July 2010

A paean to the Golden Gate

By Kevin Starr
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Kevin Starr calls the Golden Gate Bridge America’s greatest bridge. It’s a debatable point. There is, for example, the Brooklyn Bridge, which Starr acknowledges has inspired far more great art (but fewer movies) than the bridge he says “embodies a beauty at once useful and transcendent.”

But Starr may be biased. He is a native San Franciscan, the author of the monumental seven-volume history of California collectively called Americans and the California Dream and the foremost public intellectual in the state. He is also a highly regarded scholar, and as a scholar he sees the bridge not just as a remarkably graceful engineering marvel but also as a text to be interpreted and contextualized. He says, for example, that the bridge “announced to the world something important about the American imagination and the American stewardship of the continent, at its best,” and elsewhere compares it to the Parthenon, “Platonic in its perfection.”

This is interesting to a point. But the book is at its absolute best in the middle chapters when Starr steps down from Olympus and gives us the nuts and bolts of the building of the bridge. Starr was once California’s state librarian and knows well the ins and outs of its contentious politics. His account of the turf and money battles surrounding the making of the bridge—and of the fragile or Napoleonic egos of the bridge’s proponents and opponents—is shrewd and gripping. Even better is his compact account of the actual construction.

Starr has seemingly read everything about the bridge and proves himself a master of synthesis and selection. He sprinkles his account with fascinating nuggets of information. Who knew, for example, that the bridge, completed in May 1937, was delayed because the War Department feared it would threaten military navigation? Or that its construction manager established the hard-hat requirement that would become standard in the construction industry—and also provided his men with sauerkraut juice to kill their Monday-morning hangovers (which did not become a standard)? Starr even devotes a chapter to suicides from the bridge, not just because this is part of its renown, but because a suicide barrier is at the center of a very contentious contemporary political fight.

Starr’s occasionally plodding prose does not always equal the grandeur of the bridge he celebrates. But his slender Golden Gate is surely the best compact account of this American icon currently in print.

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