It’s substance over style for our city’s spans, which do the work of getting us where we need to go.
AROUND THE WORLD, cities crisscrossed by waterways and traversed by multiple bridges have an awful tendency to compare themselves to what is perhaps the world’s most famous and beautiful bridge-bejeweled city, Venice, a cluster of 118 islands connected by roughly 400 spans.
Bangkok is “The Venice of the East.”
Basra, in Iraq, is “The Venice of the Middle East.”
Amsterdam might consider itself “The Venice of the North,” but St. Petersburg in Russia lays claim to that title, too.
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Fort Lauderdale is billed as “The Venice of America,” which probably doesn’t sit well with the canal-adorned, Southern California beach town actually called Venice.
Despite its watery borders, lakes, creeks, ravines and a ship canal slicing right through the middle, Seattle is a little too modest to go around calling itself “The Venice of the Northwest,” though we’d have ample justification if we did.
While we can’t compete with Pittsburgh, which boasts 400 to 1,200 bridges depending on who’s counting, Seattle owns and maintains some 150 bridges within its city limits.
Bridges can bring distinction, a glamorous “it” factor, to cities.
The allure of San Francisco draws heavily on the mystique surrounding the magnificent, and magnificently situated, Golden Gate Bridge.
When Portland opened a 1,720-foot bridge over the Willamette River this summer that serves pedestrians, cyclists and commuter rail lines but not cars, it reinforced that city’s prized eco-friendly reputation while adding a stunning new landmark to the city’s skyline.
NOBODY WOULD EVER describe Seattle’s bridges as flashy.
Where other cities’ bridges can be celebrated for their postcard-perfect beauty, Seattle’s bridges are, for the most part, workhorses.
While we can more than hold our own when it comes to the sheer number of bridges, we have a more complicated relationship to them.
Seattle boasts the two longest floating-bridge spans on Earth, the eastbound Mercer Island floating bridge and the Highway 520 bridge. Three, if you count the $4.65 billion replacement to the 520 bridge currently under construction across Lake Washington.
The Interstate 5 Ship Canal Bridge, a double-decker monster stretching 4,429 feet over Lake Union between Capitol Hill and the University District, doesn’t just carry 256,000 vehicles each day, the most of any bridge in the region; it also serves as a critical continental trade link along the only interstate freeway in America that connects Mexico and Canada.
At rush hour, though, when most people simply want an efficient connection between work and home, those bridges’ claims to fame get lost in the daily grind.
Reflecting the city’s strong maritime heritage and present-day industry, Seattle also boasts some impressive drawbridges, which by federal law must be raised to allow vessels through, for the most part on-demand, a fact that is most frustratingly evident whenever one suddenly goes up, snarling vehicle traffic for motorists trying to navigate around bodies of water and forbiddingly steep slopes that offer few reasonable detour routes.
The Fremont Bridge, which has only a 30-foot clearance, connects the Queen Anne and Fremont neighborhoods and is one of the busiest drawbridges in the world. Completed in 1917, the bridge opens an average of 35 times a day, a yawning chasm at which stifled commuters have been shouting curses for years.
When the city lobbied the federal government this year to ease opening requirements for drawbridges and confine openings to specific times of day, it was an acknowledgment that Seattle’s rapid population growth called for a new balance between marine vessels and road traffic.
As part of the $930 million Move Seattle transportation levy that voters approved on Nov. 3, $140 million will be used to eliminate the backlog on spot repairs for the city’s bridges; seismically reinforce 16 vulnerable bridges; and replace the city’s last remaining timber vehicle bridge, which runs along Fairview Avenue over the southeastern shore of Lake Union, among other uses.
The ballot measure laid bare a core truth about our man-made ecosystem: It is startlingly fragile.
We learned this the hard way in 1990, when the floating Lacy V. Murrow Bridge linking Mercer Island and Seattle along Interstate 90, which was undergoing repairs, broke apart and sank during a heavy wind- and rainstorm.
A major rationale for replacing the 11,088-foot Alaskan Way Viaduct along State Route 99, which was completed in 1953, was concern about its ability to withstand a major earthquake.
In 2014, the collapse of an I-5 bridge over the Skagit River near Mount Vernon, which happened after a truck struck it, thrust bridge stability into the public’s consciousness once more.
Bridge safety made headlines again in September with the fatal collision between an amphibious Ride the Ducks tour vehicle and a charter bus on the busy, narrow-laned Aurora Bridge linking the Queen Anne and Fremont neighborhoods. Five people were killed.
In the 1987 song “Aurora Bridge,” a local punk band called The Fresh Young Fellows challenges us to take notice of the urban environment and how it sustains and, in the case of bridges, literally supports us.
The song goes: “Oh this Seattle town, it’s just a-growin’ by leaps and bounds, but did you ever stop to think about what would happen if the Aurora Bridge fell down?”
The accompanying music video was partly filmed at Gas Works Park on Lake Union and prominently features the bridge in question.
The poet Carl Sandburg called Chicago the “City of the Big Shoulders.” Seattle rests on the big shoulders of its bridges. There is beauty in their brute utility and humility to be found in the awareness that bridges provide necessary connective tissue for both the city and the region, which would grind to a standstill without them.
JOHN BUSWELL, manager of roadway structures at the Seattle Department of Transportation, spreads out a city map on a boardroom table at his downtown office that pinpoints each of the city’s bridges, as well as dozens more operated by King County and Washington state.
Buswell says the most generic definition of a bridge is an elevated structure that carries vehicles or pedestrians.
Seems straightforward — that is, until you consider the convoluted layout of the city.
There are obvious bridges, such as the towering, 2,608-foot West Seattle Bridge crossing the city’s port zone, and there are bridges that seem to recede into the urban fabric.
“I-5 through downtown is almost all bridge,” Buswell says, noting how the elevated structure sits above a slope that leads down to Elliott Bay.
The lame-duck Alaskan Way Viaduct, to be replaced by a waterfront tunnel, except for a stretch that might be turned into an elevated, car-free promenade a la New York’s High Line, technically is a bridge, too.
Some bridges, such as the Fairview Avenue Bridge along Lake Union, which looks like an at-grade, waterfront street from some angles, lie hidden like treasures in parks, or just beneath our feet in the busy urban core.
A section of Post Avenue between Marion and Columbia streets in downtown Seattle, which to the naked eye appears to be a street paved on solid ground with sidewalks and businesses on either side, is in fact a wood-trestle bridge, Buswell says.
Farther inland in the downtown area, a latticework of bridges along Boren Avenue, Denny Way, Pine, Pike, Seneca, Spring and Madison streets and Yesler Way also flies over the canyon created by Interstate 5, vitally linking some of the city’s densest neighborhoods with downtown and bringing continuity to the severed streetgrid.
There might be no more cut-off section of Seattle than the community of South Park, located along a scruffy stretch of the Duwamish River at the southern edge of the city.
With an area of just more than 1 square mile and a population of about 5,500, the tiny neighborhood floats like an island in an area hemmed in by the river, highways, industry and Boeing Field.
Perhaps because of its geographic isolation, the people here look out for each other and are disarmingly friendly to strangers, offering help to a lost-looking reporter as he strolls quiet, leafy streets. And they are touchingly devoted to their most direct link to the rest of Seattle, the newly built South Park Bridge along 14th Avenue South, which opened in 2014 to replace an older drawspan that was deteriorating.
As a kind of tribute, some of the drawbridge gears and other features from the old structure are incorporated into the design of the new one.
Dagmar Cronn, a neighborhood activist who lives just north of the bridge right along the river, can admire the view of it from her favorite lawn chair.
She remembers how alienating and disorienting it felt when the old bridge was shut down, forcing neighbors to plot circuitous alternate routes to and from South Park, and temporarily diverting the 20,000 cars that once traveled down the main drag each day, hurting neighborhood commerce.
“When the bridge closed, people came right up to the chain-link fence and didn’t know what to do,” Cronn recalls. “Some business owners would pop out to give drivers help getting around.”
Some residents appreciated the reduction in traffic noise and truck exhaust while the old bridge was closed, Cronn says, but it was tough to do without the neighborhood’s one major landmark.
“The bridge is a very personal thing for people who live here,” Cronn says.
It was South Park residents, she says, who pushed the county to replace the old drawbridge with another drawbridge, rather than a higher span that could allow boats to pass without needing to be opened.
“We wanted our symbol back,” she says.
MANY OF SEATTLE’S bridges boast elegantly geometric metalwork underneath but look fairly plain on top, which is not necessarily a bad thing, as there’s less to obstruct what have to be some of the most dramatic views of the city’s green, hilly, waterlogged surroundings.
From the vantage point of a bridge, certain truths about Seattle’s complicated layout, and city life, come more crisply into view.
Gazing out from the base of the Fremont Troll sculpture on North 36th Street, the Aurora Bridge looms 167 feet overhead like a cathedral ceiling over the Fremont neighborhood, a refined, Art Deco counterpoint to the off-kilter, blue-and-orange color scheme of the squat Fremont Bridge just below it to the west.
The neighborhood’s residents have invested a great deal of themselves in both structures, in different ways.
It was Fremont residents, for example, who chose the lower bridge’s quirky color scheme, in keeping with the neighborhood’s free-spirited vibe.
“Putting blue and orange together, that took some really out-there thinking,” says Kirby Lindsay Laney, the blogger behind Fremocentrist.com and a Fremont neighborhood historian.
She says that despite the frequent bridge openings and resulting traffic snarls, it’s also important to pay homage to the area’s maritime role because that’s a part of what makes the neighborhood, located on the Lake Washington Ship Canal, unique.
“It’s a useful pause,” Laney says, putting a positive spin on an unavoidable inconvenience. “The bridges are an incredible lifeline, and we take that for granted. The next time you’re stuck on either side of the Fremont Bridge, it’s good to keep that in mind.”
The Aurora Bridge, strikingly beautiful in the way its cantilevered mass frames the neighborhoods around it, is another matter.
Laney has walked across the bridge a number of times, and she’s always blown away by its gorgeous loftiness.
“You’re really out there, up in the wind, on top of the world,” she says. “The view is unbelievable.”
But even before the bridge opened in front of huge crowds of onlookers on President George Washington’s birthday in 1932, it was a magnet for people wanting to commit suicide. More than 230 people took their lives by jumping off the bridge before a high safety fence was installed four years ago.
Laney, who spent lots of time with relatives in Fremont when she was a kid, says she was 12 when she saw her first suicide victim under the bridge. Now a resident of the neighborhood herself, she’s still not over it.
For many concerned people living and working down below, the bridge was a macabre safety hazard — a subject that nobody felt good talking about but that needed to be addressed.
“It’s why we fought so hard for the safety fence,” Laney says.
Before the safety fence went up during an especially severe spike in suicides, Laney joined a 24-hour vigil on the bridge in which a church group walked back and forth across its 2,946-foot length to raise awareness about mental-health issues.
Her shift on the bridge was between midnight and sunrise. In the late-night darkness, the bridge deck took on a more somber symbolism.
On a recent night a few hours before dawn, there is no sound on the bridge except for the occasional passing car or night-owl bus, which causes the pavement on the adjacent footpath to shudder. There is no view, except for the twinkling of streetlights and the flickering reflections on the canal below. A yellow box containing an emergency phone hangs on the peeling railing along the pedestrian pathway, as does a rusted and bent suicide-hotline sign, reminders of darker days.
Farther south at the historic Dr. Jose Rizal Bridge, which links the Chinatown International District to Beacon Hill along 12th Avenue South, shimmering downtown Seattle rises majestically along the streaming lanes of Interstate 5.
It offers yet another breathtaking, iconic view, but it’s hard not to notice that just below the bridge, along South Dearborn Street, a “Nickelsville” homeless encampment made up of pink-hued shanties and tents crawls up a hillside, a sobering, parallel world that is hard to fully process from any other position.
At the same time that Rizal Bridge frames the gleaming city on the horizon, it offers fresh perspective on the city close at hand.