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June 08, 2005

Chrysopylae

It is an immense machine, weighing nearly nine hundred thousand tons. Almost a hundred thousand tons of that is steel, smelted in the hideously polluting Bethlehem Steel plant in Lackawanna, New York. It was built in an era of giant artificial atrocities: The Grand Coulee Dam, the Manhattan Project, southern Florida. It killed eleven workers during its construction. In a typical year, nearly twice that number of people use it to end their lives. It is an engine of environmental destruction. It sits in crucial endangered species habitat. Without it, the population of once-rural Marin County could not have quintupled since it was built. That growth prompted the drowning of miles of prime coho salmon stream for drinking water reservoirs. Only the emergence of environmental opposition prevented the giant machine from filling the county edge to edge with people. The world would almost certainly be a better place had it never been built.

And yet I love it, simply and without internal contradiction.

There are few things that prompt in my heart such uncomplicated adoration as this bridge. Certainly no other artifact of this size. Its massive outline, the fluted, geometric Art Deco bas-relief of its towers, the interplay of fractal fog and simple steel provoke in me a feeling that I fear is the closest to patriotism I will ever get. I can force myself to admire its close architectural and spiritual cousin, Hoover Dam, but only at the cost of a sour stomach. What is it about the Golden Gate Bridge that exempts it from my sanctimony? Perhaps it's the difference in function between bridges and dams: one blocks passage that was once allowed, the other allows it where once it was difficult.

Or perhaps it's the simple iconography. It stands in the public imagination (and mine) for the place I have adopted as my home. I first saw it when starting a new life free of old constraints. It represents passage past the end of my world, and yet is still a prosaic part of a typical commute.

I confess that on some days when I really should take the train to work, I will drive in just so that I can cross the Golden Gate Bridge on my way home. A stupid waste of fossil fuel for no good reason, but there you have it.

Posted by Chris Clarke at June 8, 2005 01:44 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:
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Comments

Sir:

I must strenuously object to your characterization. Driving for pleasure is not "a stupid waste of fossil fuel for no good reason."

I am offended.

CP

Posted by: carpundit at June 8, 2005 01:52 PM
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My brother.

A friend of mine lives in far northern Manhattan, just blocks from the George Washington Bridge. One summer night last year we wandered up to his roof after dinner, and I was just stunned. At its beauty, its elegance, the sheer size of the thing.

If I were ever to be accosted by a space alien, I remember thinking, and pressed into service to state humanity's case, I'd bring the LGM up here and say, "There you go. We did that."

Posted by: Angus at June 8, 2005 04:42 PM
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I too say -- a better reason to consume fossil fuel than most!

Posted by: dale at June 8, 2005 05:02 PM
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The whole time I lived out there I never once was on the bridge, never even saw it close up.

Posted by: Craig at June 9, 2005 09:54 PM
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