San Francisco's New Favorite Bridge

by Emily Marsh

Although the Bay Bridge opened six months before the Golden Gate Bridge, it is widely considered the lesser of the two. The Golden Gate's Art Deco design in striking international orange has made it a global icon, while its silver counterpart is a heavily used expressway connecting San Francisco with its industrial neighbor, Oakland. After 75 years of living in the shadows, yesterday the Bay Bridge came into the spotlight.

Source: Emily Marsh

At 9 p.m., the 1.8-mile western span of the bridge became the world's largest Light-Emitting Diode (LED) sculpture, covered top to bottom in "25,000 undulating white lights." Artist Leo Villareal's "The Bay Lights" installation is being lauded for its contribution to public art, its potential to increase tourism revenue and the competition it now poses to the Bay's more famous bridge.

Thousands of spectators watched the unveiling (if that term applies, since Villareal activated the lights from his laptop). The City of San Francisco expects 50 million viewers during the installation's two-year run.

"It's brilliant," remarked Karen Nemsick, whose office sits directly beneath the Bay Bridge at Pier 28, after viewing one of the artist's test runs. "It's without a doubt the most spectacular thing I've ever seen."

Despite the slow drizzle that began half an hour before the unveiling, viewers filled the nooks and crannies of the waterfront and its piers. Cruises and bayside restaurants were sold out weeks in advance as people clambered to ensure a perfect view. From the top floor of the Transamerica Pyramid, I felt the significance of everyone's eyes turned away from the Golden Gate toward its less glamorous companion.

Source: The Atlantic

The bridge's new lights slowly began moving in apparent rhythm with the surrounding fog and waves. While the city seemed eerily quiet, social media channels captured the applause. The event created a sense of community around this seldom acknowledged piece of infrastructure. The Bay Bridge became a living work of art that viewers could connect with, discuss and remember.

Equipping the bridge with an LED display also captures a meaningful element of San Francisco history and culture. The installation combines art, technology and innovation — all important drivers in shaping the city we know today.

In comparison with the Golden Gate's iconic tradition, "The Bay Lights" speaks poetically of more-contemporary realities. This is a San Francisco that builds upon its history of Gold Rush settlers, Angel Island immigrants, beatniks, hippies, activists and public servants, while at the same time celebrating the rejuvenating energy of current artists, innovators, investors and all the misfits in between.

Emily Marsh recently completed a master's degree in Urbanization and Development at the London School of Economics and lives in San Francisco. She's currently pursuing a career in urban governance and neighborhood revitalization.

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  1. Well done Em. You captured the event and the times perfectly!

    1. Thank you! Was watching it again tonight - it's amazing how it never repeats.

  2. beautiful. this reminds me of sound waves, and i like the way the movement seems to coincide with movement in the surrounding landscape. would love to see it partially enveloped in fog.

  3. Some related information from the New York Times article ... Cost of The Bay Lights: $8 million. Cost of Eliasson's The Waterfalls: $15 million. Cost of Christo's and J-C's The Gates: $21 million. Number of cars crossing the GG Bridge last year: 40 million. Number of cars crossing the Bay Bridge last year: 100 million. Estimated contribution of The Bay Lights project to local economy: $97 million.

    Although the exact sources of these numbers aren't given, it seems that The Bay Lights is making the bridge as beautiful and lucrative as it is essential to Bay Area mobility.

    At the same time, I can't help but feel a certain aversion to this giant spectacle when so many people around the world are struggling just to survive.

    It's true that public art like this can bring a sense of community and inspiration that's free for anyone to enjoy, but $8 million in donations for an innovative employment, public health or longterm infrastructure project could address more-urgent community needs and be, in my view, a lot more inspiring.

    I'm not against public art and spectacle, and I think it's important to make urban environments beautiful, but this example strikes me as excessive.

  4. My husband & I are coming from Missouri to Oakland to spend a week w/ friends see the sites of the San Fran area & wine country. Can't wait to experience & feel the wonder of what you've done with the Bay Bridge!!!!


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