Looking back at the original intent of the Hill-to-Hill Bridge and comparing it to its use today, I find myself asking a new question: what is the purpose of a bridge? The word bridge is often used metaphorically to describe something that brings two things together. At the same time, there is a running joke in Pittsburgh (the City of Bridges) that if it involves crossing a bridge, people would rather stay home. This conflict of ideas between a bridge as a connector and a bridge as a divider is illustrated by the Hill-to-Hill Bridge.
The Hill-to-Hill Bridge started out as a connector. A Y at the north end linked West Bethlehem and Bethlehem to the main span which connected to South Bethlehem. The ramps in-between connected the neighborhoods to the businesses on the flats by the water.* Over time, the priority on connection disappeared as the bridge was modified. Of the seven original approaches, three were demolished, one was permanently closed to through traffic, and one was changed to one-way traffic.
The explanations I came across for alterations to the bridge seem reasonable, but they do not tell the whole story.
- Reason #1: Industry changed and shut down in Bethlehem as with other Rust Belt cities. Some of the business destinations connected to the bridge were among those that closed, removing the need for the connection.
- Reason #2: Cars became bigger, faster, and more numerous, making it harder to navigate the tight turns on some of the approaches.
The story that is overlooked by these explanations is that in the 1960s a new highway was built from the north directly tying into the bridge. The introduction of high-speed traffic to the bridge, or to any roadway, certainly makes it less safe for local traffic.
As a result of the addition of the highway, instead of connecting the neighborhoods of West Bethlehem, Bethlehem, and South Bethlehem, the bridge funnels traffic directly toward the former steel mill, Lehigh University, and other points south. In fact, the residents of West Bethlehem are practically excluded from using the bridge to get anywhere, as the western ramp is closed to through traffic (though open to parking). To use the Hill-to-Hill Bridge to reach South Bethlehem, a resident of West Bethlehem would have to drive north several blocks to get on the highway going south. Alternately, a resident could go south by taking Spring Street, a road parallel to the western and eastern wings of the bridge, (by)passing under the main span, then skirting around the hill of historic downtown, and taking the Fahy Bridge instead.
People living and working in the historic downtown area (the Bethlehem neighborhood) are also now limited in their use of the bridge. If coming across the bridge from the south, they can take the eastern viaduct to enter the historic downtown, but to leave the area by way of the Hill-to-Hill Bridge, they would have to drive north to the same highway access point as the residents of West Bethlehem. They could alternately take the Fahy Bridge for a more direct route south.
Use of the bridge is a little easier as a pedestrian, though it is still the most challenging for residents of West Bethlehem. For pedestrians to access the bridge from the west, they would have to use the sidewalks on Spring Street, walk under the main span, and climb a towering staircase up to the sidewalks on the bridge. If they are not able to use the stairs, they could keep going on Spring Street up the hill to the eastern end of the viaduct. Once on the bridge, both the historic downtown and south side are accessible. Given the history of the bridge, I imagine that there once was a time when there were crosswalks at the intersection of the main span and the east and west spurs so that pedestrians had full use of the structure just as drivers would have had.
The shift in the bridge’s focus from local to regional traffic seems like a classic case of the Urban Renewal efforts of the 1950s and 1960s. The discussion among planners and officials in recent years is how do they undo or erase the mistakes of Urban Renewal. Pittsburgh is trying to reconnect the local by returning some one-way roads to two-way traffic and by building a cap over the highway that divided downtown and the Hill District. As I watch these developments in Pittsburgh, I wonder if there are ways to return the Hill-to-Hill Bridge to a focus on the local.
For example: The highway has to end at some point, which is currently at the southern end of the bridge. What if it were moved to the north end of the bridge? If a traffic light were introduced there, the western branch could be reopened to through traffic and the eastern branch could be restored to two-way traffic. Pedestrians would also be able to then use all the remaining approaches. Thus, West Bethlehem, Bethlehem, and South Bethlehem would be reconnected for the enjoyment of pedestrians and drivers.
This suggestion is based upon the assumption that the local community would want to be better connected by way of this bridge. Perhaps the question that should come before “what is the purpose of a bridge?” is “who gets to decide the purpose of a bridge?”
*By prioritizing connections, Clarence W Hudson, the bridge’s designer, was forced to develop a one-of-a-kind truss design to accommodate the railroad tracks beneath the bridge and the connections coming into the bridge. There is no record of this truss design being used on any other bridge.
Previous posts in this series:
What is a Bridge? Pittsburgh Edition I (July 18, 2012)
What is a Bridge? Pittsburgh Edition II (July 27, 2012)
What is a Bridge? Chicago Edition I (April 18, 2013)
What is a Bridge? Chicago Edition II (February 1, 2020)
What is a Bridge? Bethlehem Edition I (July 1, 2020)