Nothing reveals the character of a city more than the way it opens a present.
California saw as much this summer, as our two most distinguished municipalities—Los Angeles and San Francisco—each tore the wrapping paper off a beautiful civic gift.
In the process, they demonstrated how, in spite of the similarities in their progressive politics and obscene wealth, these capitals of Northern and Southern California remain very different places.
Comparisons are instructive because the civic gifts in question are so similar. L.A.’s new Sixth Street Viaduct and San Francisco’s new Presidio Tunnel Tops are both expensive new public spaces that double as bridges and as spectacles, offering signature views of the cities themselves.
L.A.’s new $588 million bridge, paid for with public money, opened first, on the second weekend of July. And it opened hot—too hot. The city was unprepared for the hordes that would descend on this beauty of a bridge, with its unmatched views of the skyline and its “Ribbon of Light” design. Sixth Street is billed as the largest bridge project in L.A. history, and a replacement for a 1932 span that posed too much of an earthquake hazard to be saved.
But the bridge’s massive opening triggered another L.A. danger: the city’s tendency to let its fear gain too much sway. Authorities panicked whenever Angelenos arrived to do what Angelenos do with any new piece of transportation infrastructure—test its limits.
Moped racers did wheelies on the bridge. Groups of truck drivers and bicyclists swarmed, taking over the bridge for brief periods. Taggers added graffiti, and climbers went up the bridge’s steep arches. The response was all too L.A. The authorities, citing “illegal activity” and “unruly crowds,” wound up closing the bridge, repeatedly—four times in one five-day period. And the city announced structural changes to the viaduct—fences to deter climbers, speed bumps to slow down street racers.
In the media, local and national, this inspired another round of the tired tsk-tsking and senseless self-flagellation about the inability of us Angelenos to govern ourselves or behave with any sort of decorum.
C’mon. Our collective lack of decorum is why—as Randy Newman sang—we love it!
That didn’t stop holier-than-thou types in civic life from spewing clichéd nonsense about the supposed crisis of Sixth Street. City Councilmember Kevin De León suggested that Angelenos were overly excited because, he claims, we lack accessible public spaces—which is self-pitying nonsense in a metropolis full of fantastic gathering spots. The L.A. Times editorialized that the bridge, built as a transportation connector between Boyle Heights and downtown, be closed to vehicle traffic. What’s next—closing Dodger Stadium after eight innings because closing pitcher Craig Kimbrel keeps making a mess of the ninth?
A week after the L.A. bridge opening, and 400 miles north, the $118 million Presidio Tunnel Tops, paid for with private donations, opened to the public. It’s essentially a park that’s also a pedestrian bridge over Presidio Parkway, a road taking drivers to the nearby Golden Gate Bridge. More than two decades in the making, Tunnel Tops connects the Main Post section of the Presidio, the military base-turned-national recreation area, to Crissy Field and the beach below.
Tunnel Tops is cool, and not just because of San Francisco’s winds and mild temperatures. It’s got magnificent views of the famous bridge and the skyline, green meadows for picnicking and napping and kite-flying, gardens of native plants, public art, a pretty Field Station building for kids’ science lessons, and an innovative children’s playground called the Outpost.
John King, the San Francisco Chronicle’s brilliant urban design critic, knocked it for lacking a “sense of arrival,” and for broad walking paths and concrete slopes that suggest “crowd control and maintenance needs won out over design intent.” But given what happened in L.A., designing for crowd control seems prescient.
The park is an instant success. On its opening weekend, San Franciscans enthusiastically entered Tunnel Tops even before it was officially open, and crowds were immense. But there were no reports of dangerous incidents, and there was no security crackdown. San Francisco played its new bridge as cool as Los Angeles played its new span hot.
This summer, your columnist has visited and enjoyed each of these new public spaces. Police closures foiled my first three attempts to cross the Sixth Street Bridge. But when I finally made it out there, I felt comfortable and safe. A few passing motorbikes did tricks, but police didn’t stop them. They also didn’t stop pedestrians (your columnist included) when we raced across the traffic and bike lanes to check out different views. My only complaint was the lack of places to sit down. But that should be addressed, in part, as soon as next year, when Los Angeles is scheduled to build a new park under the viaduct.
My visits to Presidio Tunnel Tops were quieter than Sixth Street despite the presence of even more people. The first time, I spent an hour just lounging around on the grass, and in chairs that are set up around the park, enjoying the bridge and city views.
Then I got up to explore the new facility. At one point, in my wandering, I stepped over a low rope to check out some of the plantings in one garden. Within seconds, two people—not security guards, just local folks out enjoying the park—called out, “Sir, please don’t walk around the plants. We’re not supposed to do that.”
I quickly retreated, and then apologized—explaining that I’m from Los Angeles, and don’t know any better.
This article was originally published on Zócalo.