Archive for May 2010

Bridges that separate, bring together

6 May 2010
Categories: Chicago

A year ago today, I posted a rant about Chicago’s movable bridges, and how their infrequent movement seems to lead to unreliable operation. Upon further consideration, I have to change my tune. Not that I’m retracting what I said. I still contend that opening the bridges over the Chicago River more frequently than they do now would be less disruptive in general to street traffic.

But here’s the difference: I have come to think that this disruption is actually a good thing.

Sure, every time a bridge lifts there will be some people stranded, stuck on the wrong side of the river, impatient to cross and get on with their day. So it goes. In all the time I’ve lived in Chicago, I’ve never once been seriously inconvenienced by a bridge lift. Sure, there have been times I’ve forgotten it was a lift day, or been surprised by an unscheduled lift, where I’ve turned a corner and discovered an enormous steel wall where I expected a clear passage. Each time, I adjusted my route and found one of umpteen other ways to cross the river and get to where I needed to go. So I can’t say I have a lot of sympathy for those who are too inflexible to find other options, or too uptight simply to relax and enjoy the show.

On Wednesday I watched yet another sailboat flotilla head out to the lake. On this breezy, sunny spring day, there were plenty of people around. As the signal bells clanged, the gates closed, and the bridge raised to the sky, dozens crowded the railing along Wacker Drive near the Michigan Avenue bridge. Tourists raised their cameras. Heck, so did some locals, seeing something different during an otherwise routine lunch break. Down along the new riverwalk, people sat on benches to watch the “big event.” At least half were locals; this was probably not their first time.

There’s a novelty to the movable bridges that doesn’t wear out. As old as the Michigan Avenue bridge is—its admirers will celebrate its 90th year next week—it remains a marvel of engineering. It can be awe-inspiring (and perhaps a little frightening) to stand, as I did, underneath it as it opens. The near-silence with which its motors actuate the spans just adds to the stateliness of its movement.

One moment, you’re underneath a solid expanse of iron, capable of supporting untold numbers of buses, cars, and pedestrians…

…the next moment, you’re looking into the gaping maw of Lower Michigan Avenue, suddenly truncated and hanging out into open space, as the sky opens up above your head and the Tribune Tower, Wrigley Building, and other landmarks of the skyline are revealed.

Raise the bridges more often, and it becomes less of an event—a unique, uncommon occasion for people to experience together. As often as I’ve seen the bridges move, I still find the first-timer’s exclamation of “wow! look at that!” to be contagious, and a joy worth catching.