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Fun with Highways: The Bay Bridge Turns 75

This past Saturday, November 12, marked the 75th anniversary of the opening of the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge, known conventionally as “The Bay Bridge.” It is a regular part of life for many of us here, one of our main connections to the communities across the bay and a principal landmark during walks in my part of the city. It has been featured in many previous articles here on CatSynth.

The Bay Bridge is a workhorse, spanning over 4 miles and carrying an estimated 270,000 vehicles a day, making it second busiest in the U.S. after the George Washington Bridge in New York. But the western double-span is quite a beautiful structure, both as seen from the hills of San Francisco and from up close.


[Click to enlarge]

[Click to enlarge.]

Don’t let that last photograph fool you. Even though it may look like it was taken 75 years ago, it was actually taken yesterday using the iPhone Hipstamatic app during an early afternoon walk by the bridge.

It was quite an engineering feat when it was built, the longest bridge of its time and built in challenging geography of the bay.

[Image from Wikimedia Commons.]

This video (as seen on the official Bay Bridge info site) captures both the era and the engineering:

Much like the Brooklyn bridge when it was first built, the Bay Bridge towered over the surrounding architecture of the cities it connected. It is anchored in the middle to Yerba Buena island with tunnels connecting the two spans of the bridges. On the the San Francisco side, it is anchored to Rincon Hill, once an upscale neighborhood in the late 1800s that fell into rapid decline and largely destroyed in the 1906 quake. The eastern bridge was built resting on mud rather than bedrock. It was the most expensive bridge built to date.

The idea of a bridge crossing the bay has been around since the 1800s. Indeed, such a bridge was proposed by Emperor Norton in the 1870s (I think this even made it into Gino Robair’s opera I Norton). But unlike his other proclamations, this one seemed like a good idea. After that, there were many proposals, such as this one that in some ways resembles the bridge that was actually built.

The bridge proposed in this drawing connected to Telegraph Hill rather than Rincon Hill, and has suspension bridges on both sides of Yerba Buena island.  The spires also make it look like some of the older suspension bridges on the East River in New York.

When bridge first opened, it carried US Highways 40 and 50 as well as the trains from the Key System in the East Bay. The upper deck had longer ramps leading to Harrison and Bryant Streets at 5th, roughly the same as the rather long ramps at those streets today. On the Oakland side, the bridge had viaducts from Cypress Street (Highway 17) as well as San Pablo Avenue and the Eastshore Highway (US 40). The bridge now carries Interstate 80 across the bay. The railway is long gone. Gone also are the connections to the old Transbay Terminal and Embarcadero Freeway, both of which have been demolished. The area under the bridge on the San Francisco side, once a gritty industrial waterfront, is now a picturesque boulevard that is great for walking. Through all of the changes, the bridge itself has not changed very much at all…

[Bay Bridge approach, 1940s]

[Bay Bridge and Embarcadero, 1970s and 1980s. Photos from Wikimedia Commons.]

[Present day, Bay Bridge and southern Embarcadero. Photo by CatSynth]

…until now. The eastern truss span, which was badly damaged in the 1989 earthquake, is now being replaced with a new more graceful cable-stayed span. The construction has progressed to the point where the tower is in place and the cables are being hung. It is indeed a bit distracting when traveling the bridge. But I am looking forward to seeing it completed, probably around the 77th anniversary in 2013.

Fun with highways: Bay Bridge construction

The Bay Bridge has been closed over the Labor Day weekend for a major engineering feat. As part of the replacement of the eastern span, engineers actually cut out a small section near Yerba Buena Island, and actually wheeled in a new section of bridge. This allows the old doomed bridge to be used while the new one is connected up to the island.

Looking towards Oakland from Yerba Buena island, this is what things looked like before the cut- and-replace operation:

You can see a lot more time-lapsed photos and different angles at the official website for the project. They also posted some photos that better illustrate the move itself at Twitter:

New bridge section awaits its moment of glory on Twitpic Bridge move almost complete! on Twitpic 3,600 tons of steel slowly moving into place on Twitpic
[Click on the images above for full-size versions at TwitPic]

Note that this does not really affect the western half of the bridge near on the San Francisco side, which is what we usually show in our Bay Bridge posts and photos at CatSynth. Except of course that it is closed.

And it looks like the closure could be a little bit longer than excepted. There was a serious crack found in one of the metal supports, so now they are working to repair that before opening. It’s just another reminder of why we want to replace the whole eastern span, hopefully before the next big earthquake. Fortunately, the closure doesn’t affect us at CatSynth all that much.

In the shadow of the bridge

When nothing else is happening on a quiet weekend afternoon, I will often go for a walk through our neighborhood, South of Market (SOMA) and South Beach. Our neighborhood is in many ways more like New York than the rest of San Francisco, with its old industrial buildings, dilapidated piers on the waterfront, and new condo developments. But perhaps that adds to the sense of familiarity, and of “home”, amidst the concrete.

Our walk usually begins on Townsend Street, heading east towards the waterfront. This area is dominated by AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants. But while crowds head towards the stadium in the summer, we often head in the opposite direction. There is a little park at the end of Townsend along the Embarcadero, where I often see older Eastern European folks. Across the park is the cul-de-sac that marks the end of Delancy Street, a name reminiscent of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Here I often stop at a small cafe – it has a large garden that can be enjoyed on its own or for the glimpses of the bay it affords.

There are some books I only seem to read when I’m out at places like this, rather than at home. One such book is The Cat: A Tale of Feminine Redemption. I will stop and read a chapter while enjoying a coffee and the views. Though sometimes I opt for one of our free weekly papers instead. I like the idea of being contrary, reading esoteric books while a major sporting event is going on nearby. But in a large, cosmopolitan city, there are always people doing their own thing. One is never really alone.

Beyond the cafe is the southern portion of the Embarcadero, which contains glimpses of a seedy and crumbling past while being revitalized with the stadium and frenzied development.

Heading south along the Embarcadero, one approaches the Bay Bridge. Commercial buildings, as well as residential complexes, have sprung up in its shadow. I enjoy seeing these buildings fit comfortably beneath the bridge:

Some of them have appear older, more reminiscent of the 1970s or even earlier, while huge new high rises are going up all around them.

I then often turn back inward from the waterfront on Bryant Street. This is generally a wide street that crosses SOMA and the Mission District, but here it is a narrow alley between the steep approaches to the Bay Bridge and a residential block.

Again, the feeling is more of a residential section of New York, perhaps Riverdale in the Bronx, or the Upper West Side. Of course, the fact that this block interests Delancy Street adds to this impression.

Longtime residents and admirers of San Francisco often look down upon this area, but I find it a comforting place to walk and explore. Certainly, there is familiarity coming from New York, which has always defined “city” for me. And perhaps the sense that I am finally living the city life that I should have done long ago – I am finally home.

The narrow streets and tall buildings abut the hill and the approach to the bridge, with a complex array of staircases and ramps. I often find an excuse to climb at least one, such as this that connects the lower alley section of Bryant Street to the main section that begins on top of the hill.

At the top, one is amazingly close to the freeway and byzantine ramps that feed onto the bridge:

Heading back down the hill towards the west, one can take a detour through South Park, which has nothing to do with the popular cartoon. Instead, it is a small park surrounded by two-story residences that feels more like a neighborhood in Brooklyn. Although it is not far from the this section of freeway we featured a few weeks ago, such things seem invisible and far away. But step outside this oasis, and one is back in the “concrete jungle” and the streets that lead home.



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Super Tuesday Fun with Highways: I-80

So how to continue our “primary highway series” when so many states are voting at once? Well, we can't visit them all, but we touch several important places with a trip along Interstate 80. I-80 runs the entire width of United States connecting New York City to San Francisco, two cities to which I have connections. In between New York and California, it crosses three other states voting this Tuesday: New Jersey, Illinois and Utah. We have already visited two other states crossed by I-80, Iowa and Nevada, during earlier contests.

Actually, I-80 never enters New York. Rather, its eastern end is in Teaneck, a town on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge:

It would have been cool if I-80 crossed the bridge along with I-95 into New York. Perhaps then splitting at the Bruckner Interchange in the Bronx (yes, I had to get the Bruckner Interchange into this article) before heading out to Long Island.

North of New York City is Chappaqua, “hometown of CatSynth and Hillary Clinton,” as I have mentioned a few times on this site. And while it is my hometown in that I grew up there, Hillary's original hometown is a little bit west of New York and New Jersey, in Chicago. But of course you can get there by heading west on I-80, which passes through Chicago's southern suburbs.

Chicago is all the home of Barack Obama. So we have two candidates with Chicago roots, either of whom I would be very happy to support.

What a strange position to be in, to have such a choice – and I admit I have had a hard time deciding. There are historic opportunities with each, connections to various aspects of my own life (geography, education, mixed heritage). I guess it's much better than 2004 when I was excited about no one.

Traveling further west along I-80, we eventually come to Utah, a place of striking natural beauty that I would love to visit again soon. In the south are canyons, stone formations and other wonders of the southwest. In the north, along I-80, are the Great Salt Lake and the Bonneville Salt Flats:


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When they say salt flats they mean flat. It is an incredibly stark landscape, and that's part of what makes a great experience. And the silence. Longtime readers know how such things appeal to my personal and aesthetic sensibilities. Although I have been to the Great Salt Lake, I did not get to see Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, which is considered a major work of modern American art, and which I have seen reproduced countless times.

Heading further west, we cross Nevada and then arrive in California, where I-80 crosses the Bay Bridge into San Francisco, my new hometown.

I-80 actually ends as the western approach of the Bay Bridge, although most people (and road signs) suggest that it continues into San Francisco to US 101. This section of freeway actually cuts through my South-of-Market (SOMA) neighborhood, contributing to its urban, industrial feel.


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I did manage to find my polling place, and will soon have to make a choice as this election season reaches home. But it is great that those of us in California finally get to make a difference. Same for the folks in New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Utah. So many of us have had very little opportunity to actually have a say in the process, long dominated by Iowa and New Hampshire and the South. The rest of the country will finally have to listen to the people in our major urban centers and in the west. And I'll be satisfied with whomever we end up choosing (at least in one party).