Drive from Seattle past the suburban blight of Mercer Island into the savage wastelands of the Eastside. Drive from Issaquah or farther east towards the urban hell-hole across the big water.
Either way, you’ll find yourself approaching the place where I-90 and I-405 meet, right next to Bellevue’s Mercer Slough. You’ll enter a landscape of parking lots and shopping malls known as Eastgate. You might even see Enatai Beach Park beneath you, as you speed through the wilderness at 70mph.
What you won’t see is an unassuming train bridge, one of many overpasses and underpasses crisscrossing the mighty I-90 in this area. It’s just an ordinary piece of rusted BNSF metal, a thing hidden in plain sight among similar things. You won’t see it.
The only aspect of the bridge slightly out of place? A touch of graffiti on the western side. This is unusual in Bellevue, a city that makes of whitebread not just sandwiches but an entire lifestyle. So if you’re unusually perceptive, you might see the word seared in white paint: Emre.
Perhaps you’ll wonder what the nameless speaker of an ancient Turkic dialect found poetic about the setting, hanging off a train bridge at 3AM, spray paint can in hand. Most likely you won’t care.
When the world began, to each trade and profession a special charge was given. For photographers, it was a simple thing: to notice the ordinary.
To do this well, an alert gaze is required. Often this will lead to nothing: the veil of the world may remain securely in place, or further matryoshka shells of mediocrity may be found underneath. But every now and then, a doppelgänger is unearthed. Maya is Devi, but alas also Kali.
Then the alarm may be raised, the hatches battened down, the torches lit to ward away the dark. And in this way, the photographer defends civilization from the other.
For this reason, we decided to examine the abandoned BNSF train bridge and, if possible, cross it on foot. We climbed the embankment at SE 32nd St and walked along the tracks. What we found was not quite ordinary.
The train bridge is literally covered in graffiti. Nothing so organized as a mural or structured composition, but many isolated instances of graffito, some overwriting others, covering walls that would otherwise have been a uniform rust red.
Spent spray cans litter the ground, rivaling broken beer bottles as the most common accent to the BNSF-laid gravel.
No particular theme presents itself to the observer. Instead, the painted walls exhibit many different messages, mixed by happenstance and accretion as one contributor built on the work of his predecessor.
One can imagine the first graffiti artist venturing onto the bridge, perhaps decades ago. He keeps a a wary eye out for passing trains, as he chooses a likely swathe of rusted sheet metal to begin his composition.
After that, the broken windows theory comes into full effect, or so the modern criminologist might observe. Word of mouth travels quickly in the underground. A legend is created, a place where paint can be sprayed without fear, condemnation or notice. Spray cans are purchased, using false papers, pseudonyms and unmarked bills. The vandals sally forth to sack Rome, or to leave a mark on the world – any mark.
And so the bridge undergoes a metamorphosis. From pristine object of industrial function, slightly decrepit, to a site where the imagination literally runs wild.
One can envision frantic attempts to complete a night’s work, as the torchlight threat of rolling liquid metal death rolls towards the young artist at ever-increasing speeds. And as the roar in their right brains matches the din in their ears, both streams finally climax into the only raison d’être anyone can possibly imagine: to create, or die trying.
Why this place, one might ask? In all the Eastside, why did this insignificant train bridge become such a popular counter-cultural destination?
One reason is abandonment. Despite the tracks being in beautiful condition, no trains have braved their way through this corridor since 2007 and usage was light for quite some time. This bridge is on the same train line with the Wilburton Trestle, known as the Eastside railroad or, in BNSF parlance, the Woodinville Subdivision. After the demolition of the Wilburton Tunnel, the train line is no longer even intact.
So there has been no risk of encountering a train in close quarters for some time. Perhaps there never will be again.
But neglect alone is an insufficient explanation. Unless graffiti, like rust, is to be understood merely as an agent of the second law of thermodynamics, its spray-painters merely automata in the grand old state machine that is the universe. This might explain why not all of the writing would pass a Turing test of intelligibility.
But at its core, the train bridge is an example of a public space abandoned by the custodians of such spaces. On the train bridge, the forces of entropy reacted by inviting in not only oxidation but a few intrepid souls who made it their own place. A place that they cared about, in their own way. A place where they were willing to invest their time and souls towards creating something unique.
These days, too much of our civilization’s urban space has become limbo on Earth, a set of places we don’t care about. Or care about just enough to provide the perfunctory, standardized, mass-produced kind of maintenance for which minimum wage is sufficient compensation.
Whether it’s the corner gas station, the parking lot next to the chain store, or the neighborhood street where it’s no longer safe for children to play, what we’ve seen is a continuous devaluing of our living space’s currency, a withdrawal of our interest in creating and interacting to the private sphere of our houses and yards – which have become miniature gated communities, Roman villas from which private cries of pleasure can occasionally be heard.
Protected by the bridge walls from observation, by BNSF’s budgets from erasure, the bridge has become a unique concept of what a public space might look like, an antidote to the antiseptic monotony and uniform aesthetic that our identical towns and cities have come to be. A place where furtive bacchanals and the fertility symbols of gangs have become something more: a kind of railroad chic that, given the right kind of focused madness that creates pop culture worldwide, might be mainstreamed into something your father might trendily appreciate.
Naturally, the industrial immune system has not remained, well, immune to this development. As of 2009, the Port of Seattle has become the new owner of the rail corridor, which strongly implies the possibility of future development.
So like the Wilburton Trestle, the fate of the train bridge is in the hands of the bureaucrats. It is they who will decide whether the other will be suppressed or embraced into the fold. My money is on suppression.
The complete Flickr set.