Drive to the Sky

“How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!” Hart Crane, the great and doomed American poet wrote in astonishment about the Brooklyn Bridge, which he loved not only for its architectural beauty but also because it stood for him as a symbol for a synthesis of America. The choiring strings refer literally to the hundreds of miles of crosshatched cables (it’s a suspension bridge) that help hold it up. By calling them “choiring” he’s making them holy, but the line is grounded in the literal as well as leaping wildly into the metaphorical: the wind through the cables, when strong enough, makes a kind of music.


The San Diego–Coronado Bay Bridge has no choiring strings. In fact, it has no strings, no cables, at all. Instead it is: a long blue banner — from some angles — held out and up almost straight by a strong wind and sometimes showing a slacker wind in its curves. It is a one-bar — blue — rainbow arching over the bay in fog at dawn. It’s a blue piece of ribbon candy hurled from a child’s hand and caught as a faint blur in the frame of a badly focused snapshot one lost Christmas morning. It’s a blue streak on the backs of 30 daddy long legs with their knees straightened (and their other legs lost) under the deadweight of steel and concrete. It’s a ramp upwards (particularly from Coronado to San Diego) to the sky, to vapors, to — some might say — heaven. It’s a slash of light blue against the bay’s darker blue and partly absorbed, partly contrasted to, the blue of the sky. And below the blue of the bridge and above the blue of the bay: the long skinny legs, pale as a banker’s calves when his trousers ride up above his dark blue socks. It’s to the eye what a word with a soothing vowel is to the ear. From the bay’s south side it’s almost straight, a bolt, connecting city to town, island — pure, lean, and practical: I will get you there, it says, on my blue back fast. From Coronado it’s a huge blue hook, its curve almost as tight as either end of a paperclip. From San Diego, approaching the bridge, for a few seconds: that paperclip straightened out. A comet’s tail. A low blue flame hurled across a chasm. The bridge’s color is the color of the great ether dome of your dreams. It’s hardly there at all, a wisp, at dawn or in mist, or at night its lights and the lights of its cars look like two strings of white beads beneath which there’s nothing but darkness. Steel and stone. The bridge.


It’s 2.12 miles (11,179 feet) long and cost nearly $50 million. Last summer it was 30 years old. Retrofitting — earthquake-proofing (does it offend nature that we presume such a thing possible?) — going on now will cost between $70 and $150 million by the time it’s finished. Which end of these estimates do you think will be more accurate? It has 20,000 tons of steel in it — 13,000 tons of that in structural steel and the other 7000 in reinforcing steel. That equals the weight of about 15,384 and one half 1995 Honda Accords. Multiply that 15,000-plus by four and that’s the approximate number of Honda Accords (or other cars smaller than Accords and trucks bigger) that cross the bridge every day. It contains 94,000 cubic yards of concrete, 40,000 linear feet of concrete pilings. Add to that 900,000 cubic yards of dredged fill. Some of the caissons for the towers were drilled and blasted 100 feet into the bay’s bed. A lot of weight, a lot of space. A lot of space filled, a lot of space emptied.

It’s what’s known as an orthotropic structure, a word that reminded me of “orthopedic” and made me think of aching shoulder joints and hip replacements. What it means is: it has unequal flexibility in two perpendicular directions. Which means, metaphorically, what it’s really about is great strength, apparent spareness, and a kind of architectural cunning. It’s a design originally used by German naval engineers building battle ships. The center part of the bridge is called “the box” and spans three piers (numbers 18 to 21), the ones over the main shipping channels. It’s the third largest orthogonal box in the country. This design is a steel-saver and contributes a slender superstructure and a smooth exterior: the braces and stiffeners are inside the box and beneath the roadway in all other parts of the bridge. That’s what I mean by cunning: instead of showing off its muscles like a suspension bridge, it keeps them all hidden inside, beneath. It doesn’t have huge shoulders that brag about its strength like the Golden Gate or Brooklyn Bridge. It was originally set to be painted red like the former (red is easier and cheaper to maintain), but the planners decided on blue: it’s more harmonious with the surroundings. Its 2850 feet of curved steel contain the longest segments of such steel in the country. The bridge’s principal architect, Robert Mosher, as I suspect of many architects and engineers, had a sculptor’s eye. In 1970 it was given the Most Beautiful Bridge Award — by the American Institute of Steel Construction. I suppose one could call that a possible conflict of interest, but as far as I know no one was inclined to disagree and put forth another Most Beautiful Bridge in 1970. It took about three and one half years to build and opened officially on August 3, 1969, the summer after the summer after the Summer of Love and during the year of San Diego’s bicentennial.

A 4.67 percent grade is the hill you climb driving from Coronado to San Diego: this is the ramp to the sky. The side railings are concrete blocks only 34 inches high — to present an unobstructed view. If you hit them they’re designed to let your car ride up a few inches and then let it slide down to the road again. Cars have gone over twice. One with three drunk sailors somehow jumped onto the railing, slid along it like a skateboarding trick, and then over into the water. Was there a moment, a second or two, when the car teetered on the railing while gravity decided which way it would fall — back to the roadway or into the bay?

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