Old Bridge. New Bridge

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 (Paul Staley)

One is so new it hasn't really been completed yet, while the other is headed, literally, to the scrap heap. They will sit side by side until one completely disappears. But for now, the two eastern spans of the Bay Bridge, the new and the old, tell us a lot about our world today.

For one thing, they provide a perfect illustration of the difference between building and destroying. There is something startling and pure about the slowly widening gap in the old eastern span. There is nothing to pave or paint. The void is perfect; emptiness takes care of itself. This is the utopian appeal of destruction, destroy something and your work is done.  

The bridge on which we drive today is something else entirely. Like anything we build, it was conceived as a compromise between the aesthetic and the financial, between the aspirations of design and the constraints of physics. It not only faces the inevitable comparisons to an array of hypothetical, and supposedly superior, alternatives, but presents us with an unrelenting obligation to maintain and preserve.

The new span, with its potentially vulnerable steel rods, also symbolizes the news as controversy. It is the inquiry and the revelation, the heat and the sizzle of the news: What went wrong? Who is to blame? Was there a cover up? And although we no longer have to worry about its structural integrity, the old span, with its severed roadways, symbolizes the void from which today's threats emerge: epidemics where there are no hospitals, terrorists where there is no government authority. It can be easy to forget that we are lucky to live in a country where bridges are destroyed after they have been replaced, not before.

This brings us to one more thing the bridges have to offer us. Any trip across them, no matter how aggravating or distracted our circumstances, is an opportunity to wake up, discard the familiarity that dulls our senses and, for at least a moment, appreciate their greatest gift, a view of mountain, city and water that is one of the world's most remarkable vistas.


With a Perspective, I'm Paul Staley.

Paul Staley works for a housing nonprofit and lives in San Francisco.