News & Views from 465 California Street

The Bridges that Bind Us

Clint Reilly
Sep
15
2009

Every city has a heart, a feature that defines it in the minds of locals and visitors alike. In New York, the city’s character pulses from Times Square. In Los Angeles, Sunset Boulevard comes to mind.

The heart of the Bay Area is the bay itself, that vast stretch of water so central to our history and progress that it gives the region its name.

But if the bay is our heart, our bridges are the arteries that keep the region’s lifeblood flowing. They are the corridors of commerce and the ties that bind our disparate communities together within a common identity.

No span on earth rivals the Golden Gate Bridge in sheer architectural majesty. Envied and copied from Istanbul to Lisbon, its iconic status belies a more ominous distinction as the world’s most popular suicide destination. My wife, Janet, is a member of the bridge’s board of directors and a fierce advocate for a new suicide barrier.

The Golden Gate once inspired a political ad campaign I created for former San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan during his first run for office. In it, I described Jordan as a bridge-builder who sought to bring people together in pursuit of common goals. In a city where fractious politics constantly inhibits progress, the metaphor resonated deeply.

The Bay Bridge was always my favorite, however, even as a young boy. Carrying 270,000 vehicles per day (more than 2.5 times the traffic as the Golden Gate) it is the blue collar tractor trailer that pulls the region’s load every day of the week.

When the Bay Bridge was closed for construction over the Labor Day weekend, I found myself reflecting on its special role throughout my life.
My earliest memories of the bridge are even more vivid. My father was born and raised in San Francisco but my mother was from Berkeley. On Sundays, I often rode with my dad across the bridge from our home in San Leandro to visit my grandparents.

At the time, I truly believed that Treasure Island was the actual place immortalized in Robert Louis Stevenson’s book, and that pirates once sailed the bay.

Emerging from the tunnel and crossing the western span into San Francisco was my earliest memory of a larger world. To a young boy, the city skyline represented the promise of adulthood; the important work and big dreams still to come. And the bridge – all graceful, cold steel and gray concrete – was the way to get there.

Even as I got older, our drive home to the East Bay filled me with childlike wonder at how grown-ups had ever built this huge erector set.

My parents reverently recounted the many workers who were killed while building the Bay Bridge. I then conjured up a fantasy that my own grandfather was among the deceased. When I asked my mother how it happened, she held back her shock enough to tell me the truth: For some reason, my beloved grandfather had committed suicide by his own hand when I was two years old.

To this day, however, I still associate the bridge with my namesake, Clinton Stone.

Forty-three men died during the construction of the Bay and Golden Gate bridges. Their sacrifice during the Great Depression is taken for granted in today’s era of public works boondoggles. Just last week, headlines predicted more cost overruns and completion delays for the new Bay Bridge.

The original bridge, which was built between 1933 and 1936, cost $77 million ($1.2 billion today). The replacement, originally estimated as a $200 million retrofit, is now price-tagged at $6.3 billion and counting. Construction began in 2002, and officials now hope to be finished by 2014.

The new bridge will take four times longer to build and cost five times as much as the original, even though it will only replace the eastern span.
What does this tell us about our own era’s profligacy and complacency?

In the Bay Area, our bridges remind us that we are stronger when connected to one another. But the steel beams and cables teach other lessons.

As Carl Sandburg once wrote: “A bar of steel – it is only smoke…and the blood of a man.”

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