On October 6, 1953, Cleveland News editor Harry Christiansen wrote that a downtown subway would give Cleveland its own “Chicago Loop,” enabling five times as many transit trains to stop at once than was currently possible in the city’s single Union Terminal rapid station. The context for Christiansen’s editorial was Cleveland at its peak. More than half the population of Greater Cleveland lived inside the city, which was still the nation’s seventh most populous. They had their choice of three daily newspapers, including the News, and six downtown department stores that, if stacked on top of each other, would result in a 44-story building. Few probably imagined that in only fifteen years theirs would be only the tenth largest city, or that they would have only two daily newspapers to read and three downtown department stores to shop.
Even at their city’s apex, some Clevelanders understood the fragile state of downtown (and the city itself). But it wasn’t a specter of declining popularity that they feared so much as that downtown’s success might also be its undoing. Specifically, they worried how many more automobiles could clog downtown’s streets. In other words, downtown might become a victim of its own success if people found it too difficult to drive and park there. Such concerns, of course, were hardly confined to Cleveland, but the weight placed on using a rapid transit project as a first significant intervention to stave off downtown decline appears to have set Cleveland apart from approaches in other major cities.
Christiansen’s editorial came just weeks before Cuyahoga County voters were to decide whether to approve a $35 million bond referendum to build a loop subway beneath downtown, a project whose backers claimed would not only preserve downtown’s centrality but also safeguard property values throughout the metro area and bolster the city’s image. Although voters approved the project by a two-to-one margin, the subway became the center of a six-year battle. Over those six years, downtown’s fortunes shifted noticeably, and supporters’ sense of urgency grew.
In my forthcoming book Believing in Cleveland, I explain more about how the subway plans of the 1950s, despite promoters’ efforts to portray the project as a boon to the entire region, pitted downtown interests against neighborhoods and suburbs and even divided downtown interests. County engineer Bert Porter, often compared to Robert Moses for his zeal to build freeways, may have predicted that the subway’s construction would transform Euclid Avenue (Cleveland’s counterpart to Chicago’s State Street) into a scene reminiscent of the Battle of the Marne, but downtown stakeholders waged their own war over whether to build the transit tunnels. As my book shows, despite their failure, the subway plans also set the stage for a long series of efforts to use downtown to renew Cleveland’s image.