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Posted
October 20, 2007

Want to Buy the Golden Gate Bridge?

Corporate sponsorship creeps into one of America's most beloved landmarks.

The history of transportation in the U.S. has been less about meeting needs than about creating them. From the “internal improvements” of the early republic, to the railroads, urban trolleys, and interstate highways that came later, development has been the object, more than serving the needs of people already in a place. Urban trolley systems were built out to farmland. The railroads recruited settlers from Germany and Scandinavia for the lands they opened up. (They described the Dakotas as a New Eden.)

The Golden Gate Bridge, which connects San Francisco to the Marin Headlands to the North, is a chapter in this same story. For all its iconic glory, the bridge actually was part of a development push to the North. The authority that governs it includes members from counties all the way to the Oregon border. One suspects that the main concern of those members is not the aesthetics of bridge design or the self-presentation of San Francisco.

So it is not entirely surprising that there are plans afoot to turn the bridge into a venue for corporate promotion. A year or two ago, the bridge authority began touting corporate sponsorship as a way to raise money . Public outrage has caused them to scale back, but not by much. The plan now is to sell the right to put corporate logos at the bottom of “interpretive” signs, with bits if history and the like, along the bridge.

“The public has weighed in,” a spokesperson for the authority said, “and they are concerned.” This is the condescension of the reinventing government crowd. We citizens are customers to be appeased, not the bosses who in a democracy are supposed to call the shots.

One could take a cynical view. Water seeks its own level. As the tree, so the fruit. Finally the Golden Gate Bridge will be telling something resembling the truth about itself. Yet symbols can grow much the way people can. They can become carriers of new meaning; and that’s what has happened with the Golden Gate.

Back in the Sixties the highway and development lobbies in Northern California went for broke. They proposed a main highway up the pristine coast of Marin County, and lateral highways to connect it to Highway 101, which is the county’s spine. The aim was to turn the stunning coastal ranchlands into suburbs, and the Golden Gate National Seashore into a “Jones Beach” for the entire Bay Area.

The county revolted. Voters stopped the highways cold. Not only that, they threw out the Republican developer clique that had run Marin County for decades, and put Democrats in their place. Concern for the land became something of a county religion. Instead of sprawling suburbs here in West Marin, we have the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) which is buying development rights to ranchland so it will stay unspoiled for as long as the current legal system holds.

Now, when people drive across the Golden Gate, they see something they might not have when it first was built. Back then it was an engineering paean to development and growth, as then conceived. Cars, malls, suburbs, televisions, progress is our most important product, as Ronald Reagan, then a pitchman for General Electric, would intone later on television each week. Now those drivers can see as well a golden gateway to an unspoiled coast, and the promise that results from drawing the line against the old assumptions. That’s especially so for visitors, and not commuters trapped in the failure of the old vision and worn down by the daily grind.

To turn the bridge into a corporate billboard, however “tastefully” would deface that new meaning. It would trample on the commitment and toil of thousands of dedicated citizens whose names never will be known. But even if you buy the old story, it too belongs to citizens whose tax dollars built the bridge and whose values invest it with whatever meaning it has for them. As Mr. Reagan said in another context, “We paid for it. We built it. It’s ours.”

The stakes here are higher than the politicians who run the bridge seem to grasp. Corporations inhabit the landscape by sufferance of law. They are subordinate to law and civic culture, or are supposed to be at least. When they are permitted to define the space they occupy, then the tables turn. The created becomes the creator, with all the ills that flow from that.

Here’s my own proposal. If the members of the bridge authority are so eager to sell ad space to corporations, they should offer up themselves. They could sell space on the backs of their suit jackets to the highest bidders. They could sell space on their cars, their yards, their offices and homes. Sell yours own space, pols, but leave our bridge alone.

Note: For an excellent history of the Golden Gate Bridge, see Louise Nelson Dyble’s “Paying the Toll: Power, Politics and the Golden Gate Bridge,” forthcoming from the University of Pennsylvania Press. Dyble published an account of the highway revolt in Marin County in the Journal of Urban History 2007.