Bridges are usually utilitarian creations that allow us to cross from one place to another, and the Vermont Street Bridge is no exception. It allows people to cross back and forth between Hillcrest and University Heights in San Diego.
But this particular bridge is also about much more than just getting from here to there — as you walk across it, you are surrounded by art.
Thirty years ago, three artists brought to life an idea that was novel for San Diego: public art.
“The art is a series of stainless steel and colored acrylic panels, as well as decorative work on the concrete — sandblasted text and designs, decorations, shapes and symbols,” said Lynn Susholtz, one of the artists who created the bridge.
As passersby walk this bridge, they can experience the idea at the heart of the art.
“The ideas, the metaphors of bridging and walking and it was sort of a way to look at our sense of time and space and our environment,” Susholtz said.
Many of the panels on the bridge feature quotes. Some are whimsical like one from Kate Sessions: “I am thankful that I wear sensible shoes and can walk with comfort all day long.” There's quotes from two other famous locals: Dr. Seuss and famed architect Irving Gill.
Gill's quote is anything but whimsical: “What idle or significant sentence will we write with brick and stone, wood, steel and concrete upon the sensitive page of the earth?”
Pedestrians crossing the bridge can take in art on both sides, and also under foot. The floor of the bridge has twirling shapes etched into the concrete.
“I wanted this to kind of be a reflection of maybe a Zen garden or a garden that you might see behind a Craftsman home,” Susholtz said.
In particular, it's a nod to the many Craftsman homes found in University Heights. Bordering the shapes are words — more precisely, definitions of one word.
“There are at least seven that we used on the bridge, different definitions of ‘bridge,’ everything from a card game to the wooden piece in the middle of a wooden, stringed instrument," Susholtz said.
Apart from the artists, there was another driving force behind this piece of public art — Gail Goldman.
“I ... came to San Diego to be the founding director of the city of San Diego’s public art program,” Goldman said.
That was more than 30 years ago. Her first project was the Vermont Street Bridge. At first, it was just going to be a bridge of concrete and steel, no art. But Goldman had other ideas.
“How do you create a place where people want to be?” she said. ”And art is a way to do that, to give it some meaning and to make it a destination as opposed to just having a tunnel of anxiety — how do I get from this end to that end. So now people can meander, just like the pattern in the hardscape.”
Nearly 30 years after the bridge was finished, Susholtz said the idea behind it remains the same.
“Public art humanizes a space and I feel very strongly that how our mood and how our ability to be present is very much affected by what’s in our environment,” she said. “So, an opportunity to really consider where you are and take a moment in an amazing environment, 200 feet above a canyon in San Diego, next to a freeway, take a moment and see where you are.”
And when where you are is the Vermont Street Bridge, you know you’re at a place that’s about so much more than just a way to get from here to there.