Not since the Fremont Bridge was completed forty-two years ago has a bridge spanning the Willamette river been opened in Portland, until just this weekend when The Tilikum Crossing opened. It is the city’s first bridge of the 21st century, linking the southwest waterfront to one of the city’s industrial hubs on the east side. There were a few events in August and early this month highlighting the bridge’s opening, but last week, the celebration culminated in two long-awaited finales.
The First Light, on Thursday, exhibited an LED light system designed by Douglas Hollis and his deceased wife Ana Valentina Murch (RIP 2014). The system operates with automatic response to river conditions, changing color with water temperature, and with stream currents. The grand opening itself happened on Saturday. The bridge opened to the traffic it was built for: pedestrians, bicyclists, buses, and the new MAX light rail coined the Orange Line. There were parties, music, food, and exhibits at numerous stops, but I simply rode across on my bike that day, in between Time-Based Art Festival events. There and back, just once, taking in the views. People posed for selfies and traffic conductors wished good rides to all the cyclists.
It’s the longest bridge in the country that does not allow cars on deck.
Together, both events brought thousands to the bridge. On Thursday night, before the lights turned on, hundreds were camped out at Zidell Yards, a large lot of gravel between the base of the Ross Island Bridge and the Tilikum. I arrived at 8 pm, an hour before the lights would turn on. It was already dark. The infamous Salt and Straw line extended across the lot, perfectly straight for about fifty yards. It was crowded but sleepy in the dusk light.
I sat close to the water peacefully among so many people, most of us staring quietly at the dark outline of the new bridge, looking up the river towards the Hawthorne Bridge and beyond to where the river bends. The water up there was speckled with city lights, sinking reds and yellow darts, but in front of us was still mostly a patch of black. Then the lights came: yellow, green, blue and red played the river’s song across the fanned cables of the bridge. Actually, music was specially broadcast from All Classical 89.9 FM, it was John Adams’ Grand Pianola. Morgan Barnard performed the light show.
In a city where cranes increasingly mark the sky and any development is often met with dubious, even enraged responses, the pomp and circumstance surrounding this bridge was refreshing. It promotes an urban goal to connect people, provide transportation, and create public art space while incorporating awareness of the natural landscape into its design. This bridge is for everybody.