A bridge can be what we dream

Transparent etched panels would create a compromise between beauty and safety.

John Hoff

One night, at the University of North Dakota, my roommate and some of his friends played a clever prank using a rubber love doll.

The prank taught us all some lessons about transforming our everyday environment through imagination. Some of those lessons can be applied to the Washington Avenue Bridge, and the current debate about safety barriers. The bridge and any possible barriers can be anything we imagine. Yes, safety barriers can actually be beautiful.

But let’s get back to the love doll. At that time, I lived in Swanson Hall. As pretty as its name suggests, Swanson Hall is five stories high with a lovely atrium. Two or perhaps three of the top stories of the atrium have a thick, transparent barrier to (it seemed to me) keep people from committing suicide by, er, taking a swan dive from the top floor.

On a daily basis, however, the barriers served a mundane, practical purpose of keeping residents from throwing balls and paper airplanes from the top floor.

One day, some helium balloons floated to the top of the atrium and stayed there. The balloons had a light touch of adhesive on top, and so remained stuck to the ceiling of the atrium even after deflating.

The powers-that-be promptly slapped everybody in Swanson Hall with a deduction from our damage deposit. They’re like that in North Dakota: pathetically desperate for money any way they can get it, always sucking it from young people foolish enough to stick around that bleak wasteland working low-wage jobs instead of fleeing for a better life in the Twin Cities.

My roommate and several other residents of Swanson Hall began wondering what kind of prank they could pull next. Talk turned to filling the atrium – I’m talking the entire five-story atrium, here – with colorful balloons. Then there was discussion about sticking paper fish all around the atrium, and making fake seaweed from green crepe paper, to create the illusion of a five-story aquarium. When you talk about such ideas, you make big gestures with the hands, describing the enormity, the impact of your vision.

Imagine if residents woke up one morning and balloons were everywhere. In the halls, in the atrium, balloons everywhere. Dude-!

Finally, the pranksters settled on a rubber love doll. Somehow, they got the love doll (tastefully but lightly dressed) around the barriers and inflated, so she floated above everything like the blonde, buxom ghost of Swanson Hall. She was affixed, somehow. Helium won’t float a love doll. They tried.

There was, as I recall, some kind of note. “Deduct THIS from my damage deposit,” it said, or words to that effect. It was a clever and comical transformation of our dormitory environment, turning a feeling of petty oppression into a mood of defiant, humorous liberation.

Currently, there is discussion about transforming the Washington Avenue Bridge by installing safety barriers. Solid numbers propose black vinyl fencing for $180,000, and debate has focused on this realistic proposal. There appear to be two main points of view: safety over beauty versus beauty over safety. Naturally, there is a minor and obscure third-party point of view with its own loony conspiracy theory: The barriers are just a plot to push suicide out of the public eye.

Walking past this University’s Wall of Discovery, I thought about the thick glass panels and how beautiful they were, etched with images of great discoveries. “The greatest minds look beyond what is to what could be,” intones the Wall of Discovery.

Encouraged by these words, I began to imagine how transparent etched panels on the Washington Avenue Bridge would create a compromise between beauty and safety. There could be a gap between the panels at eye level, not large enough for a person to squeeze through but affording an unobstructed view. The location of the gap would have to alternate, because some people are tall, and some are short, but most are right in the middle.

The whole bridge, refurbished and remodeled, could be an extension of the Wall of Discovery and the Scholars Walk.

What might be featured on the panels? Discoveries appropriate to the view from the bridge, I would suppose: stuff about water, shipping, large buildings, clouds, trees, ice and migratory waterfowl. Some of the poems of the late Professor John Berryman might be featured. Maybe there could be encouraging verse about hope instead of bleak emptiness.

The skyline has changed over the years, and some panels could reflect that. Imagine a panel which would show the skyline of Minneapolis around the time the first skyscrapers were built. Standing at a certain spot, you could see the ghost of the old superimposed on the new.

There might even be an imaginative depiction of how the skyline might appear 1,000 years in the future. (You’ve got to make big gestures with your hands when you say “the future.”)

So many visions are possible; rooftop gardens, solar panels, an observation deck over the water with a glass bottom. The inside of the bridge could be a high-class art gallery. Digital display panels could replace messy, wasteful, stapled layers of posters. A horizontal “people mover” could speed up pedestrian efficiency. Though now an ugly duckling, the bridge could become a beautiful swan.

With a little imagination, anything is possible. Just ask my former roommate’s love doll.

John Hoff welcomes comments at [email protected]