Tough choices about a jumpers' bridge

The state wants to put suicide barriers on Seattle's landmark Aurora Bridge, but some preservationists object.
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The George Washington Memorial Bridge

The state wants to put suicide barriers on Seattle's landmark Aurora Bridge, but some preservationists object.

The Washington Department of Transportation wants to move ahead to put new barriers on the George Washington Memorial Bridge — commonly known as the Aurora Bridge — to help keep people from jumping off. They've tried other techniques, like installing phones, but the rain of bodies continues. It's the city's favorite spot for jumpers and has long been synonymous with Seattle's reputation as a suicide town.

The fencing project is now estimated to cost over $8 million, and a sample of the 10-foot-high fences is not pleasing preservation advocates. The Queen Anne Community Council is opposed to the project, citing its high cost, questions about whether it will actually prevent suicides, and worry about damage to the bridge's historic character. Also against the plan is Susan Boyle, the highly respected local architect and preservationist who "strongly opposes" the current plan, saying in an email "I see it daily as a beautiful, inspiring urban element that enhances my life, and those of others who look at it as well as those who view the city from it." The vast majority of citizens, needless to say, are not inspired to take a leap.

But others argue for the fencing. I contacted Philip Dawdy, a former Seattle Weekly colleague and the best mental health reporter in the country. He writes regularly and provocatively on mental health issues on his blog Furious Seasons. He's has written about the Aurora Bridge for Seattle magazine and also has covered suicide. A memorable piece was his story about the death of popular KUOW radio personality Cynthia Doyon in which he argued it was time to fight the "epidemic" of suicide which he described as a "full-blown public health problem."

Dawdy thinks the fencing will prevent some suicides, but it will also protect cops and firemen who often have to pull would-be jumpers off the ledge. "It's kind of miraculous that not one of them has ever been pulled off," Dawdy says. Other first responders put at risk are scuba divers who have to go hunting for corpses in the Lake Washington Ship Canal.

A fence might protect the psyches of the living too. It's not uncommon for office workers to see jumpers fall, or watch them land on nearby streets and parking lots below. (Not everyone hits the water.) This is no surprise to longtime Seattleites. I had a cousin who lived in a houseboat under the bridge and had tales to tell. But the "audience" for suicides is bigger now with the boom in office space in Fremont. There are more folks to witness the deaths and injuries that occur. When the area was blue collar, few made a big deal about the suicide perception from below. Now that the neighborhood is full of high-tech office workers, Burke-Gilman cyclists, and Lake Union kayakers, the standards are shifting.

Any modification of the bridge has to be reviewed by the Seattle Landmarks Board. The historic bridge is a city landmark, and it is also on the State Heritage list and National Register of Historic Places. The board will be taking up the latest plan at its June 3 meeting. WSDOT's plan can be found here (pdf).

There's no question that the Aurora Bridge is an icon and widely recognized as an important 1930s span (and a critical piece of infrastructure, which is one reason they won't close it to pedestrians). Maintaining its integrity as a historic property is part of the mandate now, and there's a process for ensuring that it meets preservation standards.

Sit through a landmarks design review of building alterations within a historic district, say Columbia City, and you will hear property owners, architects, and tradesmen defending such minutiae as what kind of brackets and bolts should hold a new sign, or you'll hear a city worker talking about the texture of a stretch of concrete for a new city sidewalk, or questions about what the fall colors of new street trees will be. Preservationists tend their treasures like obsessive gardeners protecting their plantings, fending off pests and pulling weeds.

It's micro-managing, but the review process is crucial to effective preservation, even while the standards remain somewhat subjective — reasoned (hopefully) but not scientific. Passing judgment about a structure's alteration can come down to issues of "integrity" or "scale" and other qualities on which reasonable people might differ.

One problem some have with the WSDOT plan is cost. Is $8 million for suicide gates really a good use of public money in these economic times? Even Dawdy is given pause by the cost. A letter from the Queen Anne Community Council wondered if it might not be better spent on suicide prevention programs. The people who jump from the bridge are a small minority of suicides (about 15 percent says Dawdy; the majority use guns). Perhaps mental health out-reach would be a better investment.

Another factor is how the fencing will impact the bridge's look. Pictures of a mock-up indicate it's awfully clunky, featuring vertical bars like a jail cell, which will change the bridge's profile and block views of those who cross on car or on foot. Another question raised by Boyle: Why hasn't the state fully studied the use of nets or some less intrusive system? Are there viable alternatives that will do the job without harming the bridge? WSDOT says it rejected netting due to expense: it costs about the same as fencing to build, but ongoing maintenance isn't cheap.

The Aurora Bridge isn't the only landmark that has had a suicide problem. The observation deck of the Space Needle was altered with barriers to keep people from jumping off after some particularly grim suicides in front of tourists and diners. However, the changes had little impact on how the Needle looks. Dawdy isn't moved by a visual argument. "I don't really think anyone should be screaming about the aesthetics of the bridge. That thing ain't pretty," he says. Prettiness isn't a standard for historic preservation, but there are likely people who share that view.

Tragically, suicide is part of the bridge's history. More than 200 people have jumped to their deaths from the bridge, the first before it was even completed. But no one wants to "preserve" that history. The right solution has to be found for accomplishing two things: the protection of people in dark distress, and the integrity of the landmark. Rarely do landmark decisions have life-or-death consequences. This one does.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.