Change, even if it means a better future, can make a person think about the past.
And so it was Thursday night as neighbors, friends and strangers crossed the 90-year-old Sellwood Bridge for the last time.
Under an expanse of stars on the cloudless February night, parents pushed strollers. Others kept a watchful eye on pajama-clad children teetering about with glow sticks looped around their necks.
Poodles and collies, shepherds and St. Bernards pulled their owners up the arching expanse. Frogs croaked out a low chorus from the dark banks below. In the distance a bagpiper played.
Lovers kissed and families huddled close and snapped photos, backs pressed against the concrete railing. They talked about Christmas lights and Fourth of July fireworks and clogged commutes to work.
“Bridges are like that,” said former Governor Barbara Roberts, who had walked from her condo a few blocks away. “They’re movement, change. They take you places. They leave an emotional place in people’s heart.”
Roberts was among hundreds of Portland area residents who came out to walk across the bridge, which closed Thursday night to make way for a new and safer bridge, scheduled to open the first week of March. The old bridge, built in 1925, will be demolished later this year. Tomorrow people will gather again to celebrate its replacement, built to withstand an earthquake and with ample room for pedestrians and bike commuters.
But Thursday night was about remembering the past.
Roberts had crossed the old Sellwood Bridge hundreds of times in the past 15 years or so - trips to downtown Portland, Lake Oswego, or to visit her family in West Linn. She used to sit with friends on their houseboat on good summer evenings; the steel truss of the bridge marked the skyline. The bridge marked her memory too, during Christmas, when she stood over the river to watch a parade of brightly decorated boats pass by.
The congestion of four years of construction grated on her patience.
“The route kept changing so you had to be careful to watch the signs, or you might end up going to Lake Oswego instead of Portland,” she said. “But for the most part, they have handled this with incredible understanding of the community. I don't think I've ever seen a project as well handled."
Nearby, Christopher Clements watched his three kids, who dashed about with flashlights in hand. Recent transplants from Washington state, the family came to say hello -- and goodbye -- to the bridge.
Paul Montgomery came alone. The New York native paid $57,500 for his house in Sellwood a quarter century ago.. A lot has changed since then - the best of which being a cycle repair shop that went in, in the 1990s. One thing that didn’t change, however, was his mode of transportation.
For more than two decades, Montgomery had peddled across the Sellwood Bridge. When it was early he took the road. When there was traffic he navigated past pedestrians on the bridge’s single 4-foot wide sidewalk.
“It’s always been that way. You have this much space,” he said and raised his arms to the width of his compact shoulders.
Montgomery and his neighbors thought back to the countless times they’ve crossed the bridge. For June Townsend, who commutes to a job on the west side five days a week, that’s at least 5,200 trips in the past decade.
She walked along in the dark with her daughter, 14-year-old Emma, and they talked about the best memories they had of the bridge. For Emma, it was fireworks on the Fourth of July.
Still, June said, “the change needed to be done, for safety.”
Chris Nolan agreed. He came with his wife Gina Deleo and their son Will Nolan.
“It will be great to have a new bridge. It’s safer,” he said. The family met in this neighborhood. They bought a house, adopted a dog, then raised a son.
“We had a sweet time here,” Gina Delao said. “We’ve walked, driven, ridden across this bridge for years. We had a special place under the bridge, a place we used to go.”
People had an hour to walk the bridge before it closed forever. Bagpipes played in the distance and families snapped selfies. Ed Wortman walked away from the din of voices and leaned alone against the railing. He stared at the steel arch of the new Sellwood bridge, which stood less than 20 feet away.
“I like the purity of bridges,” he said. “They’re clean. You can see the beautify. The structure.”