Spanning the decades

by Lynne Kozarek

Editor’s note: Each Monday, a story focusing on a person, place or institution that contributes to the unique culture of the University will be featured in the Daily.

To most University students the Washington Avenue footbridge is simply a way to get back and forth between the East Bank and West Bank campuses. But over its 30-year history it has been much more than just a shelter from the winter winds. The bridge has been the site of political rallies, random violence and suicides both attempted and successful. It has also been the scene of countless art shows, romantic walks and bridge-painting sessions like the one that took place last week.
Students have also used the bridge as a forum for posting controversial political leaflets, knowing that hundreds of pedestrians will view the material on a daily basis as they make the 10-minute hike.
The enclosed area of the footbridge was completed in 1966 after years of speculation and hope.
The bridge was completely reconstructed, replacing an old bridge that was built in 1885. The safety of the old bridge, which included tracks for streetcars, was often called into question once it began to sway when the wind blew.
When the innovative enclosure finally topped the new traffic bridge, architect Winston Close had visions of it being recognized as one of the great bridges of the world.
“Walk-a-lators,” or moving sidewalks, were proposed in 1955. Preliminary conceptions of the enclosure included pedestrians happily puttering along on the moving sidewalks, passing cafes and kiosks on either side of the bridge. The bridge would be a fully heated, 1250-foot paradise suspended above the Mississippi River.
The only part of the original plan that materialized, however, was that heat can be pumped into the walkway.
The enclosure was kept heated to 30 degrees from 1966 to the mid 1970s, balmy in comparison to Minnesota’s winter weather. But the energy crisis made it necessary to turn the heat off and it was never again used because of the enormous cost to the University.
Throughout its short history, the bridge has meant many things to many people. For some it is a place to gather and stand up for political causes, such as last year’s Minnesota Student Association rally for lower tuition.
During Earth Week in 1993, students and members of the community used the bridge as a site for their “Hands Across Campus” rally to protest the presence of toxic waste in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.
Karin Alexander, who is the administrative officer for MSA and went to school here in the late 1980s, said the bridge is symbolic of students joining together.
“I don’t know how many rallies I’ve been to on the bridge since I’ve been here,” Alexander said. “But they’ve always used that same sort of theme, sort of meeting halfway on the bridge.”
In a rally where considerably less harmony was exhibited, students gathered on the bridge and in front of Coffman Memorial Union in February 1991 to remember Malcolm X and to protest the war in the Persian Gulf.
One protester declared, “I will not carry the American flag because it drips with the blood of Malcolm X,” helping spark heated debates between protesters and members of the group Students Love America. No violence was reported.
But others see the footbridge as an isolated place, ripe for danger. In the past few years the footbridge has been the site of several attacks and a shooting.
A man on a bicycle rode across yelling at women and grabbing their breasts in 1990.
Kieran Frazier Knutson, the man accused of attacking a University student at an anti-racism rally, was harassed in 1993 while crossing. And two years ago, a teenage boy shot a 34-year-old man on the bridge.
In recent years, the bridge seems to take on a different personality at night, Alexander said, making it intimidating for many students. Making the bridge safer “has always been talked about at the Take Back the Night rallies.”
But, Alexander said, people used to feel the same way about Northrop Mall until more lighting was installed and other security measures were put in place.
To improve security on the bridge University police have increased patrols of the enclosure and new lights have been added to make the area more easily monitored.
Alexander said the new measures have made a big difference in making the bridge seem safer. “I haven’t heard anything bad in the last year or two,” she said.
Suicides have also taken place on the bridge. A man took his own life in 1986 by plunging into the river.
Others have jumped into the river with different motives. Three students jumped off bridge in 1979 just for the fun of it and generated a tide of media attention. None of the jumpers were seriously injured.
As we head into another Minnesota fall, the bridge stands with a fresh coat of paint ready for a new legion of travelers. Who knows what the year will hold for students as they trek across the bridge where so many have passed before.