Friday, October 29, 2010

Ashtabula Harbour Commercial District, Ashtabula, OH

Getting away from Chicago for a bit, I'd like to talk about Ohio, where I grew up. More specifically Ashtabula, Ohio, where my wife grew up. 

There are a surprising number of similarities between Ashtabula and my hometown, Lorain.  Both pretty much exist because of their location at the intersection of Lake Erie and a major river. Just like the Black River in Lorain, the Ashtabula River created a natural harbor (which was then enhanced through dredging).  In the 1950s the expanding chemical industry made the Ashtabula harbor one of the most important on the Great Lakes.  And also one of the most polluted. 

Ashtabula Harbour Commercial District
Before the area sunk into depression (along with the rest of Ohio), some remarkable commercial districts were built.  One of the best is the Ashtabula Harbour Commercial District, which has been on the National Register since 1975.  This was apparently a concentration of saloons and houses of prostitution back at the turn of the century.  It's become a bit more sedate since then. 

Ashtabula Lift Bridge- View looking east

The Ashtabula Lift Bridge was completed in 1925.  It's always an odd thrill to drive under the 420 ton concrete counter-weight hanging above the roadway.  You can tell a bridge intended for purely functional needs- it doesn't much care about blocking the views up and down the river.  This is in contrast to the bridges on the Chicago River, where a great deal of engineering went into minimizing the visible support structures. But to be fair, there's not much height above the water to work with here. The bridge acts as a gateway into the historic distirct to the west.

Goodwill Buildings
This is the Goodwill complex a block south of Bridge Street.  It's really a collection of buildings strung together, probably from the 1960s.  Not a particularly graceful combination, but since these are the newest construction near Bridge Street it gives a good sense of the needs of the community.  I've never visited Ashtabula without making a stop at this Goodwill, and it's always busy.  While maybe not an engine of economic development, it does attract people to the area.

Italianate Commercial Buildings

The core of the district is an impressive block of 2-story brick buildings between Hulbert and Morton.  The frame buildings shown above are just to the west.  It's rare it is to find historic commercial frame buildings like this in decent condition. It looks like someone has been taking care of these, even to the point of a partial restoration.

I think this area has an incredible amount of potential.  It's already attracted a number of unique businesses and restaurants.  And because it's on the National Register it's qualified for tax credit projects.  I think Ashtabula knows what it has here, but maybe could be more active in attracting investment.  After all, there aren't that many alternatives to strip malls left in the area...