The Rise and Fall of the Sixth Street Bridge
An era crumbles
Not far from the quasi-bohemian Arts District of downtown Los Angeles, the defeated remains of a beloved bridge are mourned. The iconic Sixth Street Bridge, it’s mighty 30-foot reinforced concrete pylons standing as sentinels guarding the gate to the city, long a kind of film noir star of many a movie, commercial, TV show, music video and photo-shoot, has faded forever to black. The bridge, also known as the Sixth Street Viaduct, has gone the way of Route 66, eroding into history and American nostalgia. The bridge once spanned the Los Angeles River, multiple railroad tracks, US 101, and several local streets. It was a scene stealer in such flicks as Terminator 2 (1991), where Arnold Schwarzenegger blasts around on a Fat Boy, among countless others. It also bridged generations of filmmakers who saw the Art Deco-era structure as a connection to the city’s gritty zeitgeist.
The 3,500-foot landmark lasted a lifetime. At 84-years-old and reinforced with ancient square rebar and hung with steel arches, it was the longest of 14 historic Los Angeles River crossings, connecting the Arts District to Boyle Heights west to east via Sixth Street and Whittier Boulevard. Although built with 1932’s latest engineering technologies, the concrete bridge began deteriorating prematurely, only 20 years after it opened. Costly attempts at correcting the chemical process known as an alkali-silica reaction, which created cracks in the cement, met with limited success. Restoration attempts proved to have only a band-aid effect, and previous plans to scuttle the bridge and build a replica didn’t go far. Los Angeles city officials, citing seismic seismic studies, reluctantly deemed the decaying structure lacked the integrity to withstand a major earthquake, in addition to other safety concerns.
In a kind of hipster expression of bridgework, the new span will feature 10 pairs of curved arches in a kind of modern “wave” design, the plan of L.A. architect Michael Maltzan. The earthquake-resistant “Ribbon of Light” comes with a $449 million price tag and is expected to be completed in 2019. New open spaces, parks and community amenities are also attached to Maltzan’s design, which involved input from local residents, bicyclists, activists, public and private sector leaders, labor unions and artists, among others. A city councilmen commented that such a level of collaboration in an infrastructure project is unprecedented. This could also be seen as a project of continual compromise that will be mightily challenged to fill the cultural void left by an historic landmark indelibly stamped into film and memory. Hundreds of sentimental supporters poured over and around the bridge the night before the first phase of deconstruction was scheduled (L.A.’s Bureau of Engineering cited it would take approximately nine months to complete the demolition). Angelenos in hotrods, choppers, low riders, baggers and bobbers paraded over the bridge in one last salute to the condemned icon.
As Los Angeles grew around it there was something reassuring about the bridge that flowed beyond its purpose. It had that bygone character and style, a survivor through good and hard times, much like the neighborhood anchoring its columns. As efficient and sterile glass and steel skyscrapers rose from urban streets, the bridge was a steadfast reminder of when art and craftsmanship combined with human toil to build something significant and pragmatic, yet aesthetically pleasing. The bridge cast a furtive shadow on the streets below, mostly old brick warehouses and long-disused factories, now some converted to living spaces awaiting the inevitable encroachment of gentrification. The new bridge will not trumpet the gateway to downtown as much as it will signal the vanishing underbelly of Los Angeles. That grit and edge, the “low-rent” area, if such a place exists in SoCal, where artists and writers and musicians might find community, that so-called barren place where the creative fertility of a city births ideas, may soon be lost with its concrete icon. I suppose that’s progress, but culturally I’m not too thrilled.