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Golden Gates They're Not : Several cities have famous bridges, but Los Angeles isn't among them. The city's spans, and there are about 1,200 of them, never have gotten much respect.

July 17, 1988|STEVE HARVEY | Times Staff Writer

Think of great cities, and the famous spans that decorate their skylines: London and the Tower Bridge, New York and the Brooklyn Bridge, Lake Havasu and the London Bridge, San Francisco and the Golden Gate, Los Angeles and the . . er . . . uh.

Well, there's the 7th Street Bridge, offering an unmatched view of the concrete-lined Los Angeles River as well as some railroad yards.

Like the Golden Gate, the 7th Street Bridge had an anniversary last year--its 60th--and ranks as one of the oldest in the city, but no celebration was held, possibly because city records don't say what date it opened.

Of course, bridges here have never received much respect, even the few that actually cross water.

'Shame and Disgrace'

An 1871 editorial in the Los Angeles Star newspaper complained:

"It is a shame and disgrace that a city of the size and wealth of Los Angeles has not a bridge--not even a decent footbridge across the Los Angeles River. The abominable abortion which is now straggling across the river should at once be removed."

In the 1960s, opening ceremonies for the Vincent Thomas Bridge in San Pedro had to be postponed three times before state officials said they could attend (and then-Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown was still a no-show for the dedication).

Movie-makers haven't really helped the image. Glamorous Kim Novak is drawn to the Golden Gate in "Vertigo"; Los Angeles' 4th Street Bridge gets an attack of zombie pimps in "Hollywood Shuffle."

Statistically, Los Angeles ranks as one of the nation's leaders with about 1,200 bridges listed in the city computer (not including the Collapsing Bridge on the Universal Studios Tour).

But most are gray bridges over troubled motorists--freeway overpasses, whose "simplicity," critic John Pastier once noted, "gives an impression of insensitivity more often than it gives one of elegance." Actually, the city does boast some scenic spans, ranging from the turreted Franklin Avenue (Shakespeare) Bridge in Los Feliz and the L-shaped 4th Street Bridge near Boyle Heights to the Spanish-influenced Macy Street Bridge and the high-arched City Mall footbridge downtown.

Then there are the low-pitched Venice canal crossings, age 81, the oldest functioning bridges in the city. Once, gondoliers and silver-prowed boats imported from Italy passed beneath.

Stephen Mikesell, an environmental planner for Caltrans who is writing a book on the bridges of California, said: "After I started researching, I was quite frankly surprised there were so many historic bridges in Los Angeles. You just don't associate them with L.A."

"I'll tell you how much I appreciate the Shakespeare Bridge--I often walk to my business so I can pass over it," said Chris Hershey, owner of a design firm, giving the ultimate testament of a Southern Californian. "It's like stepping into the past."

No one knows exactly how the Bard's name became attached to the 62-year-old landmark. "It's one of the unsolved mysteries of place names in L.A.," said Alma Carlisle, an architect for the city.

The most logical theory seems to be that the sobriquet derives from its design as well as other local geographical names (St. George Street, Ivanhoe District) that smack of Olde England.

Legend has that it was built by Cecil B. DeMille or Walt Disney, both nearby residents, for some cinematic purpose. Actually, its Gothic-style architecture--the steeple-like turrets and the classical balustrade (hand rails)--was the work of a city engineer, J. C. Wright.

"Back then," said Tom La Bonge, a bridge buff and press aide to City Councilman John Ferraro, "people put some thought into these things."

In contrast to the Shakespeare, the derivation of Studio City's unloved Singing Bridge was all too apparent. When automobiles traversed the unusual grilled deck of the Colfax Avenue span over the Los Angeles River, it emitted a sound that was likened to that of "a weird contralto." So many complaints resulted that the grillwork was filled in with concrete in 1956. End of celebrityhood.

Suicide Bridge

The grimmest local nickname--Suicide Bridge--was hung on the 75-year-old Colorado Street Bridge in nearby Pasadena after a series of fatal leaps from there in the 1930s.

The virtual anonymity of Los Angeles' crossings, architect and lecturer Arthur Golding said, stems from their limited roles today.

"They're not symbols of the city, such as the Golden Gate," Golding said. "They aren't public destinations themselves. Some bridges in Italy are lined with shops, for instance. And they (Los Angeles' bridges) don't make a great urban access to, say, a church (as the bridges in Paris do)."

In addition, he pointed out, in Los Angeles it isn't possible to appreciate the bridges and their great supporting arches from the water, as fanciers can in other cities.

People have started to take a bit more notice of the bridges lately, however.

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