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Whatever happens with memorial garden, don’t hide all of the I-35W bridge wreckage

Wreckage from the bridge still sits in the Bohemian Flats area on the Mississippi's West Bank.
Photo by Karl Pearson-Cater
Wreckage from the bridge still sits in the Bohemian Flats area on the Mississippi’s West Bank.

Rather than hide the twisted wreckage of the fallen Interstate Hwy. 35W bridge in a remote suburban storage yard, as the Pawlenty administration apparently intends to do, a portion of the debris should be resurrected as a sculpture not only to memorialize the tragedy’s victims but to remind everyone that there’s a terrible price to pay when government skimps on the basics.

My nomination for locating this stark piece of public art is an empty lot at the north end of the bridge, at University and 10th Avenue S.E. Everyone crossing the new bridge could see a remnant of the old one. No one could forget the horrible events of August 1, 2007, or the heroic rescue of survivors, or the absolute shock that such a thing could happen in a supposedly advanced country. And no one could fail to see the consequences of neglecting basic infrastructure, a topic too boring for most people to care about. (Tax cuts and memory loss carry greater appeal.)

OK, that’s my personal rant and admittedly political response to last week’s news that MnDOT will soon cut up and transport the pieces of bridge wreckage from its fenced-off resting place at Bohemian Flats on the West Bank to a site in Afton. It’s good to hear that the scattered remnants will soon be gone from the riverbank and some sense of normalcy restored.

Yet, transporting all of the wreckage “out of sight, out of mind” satisfies an opposite political impulse, one that suggests that the bridge collapse was just a random act of fate, a “natural disaster” best forgotten. Any governor with an eye on the White House, for example, might try extra hard to get the bridge pieces crated up and carted away to a remote hiding place. All those memories would be systematically disremembered: no recollection of badly designed gusset plates and buckled chords, of inadequate inspections and postponed repairs, of a MnDOT politicized by an unprofessional (at the time) commissioner, of repeated opposition to raising the revenue required for bridge repairs.

Memorial garden may move across the street
Actually, plans are under way for a fitting memorial that will satisfy neither my view nor the opposite side but rather the wishes of those most personally and sensitively involved: the families and friends who lost loved ones on that terrible day.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak has been quietly working with the city’s Park Board, MnDOT officials and the families of victims to shift focus from a memorial garden within Gold Medal Park to a site across West River Road near 11th Avenue South. Lease arrangements for the privately built Gold Medal Park next to the Guthrie Theater don’t guarantee that it will be a park in perpetuity, so a new site for the memorial garden — this time on Park Board property — seems like a good idea, especially if extra money is raised to maintain it at a higher level than ordinary park property.

A cyclist on 11th Street South heads toward the area across West River Road where a memorial garden may be sited.
MinnPost photo by Steve Berg
A cyclist on 11th Street South heads toward the area across West River Road where a memorial garden may be sited.

Mayor and designer respectful of families
Specifics could be announced as early as next week. The new site, if officially selected, may lend itself to a more linear design with an overlook of the river and the new bridge. Tom Oslund, principal of the Minneapolis landscape architecture firm Oslund and Associates, will design the memorial. He declined to comment on the new design or the new site until there’s consensus among the survivors’ families.

“It’s easy to get caught up in these events and forget the human emotion involved,” Oslund said. “I want to be extremely respectful of the people who have gone through this at a level that the rest of us can’t really know about. Those people are still healing; the scars are still raw.”

Oslund said he’s not interested in using any of the bridge wreckage as a component of the new memorial project.

At the old Gold Medal Park site, Oslund’s plan called for a garden with 13 pillars, each representing one of the eight men and five women who died when the bridge fell. Oslund has a reputation for sensitive design. His recent work includes Gold Medal Park and Target Plaza, the entryway to the Twins’ new ballpark.

Mayor Rybak also declined to comment on the memorial project. His spokesman John Stiles said the mayor’s first priority is to respect the wishes and feelings of the families involved.

My point is not to disrespect the wishes of families who lost loved ones but to suggest that the wider public also has an interest in remembering that terrible day and learning from it.

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Chris Steller on 08/23/2010 - 10:34 am.

    Good point about keeping some of the old bridge pieces on view. I’m not sure drivers crossing the new bridge would be able to see a piece of girder-art on that lot at 10th and University though. They would on an alternative site like where the upright waveform sculptures (also by Oslund) now stand, in the middle of the new bridge, but that’d be a little too in-your-face. Another idea: the new bridge is built to accommodate little overlook plazas at the bases of its piers … that would be more out of the way but a river-level sculpture might complement the planned blufftop memorial.

  2. Submitted by Rod Loper on 08/23/2010 - 01:28 pm.

    I think any memorial would include an inscription
    recalling the tax- averse philosophy of the government responsible for maintaining our bridges
    at the time of this tragedy.

  3. Submitted by donald maxwell on 08/23/2010 - 03:26 pm.

    It may be that the wishes of survivors should be a major factor in design of a memorial, but there should also be, somewhere in sight of that new bridge, a reminder that the tragedy of the bridge was preventable.

    A location at the pier bases, as suggested by Chris Steller, seems appropriate, even though it would be relatively rarely seen.

    No doubt the request to retain some wreckage as a reminder will be pronounced by someone to be a political act. My answer to that is that the removal of the wreckage is in fact also a political act.

  4. Submitted by Sally Todd on 08/23/2010 - 06:06 pm.

    I would suggest a commission for a piece of girder art to be located in front of the Transportation Building on the Capitol Mall in St. Paul, because at least some of the people who work in that building are those who need to remember the consequences of cutting corners.

  5. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 08/23/2010 - 06:37 pm.

    Maybe it should be a giant sculpture aesthetically defining a question mark? For the homegrown tragedy will forever remain without closure as to who or how many were responsible?

    Call the sculptural form A-Bridge-Of-Whys, for although some degree of responsibility should be forthcoming soon for victims, survivors, involved families in the form of cash settlements, liability still finds no acceptable closure?

    One could say blame rests still in the rusted, twisted mass of steel, with greed and displaced power as its bedfellows?

  6. Submitted by Mike Tikkanen on 08/24/2010 - 04:49 pm.

    **New York’s twenty year veteran bridge engineer, Samuel Schwartz (NYT OP-ED 8.13.07) estimated that an average of 178,000 dollars annual maintenance would keep each one of his states bridges in pristine condition.

    It was about five hundred times more expensive for our public policy makers to ignore the advice of the bridge maintenance engineers than it would have been to listen to them. Our own Governor and his Lieutenant Carol Molnau were repeatedly asked for maintenance money for the bridge over several years prior to the collapse, but denied it.

    Anti tax people have cost Minnesotans a billion dollars and killed and wounded one hundred and thirteen people.
    I am making the same argument for the children in America’s child protection systems; For over twenty years they have largely become preteen mothers and felons as a result of bad public policy.

    Three million children per year are reported to child protection agencies, 90% of the children in juvenile justice have come through C.P., and almost all felons have come through J.J. The cost of extensive institutionalization, the crimes they commit, their impact on our schools, city streets, and quality of life are profound.

    Early childhood programs with more training and resources for child protection workers would save us billions in prisons, schools, courts, insurance, and pain as at risk children become functional adults instead of felons and preteen moms.

    Home values within our inner cities are often half (or less) than they would be in a safe suburb. The insurance estimates of crime alone in the U.S. are between one and one point six trillion dollars annually.
    It is costing us a fortune to ignore the maintenance of our bridges, courts, schools, and children.

    It is time to counter the short sighted and inaccurate assumptions of the anti tax people. Our quality of life has suffered terribly with these tight fisted and mean spirited people wrecking our bridges and ruining our children.

    Start this conversation in your community, join a discussion group on this website (or start one of your own).

  7. Submitted by Rich Solomon on 08/29/2010 - 01:48 pm.

    As it is now the debris along the river is a haunting reminder of the fallibility of our built world and the trust we place in it. Walking outside the fence, viewing the twisted steel and knowing the significance of the location evokes powerful feelings and thoughts that cannot be contrived by an artificial monument, appropriate as it would be.

    It’s inevitable that someone would get the idea to haul the wreckage away somewhere, replacing the naturally occurring memorial with a planned one. In the mean time I encourage as many people as possible to visit and experience the site while it’s still intact (from outside the fence, if that needs to be said).

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