Unknown Victoria

Victoria: The Unknown City is a guidebook to an eccentric town on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. This is the author's blog. Look here for Victoria lore, updates and additions to the book, and hate mail.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Greetings from Bridgetown

Tucker Teutsch is a busy guy. He’s the artistic director of the first-ever PDX Bridge Festival, and with a few weeks until opening, he has plenty to do. In his warehouse office, he’s fielding calls from sponsors, choosing art for the program, and working out the logistics for a series of audacious events upon Portland’s historic moving bridges.

The star of the show is the Hawthorne Bridge (left), which marks its 100th birthday this year, making it the oldest vertical lift bridge in the United States. For the two weeks of the festival, Teutsch and his crew – who have created large-scale art installations at events around the world – are outfitting the Hawthorne with an interactive light display, throwing a huge concert, and projecting images of Portland history onto giant screens attached to the bridge. Then, on August 7, they’re covering the Hawthorne’s deck with 25,000 square feet of lawn for a mass picnic, with brunch provided by the city’s numerous food carts. (The festival schedule also lists a film series, museum exhibits, and walking and cycling tours.)

“We’re celebrating the work of the engineers who built this bridge, and have kept it running,” Teutsch explains. But Portland’s old bridges are more than bits of infrastructure – to him, they’re public gathering places, symbols of civic pride, tourist attractions, mammoth kinetic sculptures. “Our goal is to show that bridges have real benefits beyond just transportation,” he continues. “It’s a stick-a-pirate-flag-on-it kind of gesture: ‘We claim this bridge for art’.”

This week, the City of Victoria mailed a survey to residents, asking what three factors we consider most important when dealing with our own 86-year-old Johnson Street Bridge. “Preserving heritage” is just one of the criteria – and if it finishes low in the rankings, our councillors will likely vote on August 12 to scrap the old bridge, convinced that every other value is better served by replacing it. But such beliefs don’t hold everywhere. That’s why I was in Portland, to check out its heritage bridges – and find out why its residents cherish them, instead of letting them rust and then gleefully knocking them down.

Portland’s history proves that old infrastructure doesn’t have to impede the growth of a modern city. Founded in 1851, Portland boomed as a shipping hub for Oregon’s lumber and grain; much of it was sent along the Willamette and Columbia rivers in tall-masted boats, so the city’s numerous railway and streetcar bridges had to be able to lift out of the way. Today, Portland’s gleaming downtown gazes upon five historic moving bridges, erected between 1910 and 1958, that handle 175,000 cars daily. (They lift for ships 2400 times a year.) One of them, the extraordinary 1912-built Steel Bridge, also carries Amtrak trains and the city’s MAX light-rail system, which runs to the airport in the northeast and the high-tech companies of the “Silicon Forest” to the west.

Portlanders have preserved their old bridges largely because doing so is cost-effective: in 1998, after officials heard that replacing the Hawthorne would cost $189 million, they chose to refurbish it for $21 million. In Victoria, much of the estimated $80-million tab (and one-year closure) cited for refurbishing a rail-less Johnson Street Bridge involves seismic upgrading – an expense Portlanders have largely decided to forgo. Multnomah County, which operates most of Portland’s bridges (along with most regional services) has seismically retrofitted just one “lifeline” bridge into downtown. “We haven’t done the others, not because we don’t think they’re important, but because we’ve priortized keeping all our bridges running, and doing maintenance,” says Ian Cannon, the county’s bridge services manager. “It comes down to limited funds.”

Instead, Portland is phasing in the expensive seismic upgrades to its bridges over several decades. (Long-term planning is a local hallmark: Portland drew up plans for its MAX system in the early 1970s, so it was first in line when the U.S. government announced money for rail transit in 1978.) But there’s also a make-it-work attitude in Portland, a belief that governments should try fixing infrastructure before blowing millions on new construction, and this was most apparent when I cycled the old bridges around downtown. Smooth ramps, identified pathways, clear signage – simple, creative solutions had been employed everywhere, spurring a 178-percent increase in bicycle traffic on the old bridges over the past decade.

Innovation is ubiquitous in Portland. I cycled the neighbourhood around Powell’s Books, and passed a condo tower with wind turbines on its roof. I saw the “Zoobomb Pyle”, a city-sponsored sculptural tower of kids’ bikes used by the hipsters who take MAX up to the zoo and then coast down at top speed. I visited the Living Room Theaters, a new set of cinemas where you could drink a microbrew and watch a movie at the same time. I had a snack at Voodoo Doughnut, famed for its maple-glazed with bacon, and stopped by Dante’s, a cabaret that hosts karaoke with live bands.

On one wall of Dante’s, a proud slogan was painted in huge letters, overlooking the street: KEEP PORTLAND WEIRD. Not to worry, I thought. The antique bridges and PDX festival are just more proof that Portland’s inventive spirit is alive and well.

UPDATE (August 1, 2010): Happy 100th, Hawthorne! Here’s a video of the birthday party that Portland threw on its bridge yesterday:


At 12:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The seismic concerns around the Johnson Street Bridge are not rational. For one thing, it's a very short bridge. For another thing, there are several alternative routes connecting Vic West with the rest of the city, should a major disaster strike. The furthest alternative route is no more than a few minutes away.

The public safety issue is vastly overblown. There would likely be only a handful of casualties even if the bridge were to crumble into dust in the middle of the day. If the big earthquake strikes between midnight and 6am there would likely be no casualties whatsoever.


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