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So recently I thought I'd have a go at walking across the Morrison Bridge and back without dying. It's harder than you might think. Although the bridge is right in the center of town, in the midst of our little bike/pedestrian mini-semi-utopia, it's enormously hostile to bikes and pedestrians, and almost nobody uses it. Except cars, obviously.
Updated: The walkway on the south side of the bridge was redesigned & renovated in 2010, so if you're looking for practical info you'll want to check my "Morrison Bridge Revisited" post, and just regard the first part of this post as a record of how bad things used to be. The walkway on the north side of the bridge hasn't been touched so far, so the return leg of this adventure is still up to date.
Think of the last time you crossed the Morrison. You were in a car, right? Or if not a car, you were on a bus. Or you biked, but only in the sense that your bike was on the bus's bike rack until you were safely across the bridge. I bet you didn't walk, in any event. If you're like me it may have never occurred to you to try. It's not like you often see people doing it as you drive across, after all. There's a reason for that; it's not just because you're driving 55 on a metal grate in the pouring rain, nervously eyeing the semi the next lane over. Most of the time there really isn't anyone at all walking or riding across the bridge. Crossing on foot, you encounter a series of increasingly silly obstacles, one after another, and after a while you just want to start laughing when you meet up with the next one.
The first obstacle is figuring out where the hell to get on the bridge. Say you're downtown, and you feel like wandering over to Belmont for some shopping and general hipsterdom. You don't have bus fare, as you're trying to get into the proper hipster spirit, and therefore you're also too lazy to walk a few blocks south to the Hawthorne. Suddenly a light goes on, you have a crazy idea that just might work, so you walk to the corner of 2nd & Alder, where the eastbound ramp to the Morrison starts. But no luck here. There's a big "NO PEDESTRIAN ACCESS" sign, and a "no bikes" sign for good measure.
So the obvious choice is out. What you need to do is continue down the stubby remaining bit of Alder, and look for a flight of stairs going down. The stairs take you to a stretch of 1st reserved for MAX trains only. Look both ways (as it'd be a shame to die this early in the excursion), cross, and you'll see a sort of passage through the chain link fence that keeps the homeless from sleeping under the bridge. Go through that and you're in a parking lot, surrounded on three sides by the curved ramp from Naito to the Morrison. To your immediate right there's a flight of stairs going up to the ramp. Take those up to the sidewalk and you're on the bridge. You've passed the first test.
Come to think of it, the real obvious choice, as in, what a tourist without a map would try first, would be to find Morrison St. and follow it to the river. Only to discover there's no bridge there. Despite the name, the Morrison Bridge only connects to Morrison St. on the east side of the river. More in a bit on how this came about.
You'll notice a couple of things about the sidewalk pretty quickly. First, it's really narrow, with no buffer or barrier between you and the cars speeding by on the bridge. If you encounter someone coming the other way, one of you may have to stop and act small so the other can pass. Presumably the designers didn't think this would happen very much. Although it's also true the bridge was designed way back in the 60's, and people weren't quite as wide back then. The second thing you'll notice is that the sidewalk part of the bridge hasn't received regular, enthusiastic maintenance over the years, so some parts are on the uneven & crumbly side. A third thing you might notice is that everything is gray. The bridge is done in that gray bleak brutal concrete look everyone was mad for back in the 60's. I may never understand what they saw in this.
A couple things to check out on the way across: The airport control tower-style, uh, control towers -- there are two of them, one on each end of the lift span, but I read somewhere that they only use one of them. So possibly the other could be turned into a McMenamins or something. That might be fun. If you look closely at the west tower, there's plaque listing the Multnomah County commissioners, the county engineer, and the construction firms that built the bridge. I say "look closely" not because the plaque is small, it's actually pretty large but it's barely readable. If you want your name preserved for posterity, don't do it in dark brass letters inlaid into dark aggregate. Just sayin'.
If you want a less official, more human angle on the people who built the bridge, look at the bit where the two sides of the drawbridge mesh together. The two metal plates are covered with names, I assume of the guys who built the bridge.
With that, we've covered everything about the bridge that humanizes it even a little. So on we go. As you get to the far side of the river, auto traffic splits in a few directions. Left to right, there's a ramp from I-5 & I-84 onto the bridge; a viaduct carrying Morrison St. westbound onto the bridge; a ramp from the bridge onto I-5 North & I-84; a couple of lanes continuing on as Belmont St., which runs on a raised viaduct for a few more blocks before finally touching land at Grand Avenue; and a ramp sloping down to Water Avenue and the eastside industrial district. The last one is the direction you're headed. As a pedestrian, you have exactly two options, and going straight on Belmont isn't one of them. You can follow the ramp down to Water, or you can take the groovy spiral ramp down to the Eastbank Esplanade along the river.
I'm curious about the spiral ramp. What did it lead to back in '64 when the bridge went in? The present-day park only dates to 2001 or so, although there was a little-used asphalt path prior to that, which began at the Hawthorne Bridge and dead-ended at the Burnside.
Going to the Esplanade isn't the point of this trip, though, so let's move on.
Updated: As it turns out, there is one bridge-related tidbit down on the Esplanade. Remember how I mentioned that Morrison St. downtown doesn't lead to (or from) the bridge? Now you can see why. The previous Morrison Bridge from 1905 (and possibly the 1887 original as well) did link up to the right street. When it came time to build today's replacement, they decided to keep the old bridge in service while the new one was under construction next door. Which meant the new bridge had to connect with Washington & Alder instead. If you look at the seawall on the west bank, you can still see where the old bridge used to be. It's not much to look at, but it's there if you're really curious.
Anyway, you may not believe this, but you've gone as far as you can on the bridge going east. And there's a tricky bit with the Water Ave. ramp. For whatever reason, the traffic gods did not provide a sidewalk directly to Water. No, you go part of the way there, then you double back under the ramp you just came down, and cross a small muddy field to get to the street. Logical, no?
There's a huge staircase going back up to the bridge here. At this point you'll probably be thinking, hey, that random guy on the interwebs was lying, here's the way back up to Belmont. It's understandable. That's what I thought the first time around, but no. Go ahead, try it yourself, and you'll discover the surreal truth. The stairs just go to a triangular area with a bus stop. Once you're up top, there's nowhere you can walk to from there. It's an island, the Great Bus Stop in the Sky. You can either catch an eastbound bus, or take the stairs back down. Those are your only options. It boggles the mind that someone would design a thing like this, but there ya go. It seems kind of glib to blame it all on the 60's, but I don't have any other explanation to offer you.
But regardless, you've reached terra firma on the east side of the river, so we can declare Mission Accomplished for this leg of the journey. Now it's time for the return trip.
To get to the westbound side of the bridge, you'll need to wander through the Central Eastside industrial district and make your way to the corner of Morrison & Grand. It's not as bad or as scary as it sounds. The area's not especially attractive, but there are a few hip restaurants and shops scattered around among the usual light-industrial stuff. The area used to be designated an "industrial sanctuary", but I gather the city has it marked for gentrification now. They've realized our future does not lie in making things, or even in distributing things other people made, but in bowing and scraping and catering to every merest whim of those infamous "rich Californian empty-nesters" we keep hearing about. In a few years, this part of town will even have its own streetcar, if Sam Adams gets his way. So when the Morrison Bridge sidewalk puts you on an offramp while you're still over the river, and dumps you off at the very first street, it really won't be so bad. That is, unless pompous rich twits make you physically ill, which would be entirely understandable.
In the meantime, it's kind of a fascinating area to wander around. So do that for a while, if you like, and make it to Grand & Morrison when you get around to it.
At Grand & Morrison, we have the only one of the bridge ramps that's where it ought to be. It's merely narrow and uninviting, but hey, you should be used to that by now. Unlike the eastbound side, the sidewalk stretches the whole length of the viaduct. Well, with a couple of brief exceptions we'll get to in a moment. But first, take a minute and enjoy the odd view. Despite being on a raised viaduct, you're in a sort of canyon formed by the upper stories of old industrial buildings, some with elaborate decorations, at least elaborate by warehouse standards.
After a few blocks of this, you reach a point where a ramp to I-5 North veers off to the right. And the sidewalk ends. You can't just cross the street, at least not easily or legally, because there's a concrete barrier in the way. Instead, you're supposed to take the flight of stairs in front of you. It's a pedestrian underpass, another of those weird 60's things they don't do anymore. It doesn't go all the way to the ground, just down enough to cross under the ramp to I-5. As is the case with pedestrian underpasses everywhere, this one is usually full of garbage, along with the occasional homeless person. The usual Portland strategy of not making eye contact and acting like the other person doesn't exist may be useful here.
You might have realized by now that most of the bridge's problems stem from trying to work around assorted freeway ramps. Freeway ramps and pedestrians don't mix too well, and the 60's answer was always to shunt everyone except cars off onto skybridges, underpasses, tunnels under the street, it didn't matter too much where you put the pedestrians just so long as they didn't impede car traffic. Combine that with 60's architects' unique flair for making everything they touched look scary and forbidding, and you have a bridge that scares off all but the most determined users. Back then they must've figured that walking was on its last legs, so to speak, and in a few years nobody would do it at all. I think they figured by 1980 or so we'd all get around using atomic jetpacks and personal helicopters and supersonic monorails and moon shuttles and whatnot, eating nothing but vitamin pellets, and living in domed cities under the sea. So it's 2008 now and I'm still waiting for my freakin' atomic jetpack.
The underpass looks like a great place to get mugged or worse. It may be a good thing that the rest of the bridge is so user-hostile, that way there isn't enough foot traffic to make it a very profitable place to be a mugger. Like most businesses, mugging is all about location, location, location.
Once you pop back up to bridge level, a little bit further west there's another set of stairs. These are optional, though, and go all the way down to street level. You'll notice there's a bus stop sign here. This is the westbound equivalent of the Bus Stop in the Sky. I thought about taking these stairs, just so I could say I'd covered the whole thing, but I could see there were a couple of sketchy-looking characters on a landing below, and they seemed to be aware I was there, and I was carrying an expensive camera. So I haven't yet had the full stair experience, I admit. But I'm not certain I've missed anything really crucial here. It's not like there's a shortage of stairs along the Morrison. Hell, the thing's got more stairs than an Escher drawing. It borders on nutty, and goes wayyy beyond non-ADA-compliant.
Speaking of stairs, pretty soon you'll come to yet another set of them, and they're "compulsory" again this time. Time for another underpass, this one for the ramp from I-5 onto the Morrison. I could see, and smell, that someone was sleeping (or passed out, or otherwise incapacitated) down below, so I just jogged across the ramp to the other side when no cars were coming. Which isn't legal, technically, or safe, technically, and Legal says I can't actually advise you to do this, but it's what I did. It's not that I'm afraid of homeless people, exactly; it's just that it felt like I'd be wandering uninvited through someone's living room. With a camera.
This second underpass is kind of a puzzle. It passes right over the Esplanade, sort of the westbound equivalent to the spiral ramp I mentioned earlier. Yet like the other underpass it doesn't connect to the ground. It's almost close enough that you could jump down or climb up if you were really determined to, but there aren't any stairs. When they gussied up the rest of the Esplanade a few years ago, they conspicuously did not put in any stairs here. I'm sure they had their reasons, probably either money or ADA compliance I'd guess, but the effect is quite odd.
Updated: A user comment below explains the missing stairs/ramp here. Basically it's that the Esplanade is all shiny and new and tourist-friendly, and the north sidewalk of the Morrison is anything but, so the Powers That Be did this to keep the riffraff off the Esplanade. It's the proverbial class divide given literal, physical form. The Esplanade is for Us, and the north sidewalk is for Them (i.e. the shrieking hordes of the urban poor), and never the twain shall meet. It's possible, in theory, that They could still hang out on the underpass and beg passing joggers to toss up some spare change, but it's extremely noisy under the bridge, and I doubt the joggers could hear them. This is about the most stereotypically Portland "solution" to a problem I've seen in a long time. It did actually occur to me at the time that this might be the reason, but then I figured I was being too cynical and crabby. Apparently not, as it turns out.
It was at about this point that a bike passed me. It was surprising enough just to encounter another living (and nonmotorized) soul on the bridge, but she was riding in traffic. Including traffic flying onto the bridge direct from the interstate. Holy shit. And I though I was nuts just for taking the freakin' sidewalk. Oh, and on top of being nuts, technically it's illegal too, as pointed out by stern signs on all the bridge ramps. But cracking down on cyclists, even foolhardy ones, is a political nonstarter here in Portland, so you just might be able to get away with it, if you're lucky enough, and crazy enough. The worrywarts at Legal say I can't encourage you to try this, even if I wanted to, which I don't. You're on a bike. Ride to the Hawthorne or the Burnside and use it instead. At least until they fix the Morrison (see below).
In any case, once you're past the second underpass crossing the river itself is pretty uneventful. There aren't even any control towers on this side to break up the monotony. You can read the other half of the workers' signatures in the middle of the bridge, but that's about it.
But the Morrison has one more delightful obstacle in store for you. Remember how you got on the bridge in the first place? This time it's the same thing in reverse. The inevitable flight of stairs dumps you into the inevitable parking lot, with the inevitable chain link tunnel. You scuttle through the tunnel and over the MAX tracks (looking both ways, as it'd be a shame to die this close to being done.) And then... you're home free. You've made it, o conquering hero. And lucky you, Kells is just a couple blocks north on 2nd, and now would be a great time for a Guinness.
After the adventure was over, I thought I'd scan the interwebs and look for accounts by other brave urban explorers, or any other interesting scraps and tidbits I could find:
- Khris Soden has an amusing account that I kind of wish I'd read before setting out.
- The Mercury rhapsodizes about the delights of the bridge's underpasses, although it's, uh, possible they might be joking.
- Lelo explains the bridge pretty well with Morrison Bridge Causes Stupidity & Attracts Stupidity"
- A short description at the Zinester's Guide echoes the usual complaints about the bridge.
- A 2004 Indymedia story about a pedestrian crushed by an SUV on the bridge. I'm glad I didn't read this one before setting out.
- A Flickr photoset from PDX Pipeline.
- Oh, and the photos you see here are just a small portion of my Morrison Bridge photoset on Flickr.
- The Deuce of Clubs has a page about walking the bridge. With a bust of Wagner (I think).
So how is it possible that something this crazy persisted into the 21st century? Why haven't they fixed it? As it turns out, they're finally going to do just that, starting in just a couple of months. In June 2008, the city plans to redo the south-side pedestrian amenities, widening the sidewalk and putting in dedicated bike lanes. The unusual thing is that there'll be bike lanes for both directions on the south side of the bridge. Seems they considered several options: Redoing the south side, redoing the north side, and even running bikes & pedestrians down the center of the bridge. The center option turned out to be unworkable, and the north side would've involved redoing the underpasses, which would apparently cost too much. So south side it is. I think this will be similar to the temporary arrangement they did some years ago while the Hawthorne was closed for renovations. One interesting part about the plan is that there'll be a dedicated "wrong way" bike lane, carrying westbound bike traffic on the eastbound side of the bridge, ending up on Alder St. downtown, which is also one way eastbound. Somewhere among the plan documents there's an elaborate schematic explaining how traffic flow ought to work, in theory, with arrows going every which way and a large "bike box" they hope drivers will comprehend and perhaps even respect. So maybe that'll work out just great, or maybe we're just moving the traffic hazards off the bridge itself and onto city streets. I suppose we'll find out fairly soon, won't we? At least the Morrison's better to walk across than the Ross Island Bridge. Now that is a godawful scary bridge. But that's a whole other story.