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Transportation and Mobility

LA’s 6th Street Bridge May Be A Symbol, But It’s Also Just A Bridge. Here’s How People Are Using It

Two cyclists ride side by side in a bike lane of the new 6th Street Bridge as the downtown Los Angeles skyline is lit up by the sunset in the background.
Bicyclists ride across the recently opened 6th Street Bridge in Los Angeles on Friday, Aug. 5, 2022.
(Trevor Stamp for LAist)
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By now, you’ve probably heard plenty about the 6th Street Bridge. If not, here are the basics: the recently opened viaduct spans the Los Angeles River, connecting Boyle Heights to the east with downtown L.A.’s Arts District to the west. It replaced a beloved but dangerous-in-an-earthquake bridge that was torn down in 2016.

Since it opened, the new bridge has been the site of dangerous driving (and the inevitable crashes), risky antics by some pedestrians, death-defying skateboarders, street takeovers, bike lanes dubbed “protected” but also “permeable” by the city, and heavy policing. All that activity generated plenty of headlines and think-pieces, some wondering what the bridge tells us about the future of Los Angeles.

And while we understand that the viaduct may be a symbol or omen of something larger than the steel and concrete structure itself, it’s also a bridge. L.A. Police now say things have calmed down a bit. Thousands of people are walking, rolling and driving across it every day, and most of them aren’t doing burnouts, climbing the arches or partaking in other risky behaviors for some social media clout.

On a recent Friday, journalists from our newsroom spent the afternoon and evening on and around the bridge to see how Angelenos and visitors are using it and what it means for them. Here’s what we saw and what bridge-goers had to say.

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‘It’s Fantastic Art’

A man in a red jacket and hat takes a photo of the arch-filled 6th Street Bridge and downtown L.A. skyline.
Bob Gurr, 91, snaps a photo of the 6th Street Bridge on Friday, Aug. 5, 2022.
(Trevor Stamp for LAist)

Bob Gurr zipped along the bridge on his personal scooter, stopping to take photos as the setting sun lit up the clouds over downtown L.A.'s skyline.

“[I was] born here 91 years ago. I've watched the city change all these years, lived through the ‘30s, World War II. Now look what we've gotten in Los Angeles!”

Diehard Disney fans know Gurr, or at least his work. He was an early Imagineer at Disneyland, credited with designing dozens of ride vehicles, including Autopia, the Matterhorn bobsleds and the monorail. He made sure to pitch us his Instagram (“I have 35,000 followers!”).

As a designer, Gurr had a lot of insights about the viaduct, which he called “a fabulous spot.”

“This bridge has way more art in its civil engineering than I've ever seen. You have to go down underneath it. You have to be here at this time at night and look at the way the light goes over these arches and all the detail… We liked the old one, but boy, this bridge! The whole world is going to take note how you can use concrete and zinc-coated steel — and it's fantastic art.”
A man in a red jacket and hat and his friend pose for a photo on the 6th Street Bridge with the downtown Los Angeles skyline is visible in the distance.
Former Disney Imagineer Bob Gurr, 91, left, visited with bridge with friend Stan Baryla, 53, on Friday, Aug. 5, 2022.
(Trevor Stamp for LAist)

Based on the public reception to the new bridge, Gurr said he’d like to see the city close it off to car traffic — at least on weekends — to allow people to enjoy the public space on foot or on wheels.

Memories And A Straight Shot To Work

Kat Guerrero was born and raised in Boyle Heights. She was visiting the new bridge for the first time with family, who still live in the neighborhood. Guerrero told us she was enjoying the walk.

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“I want to keep doing it, especially with my daughter… I want her to see more of L.A.”

Guerrero has a lot of memories of the old 6th Street bridge, which she used to walk and take the bus across, plus some trips just to look at it with her boyfriend.

“What makes it a big thing is the movies it's been in,” she said of the original bridge, a future she also sees for the new one. “Now that it’s here, you could see all the new movies that they’re gonna make with this bridge.”

Guerrero also said it’ll be great for residents like her who live east of the river, but commute west for work.

“I work in McArthur Park so it makes it easier for me to get to work as well, so I don't have to worry about ‘Oh, I have to take Seventh Street’ or ‘Oh no, I gotta go to Fourth’... I could just go straight down Soto and Whittier all the way down and then I'll make it to downtown L.A. much faster.”

'Vamos A Salir Adelante'

On the east side of the bridge, where the undulating concrete arches give way to Whittier Boulevard, several local vendors have set up shop.

Pedestrians seeking relief from the heat can choose from items like diced fruit or ice cold horchata. Those looking for something more hefty can treat themselves to anything from birria ramen to crêpes.

Olga Hernández set up her fruit stand when the bridge reopened. And like the bridge, she’s starting anew.

So far, business has been flowing, she said. Olga sets up at 10:30 a.m. with a multicolored patio umbrella to shield her from the sun. Cyclists, joggers and anyone else on foot who could use an agua fresca break flock to her. She offers two types of drinks: agua de jamaica, a tart iced tea made of dried hibiscus flower, and horchata, which is sweet, made of rice and cinnamon-rich.

For the rest of her day, she sells to the customers of a nearby laundromat or to tourists. They come from all over California and other parts of the world. Earlier this summer, Olga sold fruit to three girls from Guadalajara, Mexico. They didn’t want to leave L.A. without snagging a photo on the bridge.

Around 7 p.m., Hernández closes up shop and heads back to her home in Boyle Heights, where her husband and four daughters await. Her business had a rocky start, she told us. When the bridge first opened, the driving antics of some visitors prompted the police to temporarily close it off. Olga said the police apologized to her, knowing that the shutdowns would affect her business.

Despite the initial hiccups, Olga remains optimistic and hopes to slowly roll out more items. “It’s good for money to stay here in our community,” she said.

Olga was the first street vendor on the east side of the bridge. Now she has neighbors. A few feet away from the fruit stand, Karina Hernández who is not related to herset up a fully equipped taco and torta stand.

A woman stands behind a table with two large buckets of beverages intended to serve customers.
Within moments of putting up her taco and torta stand, Karina Hernández already had customers.
(Julia Barajas

Just minutes after she and her crew finished propping up the red tents in early August, a customer wandered over. The alluring scent of freshly cooked beans, rice, carnitas, chicken and other meats made the Puebla-style treats hard to resist.

“It’s hard to find work,” said Karina, so she decided to launch her own business to support her family.

Yadira Hernández, who is also not related to the other women, shares this sentiment. Like Karina, it was her first day setting up.

She’s opted to sell fruit-filled crêpes topped with almonds, whipped cream, chocolate drizzle — anything a customer might crave.

Yadira recently arrived from Totonicapán, Guatemala with her 8-year-old son. They like to cross it together at night when it’s luminous.

“Vamos a salir adelante” (We’ll make it through), she said, adding the popularity of the new bridge is giving her an opportunity to make a living in the U.S.

‘Enjoy It But Don’t F— It Up’

A person on a bicycle rides on a concrete path under the large lit-up 6th Street bridge.
A bicyclist rides underneath the 6th Street Bridge in Los Angeles on Friday, Aug. 5, 2022.
(Trevor Stamp for LAist)

The winding helix structure on the north side of the viaduct allows people to make their way up to it from Mission Road or connect to the other side of the bridge on a walkway underneath it.

As people move up and down the helix, a group of cyclists sit on its concrete ledge, sipping from beer cans and smoking joints.

Not all of them wanted to share their names, but a few introduced themselves as Ernie, Berto, Lucas and Chris. Most of them have been riding together for about 15 years and have incorporated the new bridge into their regular Friday night rides. Tonight they rode up from South Central and stopped here for a break and photo op on their way to Griffith Park.

One feature they’d like to see improved is the bike lanes. They suggest making them wider and swapping the plastic posts for metal beams to make them truly protective for cyclists.

“[Drivers] don’t pay attention. You gotta pay attention to yourself, especially riding a fixed gear, you gotta be ready [and] know when to stop.”

They’ve also noticed a fair amount of people walking in the bike lane, which defeats the purpose of giving cyclists a dedicated space. Still, they said it’s cool that the bridge has drawn so many people. Their advice to bridge-goers:

“Enjoy it but don’t f— it up.”

“People, stop acting reckless on the bridge…First day I came, I was like, damn, this is nice. [imitates sounds of car burning out] Man, there they go! F—ing up the street.”

A Photogenic First Visit

Montebello resident Edgar Estrada visited the bridge with his son, Samuel, who brought his A-game for a photo shoot. The 6-year-old stood on the concrete barrier separating the pedestrian walkway from the bike lane, jumping and making superhero poses like a pro.

His dad said they wanted to check out the much-hyped viaduct and get some photos before Samuel has to go back to school.

“It's a beautiful bridge but it's sad that there's already skid marks all over it,” Estrada said.

He’d seen the news about antics on the new bridge and even asked some of the police officers patrolling it if they planned to close it that night.

“They said probably around 2 a.m.,” he told me. ”Probably in the middle of night is when people come out here and do their stuff.”

You couldn't miss the substantial police presence on the bridge. During our time on the viaduct, there was a near-constant flow of patrol cars driving back and forth to discourage people from driving too fast or too slow (as in fully stopping in lanes to take photos).

Boyle Heights Remembers

If the bridge is a symbol of what’s to come, it’s also a reminder of what’s been lost. This is true for Efraín Martínez, who owned Zapotec Café, a small restaurant once located just off of Soto Street and Whittier Boulevard.

For Boyle Heights residents, Zapotec Café often functioned as a community center.
(Henry Q
Courtesy of Efraín Martínez)

The shop opened up in 2014, then changed its name in 2016. It wasn’t anything fancy, said Martínez. He described the feel of the place as “a bit rustic.” His friend made the tables from recycled material, so some of them were a little wobbly. Still, he said, the shop had “a big personality.”

Martínez is originally from San Lucas Quiaviní in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. To educate customers about his hometown, some of the menu items were named after deities like Cocijo, the Zapotec god of thunder and lightning.

In addition to serving sandwiches and drinks, the shop also functioned as a gallery for local artists and as a lending library. It also staged music nights and fundraisers for community members going through a rough patch.

On most days, Martínez would wake up at 5 a.m., go grocery shopping, then hurry to open the shop by 8 a.m. Before anyone came through the door, he’d have a cup of coffee and take it all in.

“At that time, I was proud of where I was in my life,” he said. “I was, like, ‘Wow. I'm really doing this.’”

A painting of Efraín Martínez in Zapotec Café, by artist Emilia Cruz.
( Courtesy Efraín Martínez)

Martínez, who lives on the Westside, spent most of his time at the shop in Boyle Heights. “I’d go home just to sleep,” he said. His customers took notice. Some offered to rent him a room so he wouldn’t have to drive so much — this at a time when concerns about gentrification were top of mind and some locals made sure to communicate that outsiders were not welcome.

In 2016, Mayor Eric Garcetti and the Roosevelt High School Jazz Band performed beneath the original 6th Street Bridge, encouraging commuters to reroute during the demolition, which required freeway closures.

Then, once construction for the new bridge got under way, Martínez began to notice less foot traffic. Commuters also stopped coming by. He tried to keep his small business afloat and even started a GoFundMe account to fundraise. Community members eagerly pitched in. Some even stopped by the shop, asking how else they could help out.

But the bills kept piling up, and Martínez didn’t want to go into more debt. He held one last music night in August 2018. Then, he closed for good.

“I would really beat myself up for it back then. It was a business I put a lot of brain and a lot of heart into.”

Martínez is a photographer. And when the new bridge opened to the public in July, he was there to help break it in. He thought about Zapotec Café as he walked around, recalling the teachers who’d drop by for lunch. He also remembered the local tire shop owner who always ordered the same thing: lemonade with a mint leaf.

Then, while setting up his tripod, some of his old customers stopped to greet him. One man proudly re-introduced Martínez to his children, who were now grown.

“I wasn't ready for that,” said Martínez, acknowledging that he became emotional. “Being on the bridge, seeing all the familiar faces. I was like, man, people actually remember.”

A couple holds hands as they walk two dogs on the new 6th Street Bridge as the downtown Los Angeles skyline is lit up by the sunset in the background.
A couple walk their dogs across the 6th Street Bridge in Los Angeles on Friday, Aug. 5, 2022.
(Trevor Stamp for LAist)
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