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SOCAL P.O.V. -- PATT MORRISON

Another Casualty of Car Culture

June 14, 1998|PATT MORRISON

The most cinema-worthy geste of my life was the few moments that it took me, riding pillion on the back of a motorcycle, sidesaddle, in a long silk dress (not smart, I know, but so chic), to be driven slowly across an elegant span of bridge on a blue-glazed California day.

The bridge, I am sorry to report, was not in Los Angeles. It was in San Francisco. I am even sorrier to report that I cannot remember ever having a sublime bridge moment in Los Angeles. In Florence, yes, vividly; in Paris, St. Petersburg, even on a B&O railroad trestle in Ohio--but not on a one of L.A.'s thousand and more bridges.

They simply do not ornament Southern California's mental landscape. The Thomas Bros. guide does not list them among its points of interest. Shopping malls, yes, but not bridges. No landmarks anchor our bridges and lend distinction--a park, a cathedral, New York on one side, New Jersey on the other.

Once in a rare while, a bridge registers--a local marker, a place to gather, to give directions from. This spring, when the 1926 Shakespeare Bridge, a storybook span of turrets and balustrades in Los Feliz, reopened after a year of repairs, the locals hailed it like the return of a rich and childless uncle.

Free-associate: What is a "bridge" anyway? A structure built perpendicular to, and for purposes of crossing, flowing water.

Which we ain't got.

There is more concrete to be found in the L.A. River than in all 10 of the lovely bridges that arch above it, conceived and built from 1910 to 1933 as a series of engineered rainbows of beauty and utility, each of distinct character: the severe classicism of the 9th Street Bridge, the Spanish Colonial ornamentation on the Macy Street Bridge, the memento mori austerity of the Hyperion Bridge, dedicated to the dead of World War I.

As my old college prof, architectural historian Robert Winter, is fond of saying, "The river is nothing. But the bridges are sensational."

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But why do we have no Ponte Vecchio, no Tower Bridge? There is, of course, our river-of-no-rerun, paved from source to mouth to teach it not to flood. But by the time Los Angeles was populous enough to require real bridges to go about its business, the pedestrian was already being supplanted by the motorcar.

So the fault lies not in our spans, but in ourselves.

A bridge seen at strolling speed has a different character from what it possesses from behind a windshield at 30 miles an hour. These are not places to stroll and gaze dreamily into the middle distance and the spectacular vistas--a downtown that looks like the Emerald City, and mountains painterly-perfect--but to speed across by car.

Linger on a bridge in Los Angeles and someone will call 911 and summon the men with nets and bullhorns. (A footbridge over the Los Angeles River in Canoga Park was closed down because the wrong kind of people--gangbangers--were afoot. The Bangle Road equestrian bridge between Downey and Bell Gardens was likewise shut two years after it opened; Downey gentlefolk groused that it was an escape route for thieves and vandals.)

How often does anyone even use the word "bridge" around here, outside of a dentist's office? Our rivers flow with traffic, not water, and the structures that carry it are not bridges--they're overpasses.

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One piece of Los Angeles bridge art hangs on my wall. It is a drawing of the 1913 Colorado Street Bridge in Pasadena. The drawing was executed not for aesthetic reasons but by someone in the engineering firm that was restoring "Suicide Bridge." One agency or another has wanted to close the bridge since people started leaping from it in the despondent '30s, but the locals were stubborn. That wide, brisk 10-lane freeway bridge to the north is very efficient, they said, but we want our bridge. And so 1,4671/2 feet of Colorado Street still runs along the two-lane span.

As usual, the people who see the attractions of Los Angeles' chameleon architecture most clearly--through a lens--are the movie makers. Eddie Cantor drove a chariot across the Suicide Bridge in "Roman Scandals"; W.C. Fields rode a firetruck across the Hyperion Bridge in "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break."

A European or an Easterner arriving in Los Angeles would not see much he might think of as a bridge--maybe only the dragonfly-green towers of the Vincent Thomas suspension bridge. But that was built at the sole of the city, at the harbor, and he would see it only if he arrived by cruise ship or cargo carrier.

He might, however, get the same sardonic pleasure I do from something that isn't a true bridge at all. Over the Los Angeles River, near Los Feliz, is a small-scale suspension bridge, not unlike the Golden Gate, that serves to carry some kind of pipeline across the riverbed.

On the pipeline, someone has bothered to write, very legibly and very pointedly, "VISIT SAN FRANCISCO."

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