Leon Bibb: Public Square's suggested facelift is welcome news for longtime Clevelander

Plans for square would round out city

CLEVELAND - There is a move to bring a new vibrancy into Cleveland's Public Square and push away dullness at the center of the city. 

A nationally-known architect, James Corner, unveiled what he had been working on at the request of Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson on Thursday.

Under the plan, the square would become largely a green space with the square-dissecting Ontario Street blocked at the heart of the city. Superior Avenue, however, would continue to split Public Square.

I am a fan of the proposal. I have long looked at the Boston Common, which that city calls the anchor of its system of connected parks that wind through many of the Massachusetts city's neighborhoods. Although Cleveland's Public Square is only one-fifth the size of Boston Common's 50 acres, the plan to add more greenery, making it more pedestrian-friendly, should certainly be supported.

Mayor Jackson has been a vocal supporter of the project that would carry a $40 million price to build. Although plans call for more trees throughout a new square, the money does not grow on trees. 

"There is still work to be done, including securing the funding," said Maureen Harper, Jackson's chief of communications.

In the late-1950s and early-1960s, when I was a youngster growing up in Cleveland, downtown pulsed with activity. In those days, three major department stores, Higbee's Halle's, May Company and Sterling Lindner Davis, were major retail anchors of the area. When the city's population was double what it is now, Cleveland and its square, was the center of activity in Northeast Ohio. As the suburbs began to grow and city residents left the city, the big downtown department stores went with the population.

The downtown Cleveland sidewalks that had been filled with people, shoulder-to-shoulder, as I remembered them during my youth, became less so.

However, there is a resurgence taking place in Cleveland. From University Circle to the lakefront and riverfront to Gateway to Playhouse Square to Tremont and beyond, there is a new energy. There are about 12,000 people now living full-time in downtown Cleveland with city hall predictions of another 12,000 in the foreseeable future.

Public Square must change to catch the rhythm of a new city, finding a new footing for the 21st century. Although it is not known exactly how a change to make Public Square will be financed, it is safe to say Cleveland is reinventing itself. 

In 1796, when Cleveland was first settled the "Original Plan of the Town and Village of Cleaveland" called for the 10-acre square to be bisected by two wide streets. The idea of square by the Connecticut Land Company, which surveyed the area, called for open space of a traditional New England town plan.

In 1857, Superior and Ontario Streets were clipped at Public Square and a white double-railed fence enclosed the grounds that were landscaped. Ten years later, Ontario and Superior were reopened to traffic through the square. 

In 1879, Public Square was the site of the first successful demonstration of electric streetlights. In 1894, Cuyahoga County opened the historic Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument, displaying the names of the 9,000 Cuyahoga County residents who served in the Union Army during the Civil War.

Through the generations, Public Square has gone through changes. In this second decade of the 21st century, it is time for another change, reflecting the new times and new growth, especially in the downtown district.

The last time I walked through Boston Common, enjoying its greenery, beauty, and high volume of pedestrian traffic, I thought of Cleveland's drab and dingy Public Square. Cleveland is not only going through a facelift, but is muscling up, as well.  With plans of a change to draw more people to Public Square, I look forward to a positive change in what is undeniably the heart of Cleveland.

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