If you are in the Portland area on August 22, I'd love for you to join me at the Powell's on Hawthorne, where I'll read from my new book, Love and The Green Lady: Meditations on the Yaquina Bay Bridge, Oregon's Crown Jewel of Socialism
. It's a book about a beautiful bridge, my passionate and odd interactions with it, and what a great bridge can mean to a community.
In 1936, Oregon opened five new bridges along Highway 101 on its central coastline, ending an antiquated ferry system and ushering in a modern era of transportation and commerce. The Coast Bridges Project called for bridges in the fishing and logging towns of Coos Bay, Reedsport, Florence, Waldport, and Newport. The project, financed by FDR's newly created Public Works Administration, cost $3.4 million, and all bridges were built in a little over two years. You see, socialism does work!
The bridges, chiefly the brainchild of Conde McCullough, Oregon's State Bridge Engineer, quickly boosted tourism (72 percent in Newport!) and seized the public's imagination with their distinctive and wonderfully eccentric art deco flourishes, such as elegant green arches, beveled columns, obelisks, ornate railingsb and pedestrian plazas. They have since become nationally renowned.
By the end of this summer, all five coastal communities will have celebrated the historic anniversaries of their bridges in their own unique ways and, perhaps, reflected on the significance of an engineering spasm, unequaled in Oregon history, that helped bring prosperity to a relatively isolated locale.
Newport's Yaquina Bay Bridge is the undisputed crown jewel of McCullough's legacy, the second most photographed bridge on the West Coast behind the Golden Gate. For 75 years it has stood magnificently as a monument to excellence in architecture and to how a partnership between state and federal government in the throes of an economic calamity can produce something practical, beautiful, and lasting. It is nothing less than an Oregon landmark and a powerful reminder of how to build a great bridge. I call it the Green Lady, and the "crown jewel of Oregon New Deal socialism."
Several years ago, I moved to Newport and began a daily commute across the bridge. In short order, I realized my interaction with it was revolutionizing my whole aesthetic and understanding of civic engineering. I began photographing the bridge almost every time I drove across it. Later, I started walking across the bridge and digging up wild stories of bridge-related poems, paintings, tattoos, mischief, murder, sexual shenanigans, and suicides. Eventually, I produced a nonfiction book about the bridge, because, well, it was so gorgeous and beguiling. Sexy too.
Can Oregon build a bridge that would inspire something like this? It certainly doesn't appear like it when it comes to replacing the I-5 bridge across the Columbia River between Portland and Vancouver. The design I've seen so far is awful, utterly without dynamic aesthetic or psychic or sensual connection to the region.
Oregon and Washington also have to devise a way to finance the new bridge, estimated at $3.5 billion, which brings to mind the most recent federal stimulus to alleviate the worst economic downturn since the Depression. That stimulus didn't build anything beautiful or lasting in Oregon. It plugged holes in a sinking ship of state. That certainly wasn't the case during the New Deal. In Oregon, along with great bridges, we also got Timberline Lodge and Silver Falls State Park.
I often ponder bridges because I, along with many other Oregonians, have to cross a large one every day. I feel lucky that mine isn't an ugly super slab. When it comes to building a bridge, there is so much more at stake than the mere conveyance of people and freight. I discovered that firsthand through the grace of a 75-year-old engineering masterpiece.