Saturday, March 15, 2014

Failing St. Bridge

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Here's a quick slideshow of the Failing St. pedestrian bridge over Interstate 5, in Northeast Portland. I admit I included this bridge mostly for the name, since it's not too photogenic on its own, and I don't usually bother with giving overpasses their own blog posts. It's named for Josiah Failing, a pioneer-era businessman and the 4th mayor of Portland in 1853-54. I could swear that when I was a kid, the freeway sign naming the bridge just called it "Failing Bridge". I could be misremembering that. There was also a "Failing School" in SW Portland at one point, a building that's now home to the local naturopathic college, and "Failing School" sounds at least as shady as "Failing Bridge". At least he's merited two more commemorations than another unfortunately-named early pioneer, one Stephen Coffin. (Poor Mr. Coffin doesn't even have his own Wikipedia article, I see. I'd be happy to write about him, but I can't do that until they name a park after him or put up a statue or something; them's the rules here, I'm afraid.)

Searching for info about the bridge returns a lot of fun random results thanks to the terms "failing" and "bridge" in the query, like Wikipedia's List of Bridge Failures. And, of course, the video of the original Tacoma Narrows Bridge doing its thing.

There's more to the story of this bridge than a funny name and random search results, however. A quarter century ago, this part of Portland was a very different place, and the Failing St. bridge was the center of an ugly controversy we'd be wise to remember in the rapidly gentrifying Portland of 2014.

Interstate 5 sliced through NE Portland in 1963, replacing the former Minnesota Avenue. (The previous link includes a photo of the Failing St. bridge in its original configuration.) Like other urban freeway projects of the era, it divided neighborhoods, cut residents off from parks and local businesses, lowered property values, and generally had a negative impact on existing parts of the city, all for the convenience of commuters from distant suburbs. The NE Portland stretch of I-5 was built with few overpasses; only certain major streets have them, and all other east-west streets dead end at the freeway. In the neighborhood around Failing St., I-5 became a neighborhood boundary, with the Overlook neighborhood to the west, and Boise to the east. No street nearby was busy enough to merit a full overpass, so the state just built this one little footbridge and called it good. After the freeway came the two divided neighborhoods went on very different trajectories.

By the late 1980s and early 90s, NE Portland, and the Boise neighborhood in particular, were synonymous with crime and poverty. The Overlook neighborhood, just across the freeway, was a significantly wealthier (and whiter) neighborhood, and Overlook residents came to see the bridge as a crime enabler. The theory was that criminals would skulk across from the Boise side, wreak havoc on the respectable side of I-5, and then flee back to safety over the bridge. The bridge was supposedly ideal for this sort of thing because criminals could run across it, and police were unable to give chase thanks to the whole pedestrian-only thing. I can't seem to find the original Oregonian stories from 1991 about this, which is odd, but I clearly remember the episode. The city bought the argument and padlocked the bridge, and it remained closed for the next seven years, despite ever-falling crime rates and creeping gentrification across the way in Boise. I-5 became Overlook's own Great Wall of China (or Berlin Wall, or West Bank separation barrier), keeping the "undesirables" out of their corner of the city. Although people could still go a few blocks north and cross the Skidmore St. overpass instead, so it's not like closing the one here would thwart a determined criminal.

The usual story is that the Failing St. bridge finally reopened thanks to the coming of the MAX Yellow Line, but that's not precisely true. Around 1999, the state transportation department wanted to modernize this stretch of I-5, and concluded that several overpasses (including this one) were too low to meet contemporary standards. The state wasn't keen to spend $300k raising a padlocked pedestrian bridge, so the city had a choice to make: Either renovate it, make it ADA-compliant, and reopen it; or demolish it. An April 1999 Oregonian story indicated the city was seriously considering bringing in the wrecking ball. They polled local public opinion, which (they said) ran narrowly in favor of reopening the bridge. A 3/31/1999 Willamette Week article pointed out that local opinion was strongly divided along the usual lines (east vs. west, black vs. white, rich vs. poor). Nevertheless, a month later the city announced it would do the work and reopen the bridge, in part due to the future light rail line being proposed for Interstate Avenue. (i.e. today's Yellow Line). Since the MAX line opened, gentrification has had its way with the neighborhoods on both sides of the freeway; if anything, Boise is now the hip and trendy (and increasingly Caucasian) side. Case in point, I took these photos while heading to the Overlook MAX stop from a trendy brewpub on Mississippi or Williams Avenue. There are several such brewpubs in the area, and I've forgotten which one it was.

For what it's worth, the overpass-raising operation was an interesting bit of engineering. The state elected to raise the existing overpasses instead of replacing them, I suppose because it was less expensive and disruptive to traffic that way. They pulled this off with an intricate system of computer-controlled hydraulic jacks, described in an article titled "Technical Marvel Raises Overpasses". Oh, and they did it at night, to further avoid impacting commuters.

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