The City That Was: A Million in Peril on the Golden Gate
In The City That Was, Bohemian Archivist P Segal tells a weekly story of what you all missed: the days when artists, writers, musicians, and unemployed visionaries were playing hard in the city’s streets and paying the rent working part time.
On the 78th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge, I’m reminded of another anniversary, 28 years ago, when the bridge turned 50. On that day, as on the day it opened in 1937, the bridge was closed to vehicular traffic and open for pedestrians only. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to walk across the bridge without any cars at all, and I really wanted to go. For some reason, I couldn’t talk anyone into going with me, even though my friends and I had walked across the bridge to Sausalito for fun many times. So the morning of the anniversary, I left my slacker friends behind and went alone.
I wasn’t the only person interested in this event. It was estimated that between 750,000 and a million people all decided to do the same thing. It was crowded on the bridge, and I had made it, with this throng of celebrants, to about the middle of the bridge. Everyone was having a great time and chatting with strangers. It was a beautiful day.
People kept entering the span from the city, and the crowd started to get really dense. As a very short person, I was getting lost in the mass of bodies, all of whom were taller than me, it seemed, except for the small children riding on parental shoulders, who didn’t count.
Then, unexpectedly, the noise of all the people talking and laughing suddenly was drowned out by an ominous, extremely loud sound, a CRACK-CRACK-CRACK.
“OH, MY GOD,” people screamed, “THE BRIDGE IS BREAKING!”
All the million people on the bridge turned back, running for the safety of solid ground. But there were still crowds rushing onto the span, a solid wall of bodies obstructing the million people fleeing a potential watery death. Gridlock barely describes the conflict of the approaching and the fleeing. People were run over by bigger people, and the crush of the crowd made even breathing difficult: there was widespread terror, people having panic attacks, people praying.
It took hours to get off the bridge. There was no emergency plan in place, just in case. There was no emergency crew to keep people from approaching and no flotilla of emergency boats below to fish out the crowds from a collapsed bridge. As Monty Python quipped, no one expected the Spanish Inquisition.
Obviously, I survived to tell the tale, as did the bridge. Twenty-eight years and a major earthquake later, the Golden Gate still stands. Thinking about the solidity of that art deco icon and its history inevitably made me compare it to our new and nameless bridge to Oakland.
The Golden Gate was completed in four years, ahead of schedule and under budget, costing around $38 million dollars. The engineer who campaigned to construct the bridge, Joseph Strauss, was an engineer and a poet. And the person now credited with its ultimate design, Charles Alton Ellis, was a Greek scholar and a mathematician. Perhaps that speaks to the usefulness of creative types and intellectuals.
Over half a century later, the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge took over a decade to build and cost $6.4 billion. That bridge is barely over a year old and it has already had problems with the welding, foundation, bolts, grouting, substandard component fabrication, and leaks. Perhaps that speaks to the usefulness of our scientific advances, technology, automation, and corporate values.
The bridges built by the Romans two millennia ago are still in operation, but you really have to wonder how long this new architectural marvel linking us to Oakland could possibly hold up. Everything in the modern age is built with planned obsolescence in its design, which is why we have a continent of plastic refuse floating in the ocean as big as Texas. Perhaps we can no longer conceive of building things to last.
I recall seeing the architectural drawings for the various plans for the new bridge. I looked at the one they finally chose and thought, “I hope they don’t pick that one.” Whether I like it or not, I hope that the new bridge will survive its fairly scary beginnings and remain standing in its phallic singularity. In the meanwhile, the Golden Gate, with two breasts facing heaven, endures.
This amazing photo was taken by John Law on the 50th anniversary of the bridge, two years before we met. To get this image, he climbed to the top of the south tower, where years before, he had painted the interior of the tower with the ashes of his dead friend, Gary Warne, mixed with paint.