Our bridge, our corner of the world

Can the bridge generate revenue? Can some of the revenue pay for mental health programs?

John Hoff

What an amazing debate has been taking place on these pages about the Washington Avenue Bridge and how to improve life on our campus.

Not since columnist Adri Mehra conceived a cheeky little hypothesis about 9-11 have readers grown so passionate and fired off so many letters to the editor.

The bridge touches our daily lives. There is little I can do about New Yorkers who jumped to their deaths from flaming skyscrapers. But in these very pages, a student gave her firsthand account of dialing 911 in a desperate attempt to save a young woman who leaped from our beautiful Washington Avenue Bridge. The bridge is a symbol and a centerpiece of our campus, our corner of the world.

Ultimately, the most effective way to bring about change is to concentrate on my little corner of the world. But my little corner is a fragment, a mosaic, touching and impacting the rest of the universe.

My belief – and I am known to advocate for it constantly with other columnists – is the most relevant opinion writing in a college newspaper that emphasizes campus issues. Do not tell me, for example, that California is having a debate about the issue of child spanking and expect me to take much interest. If, however, abusive scolding of children is frequent on the No. 16 bus, then that is more interesting to me because I ride the No. 16, and I hear it with my own ears.

As a disabled vet and a former army medic, I have strong opinions about deplorable building conditions recently publicized at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. It’s a national issue and so, naturally, I prefer to learn about it from national sources.

Nothing I could say in these collegiate pages will have much impact on the situation at Walter Reed, so I would prefer to discuss the gigantic flakes of maroon paint peeling away from sections of steel support beams on the Washington Avenue Bridge. Some are the size of wallets. Others are the size of a small purse.

My bridge should not look like this, I think. My bridge should look beautiful. What will the Republicans think when they visit the Twin Cities in 2008 for their national convention?

Walking on the bridge, I constantly contemplate the ongoing debate, the various opinions about the bridge. Is there a way, I wonder, to satisfy all sides and yet achieve a cost-effective solution?

I notice how the campus is growing at both ends, and this will inevitably increase vehicle and pedestrian traffic on the Washington Avenue Bridge. On the West Bank, a massive construction project is taking place near Carlson School of Management. On the East Side, something called the “East Gateway District” is envisioned for a 75-acre area around the new stadium. Plus, big things are expected with the light rail.

Walking past a vending machine on the bridge, I began to think about ways the bridge could generate revenue. Maybe some of the revenue could pay for those mental health programs which critics of bridge barriers keep pointedly bringing up.

For example, would sales of hot food be profitable in the bridge? Could you place a “to go” order at one end of the bridge, and then pick it up by the time you walk to the other end? Could the roof of the bridge become a terrace, where people could sit amid flowers and trees, sipping lattes, bubble tea or whatever future beverage becomes all the rage? A glass elevator could go all the way down to the river. People could step off boats to a dock, and go upstairs to have lunch.

I thought about decorative etched-glass panels and how these could generate revenue, too. Aesthetically, the bridge could feel like a continuation of the Wall of Discovery and Scholars Walk. But the bridge panels could feature a slightly-different theme. I call it the Wall of Genius and Generosity.

OK, picture this. (Watch out for my swinging arms, we’re talking about visions of the future here.) Companies and individuals could pay big bucks for each etched glass panel. The panels (approved by a committee and subject to sensible criteria) would discuss the donor’s connection to the University. There could be an emphasis on tying the subject matter to research and philanthropy.

So, for example, a company which has made millions of dollars and constantly uses a particular piece of technology invented at the University might describe, in etched glass, its connection to the University. Some panels might celebrate a particular idea or invention, but simply be sponsored by donors with no connection except enthusiasm and generosity. Naturally, big donors would want to sponsor lots of panels. Maybe some of the revenue generated this way could fund an endowment for campus mental health programs.

In these editorial pages, we can articulate and refine visions of what our campus and neighborhoods can be. Imaginative ideas can be floated like, for example, alternative energy windmills or solar power for the buildings in this proposed “East Gateway District.”

If our little corner of the earth can be improved, it can serve as a positive example to the larger world. Whether the rest of the globe takes notice or not, what else can be so easily changed as our immediate environment?

A practical way to change the world may be to have a global consciousness, informed by global sources, but to focus on what, realistically, can be done locally.

John Hoff welcomes comments at [email protected]