The sign appeared only a week before, connecting the bus driver’s half-heard exclamation: they’re gonna close the bridge, yaknow! The highway sign spells it out in glowing block letters: STARTING 11/28 AIRPORT BRIDGE CLOSED. The four lanes of traffic push on like the ceaseless river it is, at least on weekday mornings when tired single people and their Starbucks cups stare steadfast ahead toward work. The driver’s tone is made clear by looking up the project’s website: closed for twelve to eighteen months. It’s bigger than I knew.
Airport Way, sidelined in the Interstate’s shadow, is a significant second-string north-south artery: downtown on one end and the county airport at the other. It wanders through the eastern part of Seattle’s industrial grit, including my neighborhood of Georgetown. The bridge crosses over a nest of rail lines and provides an important escape hatch when the Interstate is clogged. They make things here and big things that roar take it all somewhere else. It is concrete worn down by weight and tire chains, darkened still by dust and diesel soot, crossed on foot by men in Carhartt boots, all hardboiled city.
It has survived intact and unmodified from a color-drained era of overalls and men working steel in time to a steam whistle. The two approaches to the bridge deck are original from the 1920s: made from timbers like a railroad trestle with the roadbed laid on top. It’s unsafe from age, the city website says, and will be replaced with a modern, earthquake-proof structure of steel and rammed earth. There will be new railings and lampposts, it adds.
This must be an example of our dilapidated national infrastructure, though not so bad as so many underpinnings of a once-hale country. Here at least everything is straight, free of obvious rust and the swaying and creaking of too many bridges I’ve stood under. Hopefully this is proactivity on the city’s part, getting ahead of something before it’s all-but-falling-down like so many other things. Perhaps it’s obsolete in the way a computer is: nothing wrong with it, but just not good enough any more.
Old steel runs through it, old ideas of support and strength. Plenty of iron here, crossed over and tied together, each piece made solid by adding plates and riveting them together. Rivet heads the size of golf balls run every four inches. I imagine my grandfather working a bridge like this, but higher, looking down on a city not yet tall. Back then strength in building steel was new still. Cities experimented with up as the railroads snaked through and people watched black and white newsreels singing of American pride and might.
When old railbeds are turned to nature trails all that might is removed and then smoothed over more, the wide curves and broad shoulders turned dreamy slow and free of memory. No one hears the old whistles, feels the hot steam, sees the men’s coaled faces. Spandex women in new white shoes talk on phones or run behind baby strollers that look like they should be surveying Mars. But that is not this place. Here they work still, here is where the giants roll.
I take a last walk down the span. Not very high, the view looks only downtown and all around the great valley full of square-roofed industrial buildings, the Starbucks headquarters, a Sears, Costco. The cement plant sits like a science fiction prop with its round domes and cabled gantries, the glowing American flag atop one of its stacks lit as ever. The day is grey, coldish, nascent. Not much traffic. I can see the pavement is old.
My timing could have been better, having just moved here. There aren’t any better commute options where I can still ride the bus, and the subway is too far to walk. On Monday the bus swings left at the bridge approach and makes a long detour down to Fourth, then back up into the industrial heart before starting down again: another half-hour a day added. But the trains that can move their tons of freight on an ounce of gas have an unobstructed path. The country remains linked. The future is coming as it always is, always better, always a little farther off.
One day the bridge will be new and we will go across it thinking oh the nice new bridge is so nice. And we will do this over and over until it’s five years later and we realize the bridge is no longer brand new, but pretty new, so much better than without. Ten years on it will have merged into the landscape as natural and eternal; at twenty it has always been there. But someday there will come a time when those people will look at the rammed earth and the preformed concrete, shake their heads at the methods of the time, conduct some tests, make a decision. Our new bridge will be too old and the future will be coming again.
But this day is gray and the bridge is here and I am walking along it. Maybe that distant future will not need bridges, or, more likely, things will be such that this is the last new bridge there will ever be. Those future people will look at the rammed earth and the prefab concrete and marvel at our building. Maybe they will wonder how we could walk so far, on a surface so hard on the feet.