St. Paul’s Smith Avenue High Bridge is an icon. Along with the Cathedral, the Capitol and the hamstrung First Bank sign, it’s surely one of the key symbols of a beautiful city. Since 1889, the sweep from the Cherokee bluffs down to 7th Street has been telling a dramatic architectural tale about the city’s unique history and geography. But like many dramas, it can also be tragic, and the bridge has been a site for suicide over the years.
Today the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is preparing to redeck the bridge with new concrete, and some of the bridge’s neighbors have been leading an effort to think about the project as a way to combat mental health issues, and the murky interconnections between transportation, infrastructure and suicide. It turns out, it’s a complex story, and people in the community are coming to unexpected conclusions about how a sense of place might overcome some Twin Cities mental health problems.
I live right by the High Bridge, and bicycle across it often. After a suicide on the bridge last summer, I noticed memorials appearing along the concrete sidewalk. (MinnPost’s Andy Steiner wrote about the family later in the year in ‘Still struggling’: A mother works to understand her teenage daughter’s suicide.)
It turns out I wasn’t alone. Two of my West Side neighbors, Jolene Olson and Leah Porter Driscoll, were also paying attention to the apparent connection between the bridge and tragedy.
“I’ve been here for 14 years, and Leah has been here for nine, and since we’ve been here, we’ve noticed suicides over the years,” Olson told me. “We’ve talked about it. We’ve been affected by it immediately, by community members talking about it. And we were always wondering what’s being done about the problem.”
It turned out there might be something they could do after all. Both women attended a fall community forum run by MnDOT to gather input for an upcoming State Highway 149 redecking and reconstruction project that would run all the way from Highway 494 in Mendota Heights to West 7th Street in St. Paul. And redesigning the High Bridge was part of the picture.
“We’re replacing the concrete of the bridge deck,” Sheila Kauppi, the north area manager for the MnDOT Metro District told me. “In part of the workshop we had last fall, elements became clear that the community wanted to make sure we were evaluating, like suicide prevention on the High Bridge. We are also looking at lane widths, bike lanes and the sidewalk area, recognizing that this is also on St. Paul’s bike plan, and a major regional bikeway.”
The complex struggle with infrastructural contagion
Suicide remains a problem in Minnesota, where it’s the eighth leading cause of death. The statistics show that most suicides happen at home, and bridges play a role in only 2 percent of cases statewide. However, these bridge-related events have a uniquely public aspect which, as the Minnesota Department of Health’s Melissa Heinen explained to me, can have a “different potential impact on the community through incident witness and secondary trauma.”
The really tricky public health problem, however, is something called contagion. And that’s where bridges and other infrastructure enter the picture.
“Contagion is this idea that if you’re exposed to suicide, it increases your risk,” said Heinen, who works as the state’s suicide prevention coordinator. “A person who doesn’t have mental illness might be immune to suicide contagion. But [for those who do], contagion normalizes it, makes it seem like it’s an option.”
Contagion is the key reason that media reports can be a part of the problem when it comes to combatting suicide. But that leaves concerned community members in a difficult spot. How do you address the connection between infrastructure like the High Bridge and public health if you can’t explicitly talk about the problem for fear of contagion?
Heinen’s advice was to change the narrative about the bridge itself.
“As much as we can, we need to make the narrative around the bridge so that it’s not consistently reinforced as a spot where people go to jump,” Heinen told me. “After all, that is not your image of the bridge. You experience it as a beautiful structure with amazing views of St. Paul, and cross every day to go to work or celebrations. That is the narrative we want the community to embrace.”
New narrative for the High Bridge
As they learned about the complexities of combatting mental illness, this shift of focus from memorials and commemoration to positive narratives turned out to be a big change for Olson and Driscoll.
“When we started this work, all we could think about was stopping suicides on the bridge, and we were thinking about physical barriers on the bridge,” Jolene Olson told me this week. “But it’s grown into this beautiful tree of ideas. And down the road if we have a beautiful bridge that people want to come to, think about what would it look like for local businesses. Now it’s bigger than what we imagined.”
This is a personal story for me, too, as I grew up on Dodd Road about 3 miles south of the bridge (the southern stretch of the Highway 149 project). I vividly recall being a kid in the back seat of the car when our family reached the High Bridge.
“Everybody look at St. Paul,” or “Here’s the High Bridge!” my parents would say as the panoramic river valley swept out in front of us, the city’s limestone skyline to the east and the Mississippi opening out westward toward the confluence.
Thirty years later, I live just a few blocks from the bridge, and cross it almost every day. It’s not always easy. Especially in the winter, riding a bike or walking up the bridge, which reaches upward at a steep angle for over half a mile, can sometimes be a slog, surrounded by the mute whirring of speeding cars or dodging trash and ice in the bike lane.
But so many other moments fill with stark beauty, watching the trees on the bluff grow or lose their leaves, looking far below at the dark river lined with barges or the occasional lights of a riverboat.
“I love the bridge,” Jolene Olson told me, when I asked her what it meant to her. “It’s a symbol our community. When people come from out of town, I want them to see the beautiful view. My kids and I use it every day, and say how lucky we are to see this view.”
(As it turns out, my parents weren’t the only ones who use the High Bridge-related-joy as a parenting technique.)
As their meetings and Facebook conversations have progressed through the winter, both Olson and Driscoll have begun focusing less on barriers and memorials and more on how to make the bridge into a welcoming and positive place. They’re holding another neighborhood meeting this week downtown to brainstorm ideas, starting groups that will focus on short- and long-term solutions like landscaping, community art, placemaking, and safer sidewalks. The idea is to fill the High Bridge with life.
“My little vision is to ask what would happen if the bridge was a community gathering place,” Leah Driscoll said. “What if it was a central spot, but you had the whole neighborhood informed about suicide prevention. Some of the things we learned are just to check in if someone looks like they are feeling depressed on the bridge. Just say, “hey, how are you.” It’s human contact, learning to be more empathetic, and that’s the core of everything. It’s cool to see the work going in this direction, helping us all learn to be more human — that’s what excites me.”