I’m a sucker for a new bridge ribbon-cutting ceremony. I’m not sure why. I’m not a public works junkie, nor do I get off uttering the word “infrastructure.” But new bridge openings — like this week’s celebration at Cacique and Soledad streets on Santa Barbara’s Eastside — convey a tingle that things can still get done. Despite appearances to the contrary, they remind us that entropy, friction, and inertia didn’t manage to kill us all in the cradle when we were looking the other way.
When I showed up — a few minutes late — City Councilmember Jason Dominguez was wrapping up his remarks. The old bridge had been a rickety, bumpy, jarring wood-plank footpath and bikeway — only four feet wide — that spanned Sycamore Creek. It was buttressed on both sides by wooden railings that looked like they’d collapse if you looked at them crosswise. When I’d ride my bike over the old bridge, I always half expected some troll to rear up from underneath and challenge me to a fight, staff to staff, like something out of Robin Hood.
Dominguez noted that the former bridge — which functioned as the darker end of an already dark street — had been the hangout spot of choice for what he delicately described as “wayward youth,” who used it as an “escape route.” Sebastian Aldana, a longtime neighborhood activist of the old-school variety, put it succinctly. “It was a half-baked bridge with a couple of trash cans and a bunch of weeds.” Much to the chagrin of some residents, that half-baked bridge lay baking in the Eastside sun — which exudes a decidedly distinct quality of light compared to other parts of town — from sometime in the 1970s.
The newly reincarnated bridge is, by contrast, a revelation and an invitation. It’s more than twice as wide and made out of fresh concrete. For bicyclists and pedestrians, it’s more than hospitable. For cars, however, it remains decidedly off-limits. That was by design. Actually, the new bridge is two new bridges built almost kitty-corner to each other, both crossing a bow in the creek at different ends of the bend. One crosses at Cacique Street, the other Soledad Street.
For residents and schoolkids trying to get to nearby Adelante School, it’s a huge convenience. For transportation planners, it’s another spoke in the wheel allowing otherwise “landlocked” Eastsiders to make their way to the beach. This, we were told by traffic planner Rob Dayton, was the vision of former city councilmember and sewing-machine shop owner Grant House, who more than 20 years ago helped hatch and incubate an unlikely bunch of wonks who dubbed themselves the Eastside Study Group.
Plans to build the new bridge had been kicking around City Hall for decades. That it took so long, some held, was more evidence there was little benign about the neglect the largely Latino Eastside experienced at the hand of the largely all-white city councils elected — until just recently — at large. But as one city official noted tongue somewhat in cheek, “Even white racists get the picture eventually.”
The first domino to fall was the Cacique Street underpass — funded in 1995 and built in 2008. That, for the first time, allowed motorists and cyclists to drive under the freeway up Cacique Street and into the Eastside neighborhoods. In the face of this easy ingress, the beat-up “half-baked” bridge seemed a cruel taunt.
Bridges are not merely engineering works; they are expressions of political crosscurrents that often can only be guessed at. In this case, the precipitating event was the death of 15-year-old music student Sergio Romero, struck by a truck carrying shopping carts as he tried to cross Milpas Street by Ortega Street one winter‘s evening in 2011. Romero’s death proved the last straw for neighborhood residents long upset by the myriad of well-documented safety challenges on Milpas Street. They demanded action and would not be denied. They showed up at City Council meetings in large numbers. Traffic engineer Derrick Bailey had just been hired by City Hall, and for him it was a sink-or-swim moment. Bailey, as it turned out, swam beautifully, though at the time it wasn’t obvious if he would make it or not.
Even before Romero’s death, the bridge had been identified by neighborhood advocates sitting on the Franklin Advisory Committee — since subsumed into the broader Neighborhood Advisory Council — as one its top-three priorities. “We’d been banging on this one for at least 12 years,” said Sebastian Aldana.
Neighborhood safety concerns, it would turn out, were hardly confined to Milpas Street. The Cacique Street Bridge came in for some serious and sustained scrutiny as well. A Punta Gorda Street resident named Ana Rico, who had kids attending what was then called César Chávez Elementary School (now Adelante) got involved. For six years, she didn’t quit. Her group — known alternately as Latino Moms or Eastside Moms — went knocking on doors, asking residents what they thought and what they wanted. They teamed up with Eva Inbar, a longtime alternative transportation activist with a catchily acronym’d organization named COAST, which stands for Coalition for Sustainable Transportation. Inbar held the quaint but obvious notion that if safe walking routes existed, parents might trust their kids to walk to school. Of the old bridge, Rico recalled, “We would avoid it. It was not safe. It was dark, there were a lot of trees, and it was not somewhere I’d take my kids.”
After Romero’s death, there were countless meetings. Most were held at Franklin School. Most had seven, 10, 25 people, Rico remembered. But at one, there were more than 100. City officials showed up and sat in the front of the room in chairs facing the crowd. And they just listened. “Imagine that,” transportation planner Rob Dayton said. “We didn’t talk.” Or as Rico recalled, “They sat there and we made our comments and they listened. And then we asked questions and they answered.”
One thing became clear real fast. No one wanted the bridge opened up to traffic. The neighbors liked the quiet and lack of traffic the bridge afforded the street. If cars were allowed, it would become a thoroughfare. “We did a door-to-door survey of about 30 people,” recalled Aldana. “No one wanted cars. One neighbor threatened to sue us if we allowed cars.”
Keeping cars off, turned out to help in other ways. Bridges are not cheap, not even simple ones. In recent years, Dayton and his crew have developed a specialty in securing state transportation grants for something known as Active Transportation. The City of Santa Barbara, in fact, has become number one in the state in securing such grants. For the bridge, they got $2.7 million in state grants that would not have been available had cars been allowed. City Hall kicked in an additional $15,000. Planning and design for the bridge took two and a half years. Construction took 10 months.
About 10:30 Thursday morning, Santa Barbara Mayor Cathy Murillo got ready to flick the switch. Armed with her theatrically oversized ceremonial scissors — designed for ribbon-cutting events — Murillo, accompanied by a gaggle of city officials, got ready to snip a ceremonial stretch of red ribbon. The ribbon had other ideas. Maybe the jaws of the scissors — specially ordered for such events — were not sharp enough or such scissors require years of practice. It reportedly took Murillo’s predecessor, Helene Schneider, a number of years to get the hang of it. Mayor Murillo has been on the job less than a year. She wound up yanking the ribbon but not cutting it. Councilmember Gregg Hart, standing by, was given a pair of small but functional scissors. With a quick snip, Hart — Murillo’s closest ally on the council — managed to cut the ribbon. Given that it took 25 years, it wasn’t nearly as easy as Hart made it look.
Even with the new bridge, the issue of “wayward youth” remains. Santa Barbara Police Officer Adrian Gutierrez cautioned that gang activity waxes and wanes. There’s been a slight uptick of activity in the neighborhood, he noted, and old haunts tend to die hard. Some gang members had been congregating by the new bridge during construction; some had been seen since it finished. Empty beer cans had to be fished out of the creek, he said, prior to the ribbon cutting. Even so, he said, he expects the new bridge — coupled with lights recently installed — to discourage that activity.
After the ceremony, Ana Rico beamed. “I love it,” she said of the new bridge. “It’s beautiful. I’m bringing my kids.”