Thursday, February 11, 2010

Protection in the Commons

A few years ago, in the never ending search for money to pay for things, the government agency in charge of the Golden Gate Bridge (which links San Francisco to Marin County) explored letting a corporation place advertising on the bridge. Whether this would have been a billboard or banner, or something painted on the bridge itself was never known because the outcry against the idea was immediate and furious and the plan was quickly dropped. People recognized a “commons” in their midst—in this case an iconic structure—and rose to its defense. We did not want the integrity and beauty of the Bridge defaced with advertising.

However, there is a shadow side to this allegiance to the Golden Gate Bridge. As you may know, in addition to being one of the most beautiful structures in the world, the Bridge has the dubious distinction of being “the top suicide magnet on earth” according to the Contra Costa Crisis Center’s fall newsletter, “24-7”. In an article called “Secrets of the Bridge” they report that at least 1500 people have leaped to their death from this bridge. The first suicide occurred only 10 weeks after the bridge opened. The victim was a World War I veteran, and since then upwards of 200 suicides have been veterans.

For years, people have proposed various suicide barriers on the bridge, but none have ever been put in place. The objections are various: cost, controversy over whether the various proposed barriers would actually work, and not wanting the bridge’s beauty compromised. The advocates for a barrier have never been able to rally the support they need.

I admit to being one of the people who never advocated for a barrier. I have often thought that people who are going to commit suicide are going to do it and the bridge is simply a dramatic and quite successful place to do it from. However, this is apparently not true. In a study done with 515 people who were stopped from jumping off the Bridge, more than 94% were still alive 25 years later or, if dead, had not committed suicide. Other international icons that suicidal people might be drawn to, such as the Eiffel Tower, Empire State Building, Sydney Harbour Bridge, and St. Peter’s Basilica, all have suicide barriers.

Here, in a sense, is a conflict between the beauty of the bridge and the need to protect people who are in a desperate and vulnerable life crisis. To add a barrier, even if unsightly, is the right thing to go, the commons thing to do. What if the aforementioned advertising revenues could pay for this barrier? Still wrong to accept it, I think. Commons thinking says that the government should be able to create or find the revenue to build this barrier and that vulnerable people should not depend for help on corporate advertising. People like me need to get busy pressuring the powers-that-be (beginning with researching who they are) to fund a barrier because ultimately the beauty of the Golden Gate Bridge is greatly lessened by the moniker, “Top Suicide Magnet on Earth.”

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