A Natural Choice

I first noticed the narrow band of green jutting into Lake Erie from the 30th floor of a downtown skyscraper. 

For several months, I had stared out the same window, but my eyes were usually drawn to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, Burke Lakefront Airport and passing ships. One early spring day, however, the contrast between the lake’s cool blue and the green-clad finger of land at the end of East 55th Street became impossible to ignore. As a former National Park Service and Lake Metroparks naturalist, I was filled with curiosity: What purpose could the slender, hook-shaped peninsula serve?               

My “discovery” turned out to be a little-used strip of man-made ecology: the break wall guarding the harbor at the East 55th Street Marina, part of Cleveland Lakefront State Park.               

Most visitors to the marina linger by the docks or wander along cement paths and over manicured grounds. Few explore the break wall and its untamed tangle of nature — or more accurately, second nature, an area altered for human purposes but reclaimed by natural forces.               

Unlike most lakefront lands east of the river, the wall, constructed in the 1960s and a third of a mile long, isn’t thoroughly armored in stone or concrete, nor is it a neatly shorn patch of lawn. Instead, the 20-foot-wide peninsula is composed of countless round steel cells, linked in a row and filled with rocky but fertile soil. They form a rigid, wavy line that protects the harbor from Lake Erie’s fury.               

As I walked along the path, cottonwood, willow and dogwood trees lurched and swayed in the wind; grasses, sedges and cattails lined the way; and seasonal wildflowers added splashes of color to the linear landscape.               

Beavers had constructed a dam at the base of the break wall using willow and cottonwood branches and bits of plastic and metal. Frogs launched themselves into small wetland pockets. Bufflehead, goldeneye and canvasback ducks bobbed in the water, songbirds peered from the scrub, and gulls circled overhead. I caught a distant glimpse of a soaring bald eagle.               

A cluster of mourning cloak butterflies briefly clouded my view of Key Tower and Browns Stadium. I pushed aside a dogwood branch, giving flight to a heron and several mallards.               

I’ve since visited the break wall more than 100 times, inspired by the contrasting views of skyscrapers, wildlife and water. Yet apart from a few fishermen, our teeming jetty is deserted.               

In a park-starved city, such an intriguing, walkable habitat would attract a frenzy of activity. For example, Manhattan’s High Line Trail, an elevated 1.5-mile rail bed that sprouted trees, shrubs and grasses after its closure in 1980, has attracted 2 million visitors since it opened as a greenway last year.               

Cleveland, by contrast, is blessed with an abundance of parks. But few offer such inspiring views of the city and, with each lapping wave, a reminder that you are in the lake, rather than just along its shore.               

As Clevelanders, we value our connection to Lake Erie, hotly debating lakefront planning, public access, port relocation and the fate of Burke. So the break wall should be swarming with walkers, joggers and wildlife watchers. Why isn’t it?               

Some people might think the deserted break wall is unsafe — though after all my visits, my greatest fear remains nesting, surly geese. The narrow path is uneven and not maintained. It needs a thorough cleanup: Bottles, cans, lawn chairs, buckets, fishing line and other trash detract from the natural beauty. Benches, maintained paths, signage and litter-free grounds would undoubtedly attract more people.               

None of this explains why Cleveland’s environmental community overlooks the break wall. For a decade, local nature-lovers have been obsessed with Dike 14, another man-made peninsula less than a mile away. The 88-acre former dredge disposal site at the end of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard is a bird-watching paradise that hosts more than 280 avian species.               

But unlike the East 55th Street Marina complex, Dike 14 is open to the public just a few days a year. Unless you can readily identify a dozen or more warblers, the break wall has more to offer: Monet-like glimpses of passing boats, large swaying cottonwoods and unobstructed views of the downtown skyline.               

Each time I walk the wall, I see something different: Seasons change, construction alters downtown, and seasonal wetlands run dry and then refill.               

The break wall is reinvented with each storm system. Trees, shrubs and grasses cling desperately to the thin soil. Strong roots anchor the plants to the ground, but each northerly blast claims a toll. Heavy branches snap and are replaced by younger, more flexible growth. This man-made wilderness is hearty enough to regenerate after repeated bludgeoning by waves, wind and ice.         

Regeneration is mostly a natural process, but there are some things Cleveland nature-lovers, lakefront access advocates and environmentalists can do to assist nature. Trash removal and eliminating nonnative plants such as buckthorn top the list, but simply walking the area will let politicians, planners and other Clevelanders know that this Lake Erie gem is worth protecting.               

The break wall’s cool breezes and inspiring vistas await. 

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