Many people knew Los Angeles' Sixth Street Bridge as a city landmark, or from its cameos in movies and television. But for those who grew up near it, the bridge was much more than that.
The 84-year-old fixture that ran across the Los Angeles River was closed on Wednesday. It's set to be demolished a week from Friday, and eventually replaced with a new bridge.
The day it closed, Boyle Heights native Chris Castellanos stood by the bridge with a friend and his young nephew, looking west toward over the river toward downtown. The bridge stood empty except for a couple of police cars, parked there to steer away traffic. Castellanos looked wistful.
“It’s our bridge, basically," Castellanos said. "It’s our L.A. bridge.”
The Sixth Street Bridge isn't the only bridge spanning the river. But it holds a special place among Eastsiders, for different reasons.
Depending on what role it's played in one's life, it's been a connection to work, a connection to the rest of the city - and in some ways, a connection to the rest of the world. It bridges a river that for much of the city’s history has been a dividing line of sorts, separating the working-class Latino Eastside from the rest of town.
Manuel Garcia also looked out across the bridge Wednesday, accompanied by his young grandsons on their bikes. The 66-year-old grandfather lives a few blocks away.
“I used it to go downtown," Garcia said in Spanish, "to shop, to look around, to eat – downtown is where you go to see what’s new.”
In a way that's how I remember the bridge, as a way to get to a part of Los Angeles that, at the time, seemed so much different than our own. We lived in Huntington Park, a little ways south of Boyle Heights. My mom took the bus across the river every day to work downtown.
Some weekends we'd drive downtown to shop - or if we felt really adventurous, we might go as far as Hollywood, or even the Miracle Mile. Coming over the bridge, the downtown skyline would open up in front of us, like a different city altogether.
For other Eastside kids, the bridge was a place to hang out. Especially if they were into cars.
“We would drive straight down Santa Fe and go street race under the bridge," said Robert Velis, a former classmate of mine who's known in the custom-car world as 'VW Kidd' for his customized vintage Volkswagens. "We would go there, hang out, cruise our Volkswagens and low-riders.”
In the 80s, Velis would make the trek north from Huntington Park, usually sporting a lowered vintage Beetle - what became known as "Cal-Style" bugs. The Sixth Street Bridge formed part of a cruising loop going from Whitter Boulevard across the river to Elysian Park, and sometimes into Hollywood.
But even with a cool car, cruising west as a teenager was an adventure - and a little intimidating.
“I knew that crossing the bridge, that I was going into another part of town - or another world, basically, at that time," Velis said. "On the east side of that bridge, it represented my home, what I felt comfortable with. In a sense when I crossed over that bridge, it was a little uncomfortable because I felt out of my element, going downtown and up into the Westside."
We both live west of the river now. But the bridges we used to cross still hold their magic. And on the flip side, for some who grew up on the other side of the river, they hold their magic in reverse.
Boyle Heights coffee shop owner Chuy Tovar grew up in the Lincoln Heights housing projects, slightly west of the river and north of downtown. He says there wasn’t much to do there - so his family would cross the Sixth Street Bridge going east.
“We were in the middle of nowhere, so we attached ourselves to the Eastside," said Tovar, who co-owns the Primera Taza coffeehouse on First Street.
For Tovar's Mexican immigrant parents, the east side of the river was where their cultural touchstone sat. There were relatives there and familiar stores and restaurants. So they'd make their way down the industrial streets of eastern downtown to the bridge, and cross toward bustling Whittier Boulevard.
“For us, it was a gateway to the Eastside," Tovar explained. "My dad, he’s from Jalisco, and my mom as well. So anything that happened or that they knew about always happened to the east of us, in East L.A. or Boyle Heights...And that’s the way we came."
The night before the bridge closed, fans of the Sixth Street Bridge gathered there one last time. Boyle Heights resident Joe Martinez drove his '66 convertible VW bug to the bridge and watched everyone cruise by.
"The vibe was awesome," said Martinez, who drives an MTA bus for a living. "All kinds of cars were coming by, just really nice low-rider cars, and bikes, Harleys, all kinds."
But for people like him who know the bridge intimately, the farewell was bittersweet. Martinez not only grew up near the bridge in Boyle Heights, but he drove a bus across it every day for years, ferrying working commuters from the Eastside to points west.
"There are lots of bridges - Fourth Street, Sixth Street, Seventh Street," Martinez said. "But that one is the most iconic. Now it's going to be gone. It's sad."