The 6th Street Viaduct’s Very Weird Debut Begs Questions About Its Future

Cityside Column: Despite some dangerous antics and errant ideas, the city has a wonderful new attraction
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On the morning of July 11, after a weekend celebration of the $588 million project, the first weekday commuters began traveling across the stunning new Sixth Street Viaduct replacement

What happened next instantly became an L.A. legend. While no one could have predicted the chaos that would transpire, it somehow also seems that few people are really shocked. The spate of antics tailored for Instagram and TikTok seems to have been greeted with a mindset of, “Yeah, that’s what happens in L.A.” We’re surprised, but in retrospect, the more surprising thing might have been if Angelenos didn’t find all manner of sometimes benign and creative—and in some cases, dangerous and downright stupid—ways to respond to and interact with the shiny new bridge that connects Boyle Heights and the Arts District.

The half-mile-long civic effort has experienced the weirdest first month of any architectural landmark ever built in Los Angeles. There have been unanticipated effects from new projects in the recent past. After the Walt Disney Concert Hall opened in 2003, for example, work crews had to dull some of the gleaming steel panels because they were reflecting light into nearby apartments and broiling residents. But no one attempted to skateboard down the sail-like Frank Gehry structure.

That has happened on the new bridge, as death-driven daredevils are drawn to the 20 brand new curving arches that grace its 3,500-foot span. And that’s just the start—others climbed up the arches, apparently not worried about the risk of splattering on the train tracks or plummeting to the riverbed below. Motorists have pulled over in the middle of the bridge (a clear no-stopping zone) to snap selfies, at times with crash-tastic results. And the vehicular met the follicular when a barber set up a chair in the middle of traffic to give a cut. Although this brazen, dangerous stunt may have crushed it on social media, it’s frightening to think what could have occurred if this guy’s customer also got clipped by a distracted driver.

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Media outlets from far beyond the Southland have chronicled the chicanery. Coverage includes the multiple street takeovers that—again—drew social media hits, as well as the attention of the Los Angeles Police Department, which would react by shuttering the bridge several times in its first few weeks—though it appears bridge shenanigans have calmed recently. And repeatedly, the bridge has been tagged by graffiti artists, prompting the allocation of hundreds of thousands of city dollars for its removal.

Nevertheless, there have been deserved criticisms of the project, including the fact that a line of plastic bollards provided limited protection for bicyclists. Despite this, all the hubbub has sparked a few questions: For one, does Los Angeles deserve nice things? Secondly, should the bridge be closed to traffic and turned into the L.A. equivalent of New York’s High Line, the nearly 1.5-mile-long elevated linear park and greenway developed from a disused railroad spur?

Of course, Los Angeles does deserve nice things. This project, a replacement of a 1932 bridge that had become seismically unsound, is an inspiration for civic projects to come. I saw the viaduct again on Thursday afternoon, and as I turned from Boyle Avenue onto Whittier Boulevard, even though I was alone in the car, the design by Michael Maltzan and architecture firm HNTB sparked an instinctual and vocal “Wow!” It was 94 degrees outside, the span was bereft of people except for a couple of shirtless joggers, and the road was scotched with skid marks. Still, it was a scintillating drive past the arches, with the downtown skyline in the distance.

It’s absolutely fitting for modern Los Angeles, and the viaduct checks all the physical and symbolic boxes one wants in a bridge—the aforementioned stunning scope, a tying together of the new and the old—historic Boyle Heights and the increasingly hip Arts District—and so on. It will only get better when, hopefully, next year, a pair of parks open—a 12-acre attraction on the Boyle Heights side will provide soccer fields, river access, shady spaces and more. The Downtown portion will see the building of an art park.

All the initial noodling and unexpected shenanigans this summer have sparked some people to suggest that the bridge be closed to vehicles and given over to pedestrians and bicyclists. After all, Downtown and Boyle Heights survived just fine in the six years after the old span was demolished. There is an undeniable appeal in the concept—a way to make this nice thing even nicer.

It’s also a bonkers idea. You don’t change the very use of a half-billion-dollar-plus project because the debut didn’t go perfectly—a better option is to fix the problems: provide better protection for bicyclists and create more lanes for them on adjacent streets on both sides of the river; and sadly, install protections so knuckleheads stop ascending the arches whether on foot or wheels. While no one, including the LAPD, wants a heavy police presence, some type of security deterrent may be required at certain times to prevent takeovers and drag racing.

Do this right, and the viaduct emerges as a safe space as well as a Hollywood sign-like icon. Do it wrong, and someone is plunging to their death, after which there will be copious complaints about why didn’t the city do more to protect people.

There’s another reason not to close the Sixth Street Viaduct to traffic: Make it pedestrian-only and it instantly becomes a tourist attraction. While it may not initially be thronged like the Gothic-style Karluv Most (Charles Bridge) in Prague, the crowds will come—and so will a bevy of pricey bars, restaurants, and hotels on both sides of the river. While this will boost tax coffers, create jobs and augment the change happening in hip DTLA, it’s also a surefire way to turbo-charge gentrification in Boyle Heights, a community where new art galleries and cafes have already sparked disputes and concerns of displacement.

There is, ideally, a middle ground. The bridge can be closed to traffic occasionally and at appropriate times, whether as part of the wonderful CicLAvia events or on its own. The opening weekend shows that it can hold bands and be the site of community celebrations—existing as both a bridge and a lure.

Now, Los Angeles and its new landmark just need to figure out how to live together. If that takes more than a month, so be it.

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