Ten Years Later: 35W Bridge Collapse and the Sudden Visibility of Infrastructure

[Hurdling the guardrail.]
Ten years ago, this blog was in purgatory. I'd unplugged from writing very much about anything about Twin Cities' urban design, and had just begun graduate school in Geography to study seriously some of the fundamental dynamics of cities and street life.  I wasn't really that interested in continuing to blab on the internet, and for good reason, because blogging is probably not the best use of anyone's time.

But then some gusset plates snapped, and the bridge fell into the river down the street.

The fantastic failure of a basic piece of Minneapolis' built environment re-captured my attention, focusing it particularly on how we take our infrastructure for granted. That something so massive and seemingly permanent could disappear in an instant -- and also that life and traffic would go on -- illustrated how temporary and fragile our cities really are.

Here's my blogpost from ten years ago, reprinted. Oddly, moments like this are both unforgettable and they aren't. In a way, we must forget incidents like this, where the regular order of the city fails spectacular. We go on as if nothing like this had ever happened, resuming our frenetic lives.

But it's worth pausing and remembering that all the infrastructure around us is material, fallible, and human. At least for a day or two, don't take your bridges for granted.

Interstate Bridge of the Week: 35W Mississippi River Bridge

[The view from the River Road, biking toward the collapse on 8/1/07]
This week's Interstate Bridge of the Week is the 35W Mississippi River Bridge near the West Bank/U of M/Metrodome area of downtown Minneapolis. It collapsed today into the river, and obviously it's a terrible tragedy in which many people lost lives or were horribly injured. My friend called me from the area five minutes after it happened, and I biked down to the U of MN campus to see what was happening.

I was living in Brooklyn during 9/11, and what happened in the Twin Cities today was a lot like New York six years ago: so many people stopped what they were doing, people called their friends and family on the phone, and crowds gathered around television sets to watch, comment on, and share the experience.

But at the same time it strikes me that there are a host of differences between the two events. The most important is that, unlike 9/11 or the San Francisco earthquake, there was nothing in particular that caused this collapse. It just happened, like entropy, or spontaneous combustion. The bridge reached a tipping point where it could no longer support the collective weight of steel, concrete, and cars, and its commuters suffered the consequences.

We should all be truly shocked that this was just a case of bad engineering. From what I've heard on MPR tonight (in a great bit of internet research by someone named Aarsanden Totten (?)), this bridge was a unique bit of engineering lacking the structural 'redundancy' that serves as a crucial backup in case the primary support fails. It might have been rust, or even one too many potholes on the bridge's surface, but in all likelihood this is a case of cutting one too many corners, either in the bridge's construction or its later maintenance. (Let me point out that the WTC collapse was in no small part due to the unique structural supports of the building. The outside of the building held it up, allowing more office space to occupy the interior, just as this bridge was uniquely built to allow an uninterrupted span to cross the Mississippi. Is this technological progress? Ingenuity?)

It makes you think about all the common infrastructure that we share, all the freeways, power lines, satellites, buildings, and sewers... all the the police, firefighters, and hospitals that we all count on whether we know it or not. This is not to mention the flows from farms and factories that provide everything we eat and use. We even rely on the media -- those bastardized televisions, radios, and cell phones that we use every day -- to let us know what's happening in our cities and countries, and throughout the world. So much relies on so much steel, sand, and stone.

But of course we forget. People think when they slam shut their car door, flip on the A/C, and crank up KS95 that they're invulnerable. We think that our walls are solid, and that homes are ours and ours alone. We believe that bootstraps are the only things holding us up, but we forget that cars are just as reliant on public infrastructure as everything else, as trains or buses or electric sockets. In fact, this country has pumped trillions of dollars during the last 50 years into building a vast, vast network of highways, bridges, and concrete overpasses. We've spent more money on highways in this country than on any other public works project (unless you call the military budget a public work), but it's the kind of thing that's easy to forget about until something reminds us that somewhere, at some point, some guy under a fluorescent light designed everything we take for granted.

No, the real story today is that we've been reminded that we're all in this together. The reporter on MPR right now is explaining that she's most surprised by all the people, and their collective response to the crisis. "The people the just keep coming and coming and coming", she says, "trying to see if for themselves" and "standing in groups, talking to each other." Yes, its a shock in the U.S.A. to share a collective experience, to join a group of your neighbors and witness the world around you. We demand a spectacle, like fireworks, football, or a good war parade.

When I went past the old bicycle bridge at the University of Minnesota (just South of the scene) I found it covered with people, and most of them were there because they knew they were part of a community. It could have been them in those cars, and if there had been any way to help out, somehow, they would have. For a moment, we were all in this together, and it reminded me of Manhattan in 2001 where, just like today, I was able to stop and talk to complete strangers about the world around me. (Hell, Channel 4 just interviewed a Hispanic family who was involved in the accident. It's probably the first time they've interviewed a Hispanic family all year. "They drive cars too?")

It's a cliche to say so, but it is times like this we pull together as Minnesotans, as Americans, and as people. Only it's sad that it takes a fucking tragedy to realize that we're not all atomized individuals, and that we all depend on each other all of the time. For some reason when something like this happens, I only wish that we could muster one tenth of this kind of engagement during our everyday lives. I wish that the radios, televisions, and newspapers would carry more stories about cuts to the transportation budget or layoffs at the Hennepin County Medical Center, and more importantly, I wish people would read and care about these stories. I wish that people all over the state, no matter where they live, would realize that the schools in Minneapolis or Baghdad matter just as much as the price of gas or property taxes, and that democracy might be more important than Kevin Garnett. Today we've seen the news doing what it does best, and really making a difference. But maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but someday, soon, and for the rest of our lives we'll go back to reading about Paris Hilton above the fold and caring about our checkbook more than our neighbor. And that, as much as the obvious destruction, is why I find times like today so sad... so sad, and at the same time, strangely hopeful.

[Traffic next to the 35W bridge collapse.]

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