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Bay Lights at Risk of Going Dark

Updated: Jan 12, 2023 11:00
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Any date night about downtown should conclude with a walk along the Embarcadero. The waterfront crescent serves up several city landmarks on a platter: the Ferry Building, Coit Tower, the Transamerica Pyramid. Provided you’re well-dressed for the winds whipping off the Bay, the stroll promises romance whichever end you begin. Since March 2013 however, the north-to-south route has held a shimmering prize at the end. 

Draping the western span of the Bay Bridge is an art installation known simply as The Bay Lights. Every evening after sunset, the north-facing side of the 86-year-old suspension bridge gleams with thousands of night-piercing LEDs. Apparently the draw is measurable in profit. The Chronicle reported that “Bay Lights” has pulled in an estimated $100 million from visitors each year. 

Nonetheless, on the public sculpture’s tenth anniversary, The Bay Lights may go out. 

The Bay Bridge’s hard-earned recognition

Compared to its International Orange younger sibling, the Grey Lady of the Bay is San Francisco’s iron workhorse. The Golden Gate Bridge carries an estimated 112,000 vehicles across its namesake strait per day. The Bay Bridge handles over twice that amount. Around 260,000 drivers take the two decks across the water daily. 

Still, the Golden Gate steals most of the glory. Fireworks rarely blossom over the Bay Bridge for its sake. Early one day in September 2010, founder Ben Davis gazed at the sunrise from the Ferry Building. The suspension cables cut the morning light into slats and sparked a vision in Davis’ head. “What if this was a canvas of light?” 

When the Bay Bridge opened in November 1936, “It was a moment of pride coming out of the Great Depression. It was a symbol of American ingenuity,” Davis told The Chronicle

Davis believes it merits recognition. “The Bay Bridge became the Cinderella bridge, this hardworking, mostly overlooked bridge,” said Davis. “If people thought about it at all, it was mostly from a sense of annoyance that they had to get across it.”

From dream to reality

Three years later, having dissolved his previous design firm and founded another to secure the funds, he realized his idea. Ben Davis partnered with artist Leo Villareal and consulted with CalTrans through his nonprofit Illuminate to install the sculpture. The result was a glimmering harp of white lights, all three hundred cable strings lit up with 25,000 LEDs. After a soft launch in January 2013, Davis switched on The Bay Lights on Tuesday, March 5th. 

This first iteration of “Bay Lights” draped only the north-facing side of the bridge. Illuminate made no extensions to the south side throughout the last decade. The option was briefly on the table during the project’s conception, but Davis didn’t want the installation to distract drivers. 

The citybound motorist of today faces far more stimulation via phone screens, and the dazzling tip of Salesforce Tower. “Bay Lights” would see its expansion to the Oakland-facing cables in the future, but that’s assuming the installation has one. 

Running out of time

Illuminate operated The Bay Lights two years past its inaugural date. In the meantime, people became fond of the playful display, still a centerpiece of Instagram’s Bay Bridge geotag. It drew photographers and transfixed diners at waterside restaurants, persuading them to linger and drink in the view. After it went dark on its two-year anniversary, popular demand persuaded Illuminate to relight the installation after a ten-month dormancy. 

The alternating LEDs which comprise the installation were not intended for permanent operation. As the years wore on with their fog banks, heatwaves, and wildfire smoke, the LEDs began to malfunction. If you do take that romantic stroll down the Embarcadero, you may notice dark patches blemishing the brilliance like sunspots. How many dollars does it cost to screw in a lightbulb? If we’re talking in terms of “Bay Lights,” it’s about $11 million.

That’s how much it’ll cost to refit the bridge with a better, more robust installation. If Davis can’t raise the funds, The Bay Lights will come down for good on March 5th, their tenth anniversary. 

An uncertain destiny

Ben Davis is an experienced financier. He shared with Chronicle reporter Heather Knight that he plans to entreat ten investors for one million dollars apiece. One already got the ball rolling with the revival’s first million-dollar pledge, giving Davis hope for The Bay Lights’ future. If he can secure $10 million in financing plus another million from other contributors, he’ll renovate the lights by Labor Day.

It’s a tall order, the fundraising and the renovation deadline, but it seems Davis means well enough. He hasn’t yet taken corporate bait, refusing a “multi-million dollar offer from Audi…to shine its four-circle logo on the bridge.” His and Leo Villareal’s aesthetic goal appears to come from a legitimately altruistic place. Part of Davis’ mission is to “create nothing that requires paid admission.” 

Like San Francisco’s other unorthodox structures, Sutro Tower and the Transamerica Pyramid, Davis’ “Bay Lights” have grown on us. The funded re-installation would feature a similar display, an infinite loop of ever-changing design, much like the city itself.

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Jake Warren

Jake Warren

A Potawatomi nonfiction writer and Tenderloin resident possessing an Indigenous perspective on sexuality and a fascination with etymological nuance. Queer decolonial leftist, cannabis industry affiliate, seasoned raver, and unofficial earthquake authority.

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