A bridge is a place of movement and flux. It is never designed to be destination unto itself – an endpoint to be reached – but rather as a place to be passed. A place of transition. And there are many different types of bridges. Some are big, some are small; some are high, some are low. Some are aesthetically imposing – outstanding monuments to human ingenuity – and others are eyesores. A humble log may suit the role, but then again an entire canyon’s worth of steel may be required. But however spare or elaborate, to be a bridge is to be defined by becoming; it is to be known by where one is coming from and where one is going to.
Bridges define the cityscape of Portland, Oregon. The residents are proud of their city’s many bridges, some referring to the city as Bridgetown. In a way, each bridge is a work of chaos. Whether jutting out of a steep promontory or precariously spanning the river, they seem unnaturally fixed, as if irreverently placed by a careless child. Indeed, the order embodied in the city’s geometric street grid makes for a series of interesting contrasts when juxtaposed to the bridges’ diagonal spans and zigzagging lines. Their flamboyance seems to suspend all conceptions of order and hierarchy, even though, in reality, they are an important part of this great order – perhaps its boldest achievement.
In truth, their very number hints towards their place in this greater order. Thus the Burnside Bridge connects the east side of the river to the heart of downtown; moving eastward along the Hawthorne Bridge, one finds themselves in the glitzier of the city’s neighborhoods. And traversing the river by way of the St. John’s Bridge, the traveler is overcome with sense of awe. The bridge’s cathedral-like spans seem to capture the essence of the city, in all its profane grandeur. And below all of these bridges lies the Willamette River, a natural bridge in its own right, which connects with the Columbia River before disgorging its heavy load into the great Pacific expanse.
The greatest contradiction that these bridges embody, however, is the tension between eternity and temporality. Built of steel and rock, they are made to last even though their function is of the most transient kind. After all, they are by their very nature a point of transition; a moment in time, a place to be passed, a checkmark on a map. Yet this point of transition is of immense importance: for unless one completes the crossing they will not be able to continue the journey. It is through this truth that the bridge draws its significance. The endpoint cannot be reached unless the bridge is first crossed. So while the traveler may be in the process of reaching or becoming an endpoint, the bridge is of no less consequence than the destination desired. Without passing the bridge, reaching or becoming thus far, the traveler cannot expect to reach or become the endpoint that the bridge eventually incarnates. To not cross the bridge is to throw the journey’s entire trajectory off course.
Lately there has been a lot of activity on Vista Bridge. Large and long, with a span of 76 meters, the bridge is formidably built, though it lacks any trace of showy adornment. Indeed perhaps its most distinctive trait is the way in which it complements the surrounding landscape. While at one time its muscular construction was undoubtedly a point of pride amongst residents, now it competes for supremacy with the trees that frame its course. For truth be told, Vista Bridge is an old bridge – a much traveled and “historic” part of the Goose Hollow neighborhood, but one whose age is beginning to show. Wizened by exposure to wind, heat and – most of all – Portland’s infamous rain, its façade has faded and superficial cracks line its concrete path, like the wrinkles of a well-traveled sailor.
It might then seem odd that Vista Bridge has been the subject of so much attention and controversy as of late. But this apparently unassuming bridge has a bad reputation. Almost since its opening in 1926, the bridge has been a favorite spot for those attempting to commit suicide, a fact that has earned it the nickname, the “Suicide Bridge”. From 2004-2011, 13 people jumped to their deaths from Vista Bridge. This August the most recent suicide occurred while a suicide prevention volunteer – regular patrols are carried out by trained volunteers – was attempting to talk the victim out of jumping. In fact, the problem has escalated to the point where the city has erected a temporary barrier on the bridge until a permanent barrier can be installed.
Thus the bridge is not simply a bridge, but something more. Or perhaps we have yet to understand what a bridge is. For Vista Bridge confronts us with uncomfortable questions, unanswered questions, about what it means to live in Portland. What it means to be human in a city of bridges; a world of redundant tension and intolerable convention, punctuated by yet another bridge. It is impossible for us to get into the minds of those who jumped before they took the fall, but I think it is a task worth trying – to spend a little time patrolling the bridge.
Why do desperate people choose the bridge? There are many ways to die – especially when one gets to choose – so why here? But to understand a bridge once must first understand its city. A city, like a bridge, is a special place. It is a manmade phenomenon, constructed by human design rather than the blueprints of nature. Indeed the city is forever at odds with the natural order, even the needs of the human architects themselves: while it attracts great masses of people, it also prevents the most elementary of human relations. In the city one learns that it is possible to be alone in a crowd; to be surrounded by thousands and be known to none. The bonds of community are split by concrete partitions, dead-end jobs, walls of empty rooms and the combustible institution of the nuclear family – a combination ripe to explode. It is a sinkhole for dreams; a place where one goes to make it big and loses their sense of humanity in the process. For many others, it is a place of necessity: they were born into this concrete cell, and here they will stay. There is nowhere else to go.
As the prospect for finding meaning in the city dims, the human existent becomes more frantic. They may have started out well but somehow got lost along the way. Everything seems meaningless. Within the city one’s identity is subsumed in its crowds and conventions, even as the nameless existent feels sharply alienated from both. Thus one comes to feel as if they are both everywhere and nowhere at the same time. And this alienation comes to be the most common and resonant feeling – the only feeling, in fact, which reminds them that they are alive. Getting their kicks means freeing themselves from the pain of alienation: to relax is to become numb, to lose all sense of one’s senses. The bottle or pills will do the trick. Of course, similar alienation can arise from all manner of conditions – including the deep emptiness of the countryside or the manufactured monotony of the suburb – but the city evokes it in terms with the cruelest poignance. Here, you are nothing.
Maybe this is why people choose the bridge (or a tower, for that matter). Lost in the stranglehold of the city, with its stern streets and faceless crowds, they look for a place to breathe, a place to stand and be known – to exist. The bridge provides such an outlet, as it seems to leave the conventionality of the city in order to rise above it. Again, the bridge embodies contradictions: it is a focal point of city life despite the fact that it represents transience, being by nature a place to be passed.
So they go to the bridge, to rise above the sterile chaos of the city, to see with clarity and, above all, to be known. On top of the bridge they launch one last salvo for life, a SOS signal by way of their very presence on that precarious peak. It is as if they are shouting “I am! Can you see me?” But on the bridge they once more come face to face with their smallness, their finitude: the city lies before them unmoved, once more registering their insignificance. Before this panorama of glazed eyes and steel facades, their alienation feels complete.
They are overwhelmed. Above all they are alone and they feel it. Deeply. In a desperate attempt to find resolution – an endpoint, no more bridges and run-arounds – they decide to jump. In doing so, they will transcend their loneliness as well as the great weight of their hollow existence. It is only by killing themselves in this most public of places that they will become known, validated – they will begin to exist, even if just in someone’s memory. Like Alain Leroy from The Fire Within, they will inscribe their existence on the life of another by leaving an “indelible mark” on their memory. Their existence will finally be felt, if not by their presence then by their absence. True, there may be no witnesses but there will always be someone who finds the body. And they will remember. At the very least, they will not be able to forget.
Jumping from the bridge, they suddenly free themselves from the city – in which they were alienated but subsumed – before asserting their identity – their existence – on the pavement. As they hit the pavement they reenter the world, this time as a broken but complete being, one whose existence has been realized precisely because it cannot be forgotten.
Vista Bridge is a sad place, a place where those on the interstices of society choose to position themselves for final act. But perhaps what makes Vista Bridge a place of special tragedy is the fact that these people, by and large, are not unique to society; the fact that there is no lack of such people anywhere, those looking for meaning, validation, friendship. To truly exist. Is this what they saw as they looked over the edge towards the city: a million terrified faces just like their own? What a terrible sight to behold. One is reminded of the words of Bob Dylan, that “there are many here among us, who feel that life is but a joke.” The song is, of course, “All Along the Watchtower,” an epic song about a landmark of similar significance.
One of the few powers that a person is granted is the choice to live, though this is a decidedly uncertain and all too often compromised freedom. Yet, all the same, we begin with this fact: the discovery that we are alive. To claim that one is not free by the fact of their unchosen, and perhaps unwanted, existence is to delude one’s self. One can only begin to be free or enslaved after the realization of their existence: life does not by itself denote enslavement, as one cannot claim to be free and never have existed. Those who never were or who are dead are not free; by way of their nonexistence they simply are not. One must be before one can be free or unfree.
The problem, then, arises from living in a world which for many people does not appear to be worth living in whether one is free or unfree. And the question posed, then, is this: how does one create a world in which bridges actually lead somewhere, to places worth going to; places worth living in? This is not an easy question, but it is one worth pursuing:
To spend some time patrolling the bridge.