Sixth Street Bridge: The Last Day at the Bridge

The events of the final day on the bridge

There are certain days which come with excitement, and some approach with dread. And this day came with a great sense of both. Long had we been awaiting the final closure of traffic to the historic Sixth Street Bridge, and these were our few and precious final hours.

When I arrived at the viaduct the morning was already turning to bright noon. Without a hint of winter, the sun as strong and warm as a summer day.

The crew was already at the bridge, standing at Nowhere when I arrived. Along with them they had brought the silly plastic mascot of Boyle Henge, “Hedgie the Snowman.”

The bridge was already starting to buzz with photographers and news media. And people walking back and forth in order to capture a few final memories and connect with history. Many people coming out to pay their respects to this glorious landmark.

As we were standing there just communing with the bridge we were cheerfully approached by Merrill Butler III and his wife, he is the grandson of the designer and builder of the viaducts; including this very bridge here.

Merrill and his lovely wife spent a great deal of time hanging out on the bridge with us, and sharing their family stories regarding this place. It was a rare moment to receive and share some deep personal history. We also got to toss around ideas on how to preserve the history of this place.

One of his finest ideas on how to maintain our connection to the old bridge we all love so much, was when he personally suggested to the city planners that they preserve one of the original metal arches and some of the decorative light posts from the classic Sixth Street Bridge. For setting down in the area of a future park below the future bridge.

As we spoke you could actually see work crews all around us painting primer on the items which were being selected for later removal. For which he also noted that the two bridge dedication plaques had already been removed. The eastside plaque being stolen by vandals. Something which stings for Merrill, as his grandfather’s name was honored on that piece of the old landmark. While luckily the westside plaque was then removed for safe keeping, and is now kept in storage for future display.

[Also, it should be noted that he was totally amused to hear that it was our crew who were responsible for placing the photocopy of the plaque in its vacant spot after it was removed! He and his wife had noticed it when they passed by and were touched we remembered it.]

Merrill then explained how he is also going to be opening up his own art gallery in the Boyle Heights flats below, on the eastside of the river near Mission and Jessie streets. Re-purposing the buildings of old food and cold storage facilities which have recently called it quits. In an area where several notable and trendy art galleries have already opened up. [More about that later; as I hope to get to interview him soon and let him tell you in his words about his plans and vision.]

He also carefully listened to my concerns about how the vicinity of the bridge corridor in Boyle Heights is being carved apart for the new viaduct project, while in the end getting really none of the programmable cultural and artistic space which they had promised for both sides of the bridge, and thus far only delivering on the newly gentrified Art’s District side of this bridge project. And he offered us some great ideas for future programmable space, while making inspiring use of historically reclaimed materials as he does. And how to possibly attract interest in historic and cultural preservation here.

To say the least, the meeting was something which awed me both as local geek and as a historian! And also gave me a lot to think about, as I face these tides of community change and try to secure the best outcome for our homegrown eastsiders.

Now in the span of our hanging out the steady increase in the number of sightseers and brought out an unusually tense presence of the LAPD. Which at one point started to get all snappy with our crew for no reason, for which Merrill asked the cops to take it easy and leave us be because we were cool, before departing himself.

Though as the crowd grew it became clear that the police, which normally ignored this area and shirk at patrolling the top of this bridge, were today going to be relentless. As their sense of cautiousness became soured by their bitter resentment of being tasked with maintain order here.

Sadly, the repeating theme of the day was that of the police making a huge scene all for one person.

The following video I took about two hours before the sweep and posted to Facebook on a shaky mobile connection:

No doubt there was a party-like atmosphere to the entire afternoon and evening. And there most certainly was an ecstatic sense of festivity and also chaos. As a mass of locals and tourists descended on the entire viaduct.

The bridge became covered with a steady stream of car cruising and pedestrians. Taggers and photographers. Cars racing and spinning in the riverbed. The sky overhead constantly buzzing with helicopters.

And in these final evening rays spent at this most important spot to us, everything seemed to culminate into one overwhelming sense of how special this moment was. And also triggering this cruel sense of imminent loss and gnawing uncertainty for the future.

As the day turned to night, we continued to congregate. With each minute the excitement rising.

So how did it end? How did we end our final night on the bridge?

After all these years of dedication to maintaining our spot on the bridge and also being the fiercest demonstrators for the historical preservation of the viaduct, people wondered how we would walk away from this. I certainly know that most people expected me to chain myself to the bridge, refusing to leave.

In reality we ended up leaving the bridge just an hour and a half before the police sweep, of our own accord.

With crowds of people swarming in from both east and west, the atmosphere quickly became unruly. Sometime after sunset my parka jacket had caught on fire, a casualty of the ruckus of people and fire-spinning (don’t worry Chris, I patched it up buddy!). And still it seemed like nothing would put a damper on our closing night celebrations.

So it was a total shocker to me when in the middle of me doing some broadcast interviews, my friends picked-up from our spot and started walking back home towards the eastside. Startled to see them go, I quickly broke away and followed after them in concern.

When I caught up with them they explained that some westside hipsters started getting aggressive, with some outside revelers wanting to pick fights with them. Instead of resorting to violence, they had decided to leave.

So it was decided to regroup and grab more beer, and come back.

Though I was very reluctant to leave, I wanted us to be together for this last night. I began leaving the bridge while vowing to return when things had slowed down a bit. Wanting to have a more intimate farewell. Though it was clear to everyone that I was nervous this might actually be my last chance on the bridge.

As we walked back towards Boyle Heights, there was a sense of numb shock that came over me. And a painful grating felt inside caused by the rising sounds of both tense crowds and swarming police which rose from all round the viaduct.

And then for moment I stopped and took a moment to step back a few steps, and like Lot’s wife I looked back and stood their just paralyzed in my desperate attempt to take it all in one more time.

These are the final image taken from the bridge. One of my final moment of awe being captured by Zero. And the other, my last photo taken from the entrance of the bridge.

As we walked back home via Whittier Blvd my agitation grew, as something was very wrong at the bridge. I had never seen anything like it. And a few times I stopped and contemplated going back immediately.

Though by the time we arrived at the house, it was already all over the TV news. And people were messaging me to make sure that I was safe. Because something was already going down at the bridge.

It turned out that the crowds were stopping traffic on the bridge near the eastern set of the arches. The crowd was being asked to disperse by a police officer. At some point one police officer inexplicably grabs for the skateboard of a girl named Lydia. She grabs her skateboard and pulls it back to keep hold of it, with the officer lunging to grab it from her. She began to resist, and was taken down to the grown and arrested. All of which resulted in the crowd crying foul over this and groaning.

It was reported that the LAPD police officer felt threatened by the crowd and called for back-up. The backup arrive with the police coming in shoulder to shoulder, and both from the top and streets under the bridge, my local friends who did linger were dispersed by police holding the position of a skirmish line; brandishing batons and rifles.

The bridge was thus officially closed to all traffic at around 9pm on January 26th, 2016 by police in riot formation.

So I never did make it back to the top of the bridge to actually pay my final respects; something which left many unresolved feelings for me.

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