Take ’em to the Bridge — Visiting the 6th Street Viaduct

On Sunday, my friend and frequent exploration companion Mike Morgan and I visited the newly opened 6th Street Viaduct — which replaces the old 6th Street Viaduct. The 6th Street Viaduct, also known as the 6th Street Bridge, is, as the name suggests, a viaduct bridge. For those that don’t know, a viaduct is a type of bridge supported by arches and columns. The primary purpose of this particular viaduct bridge is to span the Los Angeles River. In doing so, it connects the Arts District in Downtown Los Angeles with the industrial Russian Flats neighborhood below and Boyle Heights above, both on the Eastside. It also passes over Metrolink lines, Union Pacific freight rail lines, several streets, and a couple of interstate highways.

The 6th Street Viaduct as seen from the “corkscrew ramp”

Mike texted me in the morning inquiring whether I’d be interested in hiking to some abandoned tunnels in the San Gabriel Mountains or riding to the new bridge. I told him that my preference was for the latter, reasoning that the bridge had only opened a day earlier, on the 9th, and the tunnels have been there for eight or so decades and presumably aren’t going to change much in the near future. Neither of us knew that the official opening was a two-day affair. So we met at my place, rode along the scenic, soft bottom Glendale Narrows of the Los Angeles River, We passed through Elysian Valley and Lincoln Heights, and between Dogtown and Solano Canyon, into Chinatown, where we stopped for tea underneath a mural painted decades ago by the great Tyrus Wong.

Union Pacific trains and the Los Angeles River

We then rode on, past El Pueblo and Little Tokyo into the Arts District. When we arrived at the 6th Street Viaduct, we were both surprised to find a huge crowd of pedestrians and cyclists. It was closed to automobiles and guarded by police officers. An officer directed us to the bike lane and I started filming… and then I continued filming until we got to the other side.

The new bridge seemingly takes visual cues from the old bridge. The old bridge was designed by the great city engineer Merrill Butler and Louis Huot in a Late Deco and Streamline Moderne designed style. It was built by J.F. Knapp, Virginia Bridge & Iron Works, and Allen Bros. It was one of 127 bridges that cross the 77-kilometer-long Los Angeles River.

It was a popular filming location. It was prominently featured in the films I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), Them! (1954), Hot Rod Girl (1956), Point Blank (1967), That Man Bolt (1973), Freaky Friday (1976), Grease (1978), Blue Thunder (1983), Repo Man (1984), Savage Streets (1984), and To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), Gone in 60 Seconds (2000), Drive (2011); television episodes of Remington Steele (“Elegy in Steele”), Cagney & Lacey (“Heat”), L.A. Heat (“Little Saigon”), Columbo (“Columbo Likes the Nightlife”), the pilot of Melrose Place, On Cinema at the Cinema (“Decker”); and many music videos including Chicago‘s “Stay The Night.”

The San Gabriel Mountains as seen from the south side of the 6th Street Viaduct

It was added to the National Register of Historic Places around 1986. The high alkali concrete showed evidence of an alkali-silica reaction colloquially known as concrete rot that made it susceptible, apparently, to collapse — especially in the face of the region’s constant seismic instability. It was determined in one estimate that it had a 30% chance of surviving a major earthquake. It was demolished in 2016.

Plaques on the bridge

The new bridge was designed by architect Michael Maltzan and the HNTB Design-Build team. It was built by a partnership between Skanska and Stacy and Witbeck. When the construction process began, both sides of the river were represented by now-disgraced Los Angeles City Councilman José Huizar, who as a child rode his bicycle across the river to pick up issues of Rafu Shimpo from Little Tokyo and deliver them to Japanese readers in Boyle Heights.

The sidewalks are protected by a thick, concrete railing. On the other hand, the bicycle lanes are “protected” by rubber curb bumps. The excuse was that this was necessary to allow emergency vehicles to cross the bridge — an excuse was as flimsy as a row of plastic bollards. Automobile lanes currently occupy 70 feet of the bridge’s width.

An alternate lane configuration with a raised median, truly protected bike lanes, dedicated bus-only lanes, and narrower automobile lanes.

Cars could have four ten-foot wide lanes and still leave room for two eleven-foot wide dedicated bus-only lanes for Metro‘s 18 Line and emergency vehicles. That would still leave eight feet for a raised median that would remove the ability of drivers to do donuts on the bridge. But the bridge was not designed with bus lanes or truly protected bike lanes. Instead, automobiles were granted extra wide lanes, which will inevitably encourage reckless driving. And because there is no median, morons will make donuts. Accidents will happen and blame will be passed between bureaucracies, architects, engineers, and Huizar’s successor, Kevin de Leon.

Although the bridge was closed to automobiles until 16:00, police officers drove back and forth across the bridge barking without explanation at vendors and cyclists alike to crowd onto the already packed sidewalks. Nevertheless, cyclists and scooter riders including ourselves rode both in the bicycle lanes and automobile lanes.

Lowrider bicycles and cars waiting to cross the bridge

Flanking the bridge were lowriders. Milling around them were pachucos, cholas, and police officers. A cop busies himself breaking off the sharp ends of blue agave leaves and, catching me staring, gave me a nod. A cigar-smoking Anglo, walking past the many food carts and trucks asked the cop, “are there any restaurants around here?” The cop said he didn’t know. I worried that the cops, who were so clearly loathe to offer any helpful information to anyone, might prevent us without explanation from getting back on the bridge. We rode back on though… until we were once again yelled at by the cops to walk. A man behind us said, “Just ride. They can’t arrest us all.”

The “corkscrew ramp” with Downtown in the background
The park will be down here.

We coasted to features I decided, after discussion, would best be described as “corkscrew ramps.” We coasted down them toward the Flats and then road across a bridge to a corkscrew ramp on the other side. The slope was gentle enough that it wasn’t challenging in the slightest. The views were varied and interesting though — even though the park below was far from finished. We road back to the Arts District and I stopped to look at a plaque and the rail-less stairs. Surely those aren’t complete either.

Lowriders in the Arts District

Mike and I headed back to Silver Lake. We stopped at Hauser & Wirth for some art and beer. We stopped again in Echo Park for a bit of rest and another beer at the Short Stop. As we were getting ready to leave, my brother and some friends showed up so we stayed for another round. After we left, a reader named Hannah showed up. It was probably good that we didn’t stay any longer or we’d have been a bit wobbly on our bikes and missed dinner. I later found out that that night we missed the site of the bridge bathed in blue lights… but hopefully this bridge will be there for at least another eight or so decades.

Underneath the bridge, over the tracks

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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery.
Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesVICEHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture.
Brightwell has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson Collegeand the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles.

You can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagram, Mastodon, Medium, Mubithe StoryGraphand Twitter.

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