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The Bay Lights put the Bay Bridge front-and-center for a change

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The Bay Bridge, connecting Oakland and San Francisco, has endured since 1936 as the Bay Area’s plain older sister: strong, hard working and taken for granted, while the Golden Gate is celebrated as an orange beauty in the mist — the subject of songs, photographs and hailed as the monument of reaching the West Coast.

Although the Bay Bridge is longer, accommodates more traffic, and is just six months older, it has never enjoyed the same place in our nation’s folklore as the iconic Golden Gate Bridge.


However, it was the Bay Bridge’s turn in the national spotlight last March when it was illuminated with 25,000 individually programmed LED lights. Designed and configured by artist Leo Villareal, The Bay Lights sculpture covers the bridge’s western span. It shimmers with moving patterns that evoke the pleasures of raindrops, shooting stars, waves and whatever else may come into a viewer’s imagination.

The Bay Lights, on display through March 2015, is the brainchild of Ben Davis, chair of Illuminate the Arts, the San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that oversees the dazzling art installation.

“I view the Golden Gate as the world’s bridge, but I consider the Bay Bridge to be our region’s bridge,” Davis explained in a phone interview with CityPASS. “It’s never received the recognition it deserves as our nation’s second-busiest bridge, and for its 75th anniversary, I wanted to find a way to make it shine in our consciousness again.”

Davis credited team support on the project. It not only required planning, permits and $8 million in private fundraising, it also took the labor of 8-10 electricians working nights for six months.

Picture the crew working through the winter, using 60,000 zip ties to fasten the thousands of white LED lights, spaced a foot apart, onto suspender cables spanning the length of 26 1/2 football fields.

While most viewers simply revel in the experience of the lights, the connection to community runs much deeper for Davis and those involved in the project.

“Since the 1989 earthquake, the Bay Bridge has undergone extensive repairs and retrofits to make it safe,” Davis said. “The new East Span of the bridge opened to traffic last September, and the entire West Span between Treasure Island and San Francisco was retrofitted at great effort and cost. That work was never celebrated. So we’re incorporating that into our celebration of human connection with art.”


Visitors are able to see the Bay Lights from a variety of locations in San Francisco, but Davis offers a couple of special favorites.

“Indoors, the bar at Waterbar is just exquisite,” he said. “I love the building, the architecture and the way the windows frame the view of the bridge.”

“Outdoors, I love walking to the end of Pier 14, which is the closest location to the Bay Bridge and a couple of football fields away from downtown’s city lights,” Davis said. “There, I can watch the lights while standing in the darkness.”

Another prime viewing location is at the end of Pier 7 on San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf.


The Bay Lights team is discussing ways to celebrate the art installation’s one-year anniversary that occurs this March. Activities may include waterfront events, restaurant gatherings and cruise boat celebrations.

Although the details haven’t been ironed out, what is apparent is a strong community and political desire to extend the installation beyond its permitted end date of March 2015. According to Davis, if a plan comes together to extend the sunset date, the Illuminate the Arts group will be spearheading that effort. Still, at some point, the lights will have to come down in order to repaint the bridge.

“The bridge is a living piece of infrastructure that has to be maintained,” Davis said. “But we’re hoping we’ll have a lot more to share aboutThe Bay Lights’ future at our first-anniversary celebration.”

This first appeared in CityPASS Travel Blog



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