April 4, 2010

Caging Beauty

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Every day I walk across the narrow pedestrian bridge from Collegetown to the engineering quad. The small wooded approach ends with a sharp turn before the span, which crosses about 50 feet above Cascadilla Creek. The route was once the right-of-way for an adorable Trolley line running from downtown to north campus, with stops throughout campus. More recently it has served as a great shortcut to Duffield, the Statler and points north on central campus. But for the past week, it has resembled the entrance to a maximum security prison.

The narrow bridge is now practically encased in chain-link fencing. At the top, steel cables reach inwards where normally barbed wire would go. The clever industrial lamp posts that formerly gave the span a futuristic feel now enhance the Sing Sing aesthetic. At best, I feel like I’m in a Lady Gaga music video.

“Studies have shown that barriers prevent impulsive jumpers.” This is the standard line of anyone who agrees with the fences or future nets or covered bridges. Unfortunately, studies have not shown why this reasoning has never led to an abnormally high rate of suicides at Cornell. If you trust the numbers released by the University, it appears we would have experienced exactly the same number of suicides over the past few decades even if the gorges didn’t exist.

“Alright,” you might say, “then at least the deaths are no longer so public.” Which, if you live on West Campus or drive into work here, might be a small comfort. But for the rest of us who cross those bridges twice a day, every day, for four years, those death-proof fences automatically turn our thoughts to death and suicide.

Before, when I crossed the College Ave bridge, I would look out onto downtown Ithaca or stare at that crazy apartment that looks like it’s falling off a cliff (who would ever live there!?). The memories that come to mind were happy ones: the time Lauren’s car wouldn’t start, and we rolled it down the hill, only to get stuck on the bridge. Or the Saturday evening when Jess, Sharmilla, Anish and I went skinny dipping in a pool of water just below the span, washing away the stench of frat party beneath the waterfalls. And my single most vivid bridge memory is from Slope Day last year, during a torrential downpour, when the roadway was jam-packed with soaked students, seeking cover from the rain.

Now, I see the bridge and one thought comes to mind: death. I bet you’re thinking the exact same thing.

In a recent e-mail to all students, during a momentary break from canned statements of “community” and “support” Dean of Students Kent Hubbell ’69 decided to address the aesthetic concerns: “As an architect, I look forward to the day when we have much more pleasing, permanent approaches for enhancing safety while preserving the natural and man-made beauty of our campus.” I’m imagining what exactly an architect’s approach might be: Thurston Avenue, encased in a giant million-dollar glass-and-steel structure courtesy of Rem Koolhaas perhaps. That sounds much better.

For over a century, Cornell’s senior administration, trusted with preserving the character and charm of this beautiful university, have refused unsightly barriers. To be sure there have been compromises: In the ’70s the suspension bridge had much less fencing — just diagonal cross braces. And my freshman year, prior to the Thurston Avenue bridge’s renovation, the bridge’s guard rails were just as low as those on Stewart Avenue — the view invariably stunning. Upstream, a double cascade of water frames the elegant arc of the Triphammer footbridge. Just to the right was the impressive stone facade of the now-collapsed Hydraulic Lab. Downstream, on a flat bed of shale, a message was usually written with a pile of rocks, saying things like “Will you marry me?” The new Thurston rails are almost as tall as I am, and hard to see through. At night the fluorescent rope lights manage to completely impair your ability to see into the gorge, probably by design.

Now, in the wake of bad press in the New York Times, USA Today and the Huffington Post, the administration finally caved. The slogan “Freedom with responsibility” has been replaced with a chain-link straight jacket.

Recently I told an older alum the two things I liked best about Cornell were the Daily Sun and the gorges. He pointed out, laughing, that the University didn’t construct or control either. It’s hard to articulate just how much East Hill’s dramatic natural landscape contributes to this place. Imagine Cornell in a flat cornfield, somewhere near Utica. I think I just threw up a little in my mouth.

In short, I don’t think fences are appropriate. I think they do more to glamorize suicide than a malicious blog post or sensationalist news story ever could. Feeling depressed and insignificant? Jump here off this cliff. And they’ll erect a fence in your honor. And people will put flowers on it. And think about death every time they pass by.

The bridges don’t connote death to me. And neither should the fences. Memorials are made from marble, not steel. I’m going to remember the ridiculous red bra hanging from the chains, and the colorful paint, and the flamboyant plastic shizz. And hopefully one morning I’m going to remember seeing the wire netting, ripped from its posts by some anonymous pledge class, surrounding Day Hall.

Munier Salem is a former Sun Assistant Design Editor and founded the Science section. He is a senior in the College of Engineering. He may be reached at msalem@cornellsun.com. Critical Mass appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Munier Salem