As Canadian and US governments gear up to spend billions on a replacement to Detroit’s Ambassador Bridge, another Detroit bridge project is largely unknown. Kenneth Patterson built a suspension bridge over the Rouge River with a few parts from a hardware store and lumber from a neighbor. When I read about a University of Michigan project to build pedestrian bridges overseas, I thought of how Patterson’s bridge brings people to his parties along the polluted and otherwise mostly hidden Rouge. Here, with permission from the Detroit Free Press, is the June 18, 2006 article I wrote about Patterson’s remarkable span.
Headline: BRIDGING THE ROUGE
Sub-Head: RESOURCEFUL DETROITER BUILDS SPAN ACROSS 40 FEET OF RIVER
Byline: BY JOEL THURTELL
Memo: COMMUNITY FREE PRESS
Text: Kenneth Patterson’s homespun bridge over the Rouge River in Detroit isn’t listed in any tour guide.
For grandeur, it can’t compete with the Ambassador Bridge. Nor can it match the mechanical wonder of the drawbridges on the lower Rouge River.
But Patterson’s bridge beats them all in two ways: It cost peanuts to build, and it’s the only suspension bridge on the 127-mile-long Rouge River.
OK, so it crosses only 40 feet of water.
For those who use it – mainly friends and neighbors of Patterson – his bridge lets people actually enjoy the Rouge River close-up.
That’s more than you can say for two nearby city parks. Just downstream from Patterson’s bridge, Eliza Howell Park and River Rouge Park were actually designed to keep people away from the water, according to Charles Beckham, Detroit’s recreation director.
For much of the past century, the Rouge was too polluted, too potentially disease-laden, for people to play in or near it. Even today, though it’s much cleaner, the Rouge is still unfit for swimming – or even boating because of all the junk in it.
The river itself causes other problems besides pollution for home owners such as Patterson. His yard drops a good 10 feet nearly straight down to the river, which bends sharply east from its more-or-less southerly course, heading toward Patterson’s backyard before swinging south again as it passes a wooded flood plain a little east of Telegraph.
The river has carved 10 feet of property from Patterson’s lot in the decade he’s lived in his little yellow house on Iliad Street.
“I knew I was going to go over to the other side when I first moved into the house,” said Patterson. “I just had to figure a way to do it.”
From his backyard, where he likes to grill chicken over charcoal on a sunny afternoon, Patterson could look across the river at that flat, shady area.
Great place for a party, he mused.
Neat place also to watch the deer and the ducks.
So he went to a hardware store and bought some U-bolts and some 17,000-pound test cable.
A neighbor sold him lumber.
Patterson, 45, is not an architect. Nor is he an engineer. He works two jobs driving a bus.
He sized up a pair of trees in his yard, guessing they’d be sturdy enough to make anchors on the east bank. A second pair of trees across the river would serve as anchors on the west side.
He slung a pair of cables between the trees, using the U-bolts to attach wooden slats between the cables. The slats are to walk on.
Above the first pair of cables he hung a second pair of cables. They’re for holding onto.
Now, the roughly 40-foot span swings as he slowly walks across it, grasping the wobbly, makeshift handrails.
A pair of Free Press staffers discovered Patterson’s bridge last June while paddling a canoe up the Rouge for a special report on the river’s condition. In 27 miles, from Zug Island to 9 Mile Road in Southfield, the journalists found Patterson’s bridge – built two years ago – was the only effort to attract people to activities on the river.
With the bridge, Patterson has gotten to know the west bank of the Rouge.
It’s pretty unpleasant. People have used the river and nearby land as a dump. A city-owned dirt road leads north from Fenkell to a Detroit Water and Sewerage Department sewer outfall that disgorges human waste, sanitary napkins and condoms in rainy weather.
The city’s dirt road is littered with trash – bricks, shingles, old furniture, cast-off asphalt, gas tanks from old cars and many other repulsive items. The stench of dead animals hangs over parts of the lane. From this little road, it appears, people have rolled cars and even an old sailboat into the river.
Walking north from the end of his bridge, Patterson has seen five junk cars in or near the river. South, near the Fenkell bridge, two more old car hulks lurk, he said.
Feral dogs roam the woods. But the bridge has expanded Patterson’s social life. He gives parties in the forest on the west side of the river for neighbors.
On the Fourth of July and on Labor Day last year, he hosted bands, and about 200 people crossed his bridge to party down.
His world may expand further: Sally Petrella, public outreach coordinator for Dearborn-based Friends of the Rouge, is hoping he’ll enlist neighbors to help with river cleanup.
“I’d like to have a program to get neighborhood kids to clean that stuff up,” Patterson said.
Meanwhile, he’s planning more shindigs.
Last year on Memorial Day, he had a sound system, even a DJ. An extension cord powered strings of holiday lights, and a green foil palm tree stood in the little camp.
Patterson’s friend, Anne Jones, celebrated her birthday there.
“I just had to have that palm tree,” said Jones, 42. “We had a luau.”
Her kids slept in tents.
“The kids love it – they call this their safe haven,” said Jones. “We close the gate, and it’s another world.”
Fearing pollution, the city keeps human activity distant from the river in Eliza Howell and River Rouge parks. Further downstream in Dearborn Heights’ Parkland Park, woods mask the river from activity areas.
But pollution doesn’t bother Patterson.
“I guess they look at it as a sewage system,” Patterson said of the river. “I look at it as something God gave us to enjoy.”
Contact JOEL THURTELL at 248-351-3296 or email@example.com.
Caption: Detroiter Kenneth Patterson, 45, heads toward junk cars and trash along the Rouge River that flows through the Brightmoor neighborhood in Detroit. “I’d like to have a program to get neighborhood kids to clean that stuff up,” Patterson says. Spanning the river behind him is the bridge he built, which leads to a flat area where Patterson throws parties.
Patterson peers into a Ford abandoned along the banks of the Rouge near his home. Nine junk cars, a van and a pickup were removed from the river and its banks during the 20th annual Rouge Cleanup on June 3.
In the spirit of can-do, the suspension bridge was constructed by Patterson with lumber sold to him by a neighbor, U-bolts and cable.
Kenneth Patterson walks through the trees along the bank of the Rouge River near his home in Detroit. The river has carved 10 feet of property from his lot in the decade he’s lived on Iliad Street.
Illustration: PHOTO PATRICIA BECK DETROIT FREE PRESS
Edition: WAYNE COUNTY
Section: CFP; COMMUNITY FREE PRESS
Disclaimer: THIS ELECTRONIC VERSION MAY DIFFER SLIGHTLY FROM THE PRINTED ARTICLE