveland Union Terminal. The mixed-use facility is the central core of Cleveland's transit connections while also serving as a mixed-used facility that includes retail, offices, and a casino. Built in 1927, its impressive design still shines through and is noticeable as you wander around trying to figure out how to board the Green/Blue Line.

Once I found the next waiting area, I again watched the train I needed pass by. To their credit, the RTA was keeping to its timetables exactly as the schedules in the app said. I just kept arriving a minute too late. I hung out on the platform waiting for the next train, making conversation with the woman sharing the bench with me. Unlike the heavy-rail "subway" cars used on the Red Line, the Green/Blue lines utilize light rail vehicles. One pulled up and I boarded, overhearing the operator joke around with his regular riders getting off from the overnight shift at the casino.

"Good to see you."

"You just get off?"

"Ready to go home?"

He checked my fare and noticed the camera, asking what I was taking pictures for. We talked about our respective cities, transit, and how long he had been doing this job. His name was Reggie and he asked me where I was going, letting me know that he'd remind me of when I'd need to depart to get there. Right on time, he piloted the vehicle out of the underground and straight into the morning sun while other passengers joined in our conversation about Cincinnati and Cleveland.

Before long, Reggie gave a quick shout to let me know that my stop was coming up. At Shaker Square, I shook his hand before hopping off the train.

- A Green Line train in Shaker Square.

Shaker Square is unique for being one of the first planned communities with mixed-use development, it's also heralded as one of the best designs of transit-oriented development. The light rail tracks of the Green/Blue line run right through the center of a town square that's lined with a movie theatre, retail, and surrounded by apartments and homes. Originally based around streetcar lines, the light rail trains of the RTA carry the mantle today. While transit-oriented development has become a popular concept in cities building light rail lines across the country, Shaker Square dates back to the early 1920's.

I had been seeing photographs and articles about Shaker Square for years. One of the things I wanted to make a point to visit was Michael's Diner (or as some affectionately call it: "the shack on the tracks"), a 24 hour eatery built into the station platform. Given my interest in Americana and the ideas of "diners" (see: The Waffle House stories), Michael's Diner intrigued me. It looked like the stereotypical American diner, what you'd expect one in a movie to look like. I was curious to see if it was truly an honest diner or just some tourist attraction made to look and feel like one ala "Johnny Rockets."

- Michael's Diner interior.

I couldn't have been happier to visit. It's honest, with cheap, good coffee and a lottery ticket vending machine up front. The food is reasonably priced, the staff doesn't have a synthetic "neighborhood bar and grill" attitude and the decorations aren't kitschy. I ordered up a cup of coffee and watched the trains pass as I started doing some writing for another article.

After my coffee, I walked around Shaker Square for a bit. In the early morning, I passed a couple walking their dog, the two men saying hello as I passed. A few people were pulling up to other local eateries for breakfast as wait staff prepared multiple outdoor seating areas for what would probably be a large brunch crowd on a warm October day. Unlike so many god forsaken suburban developments across this country that are anchored by Applebees, Best Buy, and empty space where "something will definitely go," Shaker Square has an air of authenticity to it. It's not overly glamorous or tacky, the trees are grown up, the traffic nearby is calm, and transit isn't ostracized or looked down upon.

- Shaker Square Cinemas.

- Michael's Diner and the tracks of the Green/Blue line.

I got another cup of coffee from Michael's and waited for the next train to find that Reggie was once again the operator. We talked again as he told me some history about Cleveland when he wasn't announcing the approaching station over the PA System. He dropped me off at the East 55th station where I could transfer to the Red Line to get back. He quickly posed for a portrait in the window of his train, emblazoned with its 90s color scheme while wearing his employee "members only" jacket. He waved as he sped off.

I started reflecting on Cleveland while I waited for the next train. I think there's a feeling that people often get when they go on vacation. With Cincinnatians, you hear it a lot when people visit Chicago. They spend a weekend there on a vacation, tour the "Miracle Mile," visit the Sears Tower, dine at the Hard Rock Cafe, etc. They'll tell you all about how great it would be to live there, not realizing that life isn't always like vacation. They only visited the touristy spots, never saw the city's details, where it's gritty, or took in how those who do reside there actually live. Yet, I was starting to feel that way about Cleveland, Ohio. A place I only spent a weekend in. It was a place I could see myself living, existing, and enjoying. While I dearly love Cincinnati, and know it intimately, Cleveland just had this notion to it. Out of all Ohio's three major cities, Cleveland felt the most to me like Philadelphia or New York with its veteran rail system, numbered streets, and atmosphere. I'm not conceding that Cleveland's better than Cincinnati, rather, it's not a competition. Each has their own benefits, attitude, environment, and feel, but I definitely connected with and enjoyed my time in Cleveland.

Maybe I'm getting caught up in the same type of synthetic vacation nostalgia I chide others for, but Cleveland felt and continues to feel like a place that can be home.

Once the Red Line train came, I hopped back on board and watched as we went back underground into Tower City and out the west side, passing the Veteran's Memorial Bridge and its abandoned subway where I stood seven years earlier.

- Passing the Veteran's Memorial Bridge which sits above the abandoned rail right of way for Cleveland's "subway."

- Triskett St. Station.

- Above the Triskett St. Station.

Back at the Triskett Station, I started on the mile walk back to where we were staying, walking through the neighborhoods that link Cleveland and Lakewood. We grabbed some lunch as a group before heading back to Cincinnati, through Columbus, once again completing a trip of all three of Ohio's "Three C's."

Much thanks to Kat and Alex for taking their hospitality and taking the time to show off their city.


  1. Loved the article! I grew up in NE Ohio and have been to Cleveland for the odd ballgame or concert, with a trip or two to the science center. Since moving away from the area in 2007, I haven't really had the opportunity to get back up that way. Now that I'm into exploring and photographing, I REALLY want to get up there.

    Again, great work!

    1. Thanks for taking the time to check it out. If exploring and shooting is your thing, I definitely recommend checking it out. A very honest city. It's got its nice parts that are all cleaned up and put up for show, but the NE Ohio identity is very strong and Cleveland has a very specific identity within itself. Such a great place.

  2. I really enjoyed this! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to check it out!

    2. I get a great feeling when I visit Pittsburgh. I go there because that's the closest one of my favorite musicians plays to here. Their hills remind me of Cincy, the Ohio River originates from there, and their people are really cool. Their football team sucks, but 3/4 ain't bad!

  3. Aren't the lakefront and airport lines considered little-used boondoggles?