PORTLAND, Ore. -- A familiar battle is heating up atop an infamous Portland bridge.
Its official name is the 'Vista Bridge', and it’s regarded by many as a valuable piece of the city’s past.
The bridge is on the National Register of Historic Places. From the sidewalks the run along the bridge, pedestrians can see a sweeping view of the Portland skyline from one side and the lush green of Washington Park from the other.
“It's gorgeous,” said Laura Hammond, who’s lived nearby for 25 years. “It's a historic bridge.”
Sadly, though, that history comes with a dark side, which is why some know the 90-year-old structure as Portland’s ‘suicide bridge.'
Stretching above Southwest Jefferson Street in the city’s west hills, the bridge has long been a magnet for tragedy.
On average, two people a year have jumped to their deaths from the bridge since its inception.
In 2013, five people committed suicide on the bridge. That spurred the city to install a 9-foot-tall black chain-link fence with razor-wire ends along both of the bridge’s hip-high concrete railings.
Since then, no one has committed suicide by jumping from the Vista Bridge.
The fence cost $236,000 and was supposed to be a temporary barrier until a permanent, more aesthetically pleasing $2.5 million barrier could be installed. City Commissioner Steve Novick pushed the project through to stop the cycle of suicides.
Some neighbors say the safer fence is important, but the temporary fencing has to go.
They argue the thick fence mars the bridge's view, beauty and historical integrity.
“I actually have a relative that jumped from the bridge. So I'm not insensitive to the suicide issue,” said Bill Failing, who sits on the Southwest Hill Residential League and is a past president of the Oregon Historical Society. “But when you measure it against the value to the community, it's something you don't want to mess with.”
Failing and several of his neighbors, many of whom, he says, work as historians or architects, are pushing their campaign 'Restore the Vista' like never before.
Their hope is to replace the fence with one more fitting with the bridge's architecture, possibly with a net strung underneath it.
Given that it's an election year, they hope city leaders, present and future, will be more motivated to take up the cause.
The city says its hands are tied.
Commissioner Steve Novick and the Portland Bureau of Transportation say they have applied for federal funding to replace the barriers, but the money went to other projects.
The city will have another opportunity to apply for funding in 2018. If that is approved, bridge construction wouldn’t start until at least 2022.
Read Commissioner Novick’s full statement:
Since 1926, there have been 175 deaths by suicide from the Vista Bridge. This was simply unacceptable. Since the suicide prevention fences were installed in 2013, no one has jumped to their death from the bridge. I’m proud of the preventative measure we took because it’s made a real difference in our community. I’m also grateful for the time the Vista Bridge Committee invested to research and recommend a historically appropriate fence or a suspended net to replace the existing fence.
Last year, the Portland Bureau of Transportation applied for a $5.4 million grant from the Oregon Department of Transportation to fund the bridge and fence improvements recommended by the committee. Unfortunately, because there were eight bridges across the state that needed replacement, and two that needed rehabilitation, the state denied the application and recommended that PBOT apply for the grant next year, as the Vista Bridge does not present a public safety hazard without the proposed improvements.
I look forward to next year, when we will be able to apply for that funding again. In the meantime, every day, I look at a scroll that hangs above my desk, signed by over thirty friends and loved ones of one of the Vista Bridge suicide victims. They said that putting up the fence was the right thing to do. I still agree with them.