Five years ago today, on August 1, 2007, the 35W bridge in Minneapolis suddenly collapsed during the evening rush hour, sending everyone driving on it — all those people running end-of-day errands and singing along with the radio and thinking about what to fix for supper — plummeting into the Mississippi River below. Thirteen people were killed when the bridge fell that day, and 145 more injured.
But those numbers, tragic as they are, don’t tell the whole story. “140,000 people cross that bridge every day,” says poet Todd Boss. “We all know someone who was involved in the collapse — someone who crossed the bridge close to the time it fell, or who watched it happen, or who went to try to help in the aftermath.”
Tonight, at 8 p.m. on the Stone Arch Bridge, just across the river from the rebuilt 35W bridge in downtown Minneapolis, Todd Boss and Swedish visual artist Maja Spasova will unveil a large-scale public art project in the Mississippi River, which they created in honor of the fifth anniversary of the fatal bridge collapse.
“Project 35W” consists of three parts. Todd Boss has written a series of poems (35 short pieces, each 35 words in length), “Fragments for the 35W Bridge,” which is printed in full in the Variety section of today’s “Minneapolis Star-Tribune” (all of the poems are also available online on the newspaper’s website). There is an audio component, too, featuring Boss’s poems, as read in the voices of Minnesotans, remixed and produced by Spasova and accessible by phone. Finally, there are 35 oversized, white life preservers, floating beneath the Stone Arch Bridge, in the Mississippi River. On the “Star-Tribune” web page for “Project 35W,” there are additional recordings of residents’ stories, gathered by the two artists at the Central Library in Minneapolis earlier this year, when they invited community members to come and recount their memories from that day.
Boss relates his own story from the day the bridge fell: “I crossed it that day, like so many other people. I crossed 20 minutes before the bridge fell. It’s part of my daily commute. I got home as usual, and my cousin called me; he told me the bridge had just fallen into the river. I couldn’t quite process the information, it was just so shocking. I had to watch CNN and see the images for myself. I remember watching on TV, like everyone else, for hours, before I could believe it really happened.”
Boss is clear about the scope of “Project 35W.” It isn’t intended to be a memorial per se, but rather a “contemplative marker” of the tragedy. He says, “There’s already a memorial for the victims of the bridge collapse, and I’m not a survivor or a victim in any way. But so many hundreds of thousands of us weren’t — and it still affected us, we still felt the shock of loss.”
Maja Spasova has created similar public art installations all over Europe. She and Boss met three years ago, both of them artists in residence at Ragdale, a retreat center in Chicago. The two hit it off, and both loved the other’s work; they agreed to collaborate on a project someday. Boss remembers Spasova, at one point, asked him about the bridge collapse, saying, “You have this iconic river in your backyard, and this thing happened. Let’s talk about that.”
He says, “My first thought was, I have no business writing about this – I have no greater connection to this than anyone else. But thinking about what Maja said, three years after the fact, I began to write a little about it. And as I wrote, it occurred to me that I did have things to say about the bridge: I was angry and heartbroken and ashamed, and I had a real quarrel with my government about allowing such a thing to happen.”
“To my mind,” he goes on, “there hasn’t up to now been a logical moment we could all touch on and share about what happened that day. This is a memorial for the rest of us, for the whole community.”
As we talk about tonight’s unveiling of the project, Spasova explains the significance of the white buoys in the river: “The people who were responsible — for maintaining the bridge, for keeping it in good repair — they neglected to provide necessary ‘life rings’ for the community that relied on them to take care of their duties.”
She goes on, “What a horrible feeling it must have been to fall into the river, how lonely, with no human hand extended to help. I don’t know if we who are alive can really imagine the horror of that… So [with our installation] we’re supplying life rings for the ones that were missing that day. We all need life rings, don’t we? In form of love, of security, of forgiveness. Even though I wasn’t present for this day, tragedy isn’t unknown to me. It’s a universal experience.”
Boss reflects, “We all have nightmares of falling. How terrible that the bridge collapse made that nightmare come true. It brought home that anything can happen to anyone at any time. All it takes is one day, one failure — and the whole thing comes crashing down.”
Below is one of the 35 poems of Boss’s “Fragments for 35W” (republished here with permission):
The public is invited to an informal unveiling of “Project 35W,” an art installation in honor of the 5th anniversary of the bridge collapse, held tonight, August 1 at 8 p.m. at the northeast end of the Stone Arch Bridge in downtown Minneapolis. The installation will be on view through August 31. Visitors and others may call 612-573-5900 to hear Todd Boss’s poem-in-35-parts, “Fragments for the 35W Bridge.” For photos, community stories, audio, archives about the bridge collapse, visit: www.startribune.com/35Wpoems. You can find still more details about this project and the unveiling on Facebook: www.facebook.com/Project35W.installation.