Perhaps no human construction is more emblematic of its city than the Golden Gate Bridge. Spanning the 1.7-mile divide between
the Marina district and the headlands of Marin County, it is San Francisco’s most recognizable landmark, attracting
more than 10 million visitors each year.
For all its resplendent glory, though, there is an inescapable aura of darkness surrounding the brilliantly hued suspension
bridge that has come to symbolize Herb Caen’s cool, grey city of love to the rest of the world.
Gladys Hansen, curator of the Museum of the City of San Francisco, has labeled the bridge “a monument to death.”
Mel Blaustein, president of the Psychiatric Foundation of Northern California, concurs, calling it “the number-one site
in the world for suicide.” Even the Reverend Jim Jones, who famously led his People’s Temple adherents on a suicide
mission to Jonestown, Guyana, once derided the bridge as “a symbol of human ingenuity, technological genius, but social
Director Eric Steel, whose new documentary The Bridge depicts men and women plunging to their deaths from the heights
of the span, agrees.
“There is a romance to the Golden Gate that promotes itself,” he explains. “But the main thing about the
bridge’s abnormally high suicide rate is that it’s so easy to climb over those rails. If it were harder to climb
the rails, if they put up barriers, people wouldn’t be going there. It wouldn’t take away the beauty of the place,
but it would save lives.”
Steel, who was drawn to the topic by a New Yorker article published three years ago, is now an outspoken advocate of
protective barriers on the bridge, the site of more than 1,300 suicides since its 1937 opening. Still, he is all too familiar
with the reluctance of the Golden Gate District Authority, which has consistently shied away from making such alterations.
“The people who run that bridge are only responsible for what happens on that two-mile stretch of road,” he says.
“They need to take responsibility for their railings and protect people. I understand why it’s difficult for them
to take such a big step when the responsibility is so much broader than that. There is a civic obligation that we all have
to take care of these people. What happens on the bridge isn’t the result of one moment of thought. It’s the life
that led them to that point, and we need to intervene earlier.”
During the yearlong filming of “The Bridge,” Steel estimates that he and his crew rescued at least six would-be
jumpers by contacting the police. Now, he hopes that the Bridge Authority, which recently commissioned a two-year suicide
deterrent study, will take the next logical step – but he’s not exactly holding his breath.
“I wish I could have faith in the Bridge District Authority, but I don’t,” he admits. “Their strategy
has been to wait out public outcry as if it were bad press. When the article in the New Yorker came out, every argument against
the idea of protective barriers was effectively debunked.
“With this film, there is footage of people ending their lives on the bridge. It’s not a description anymore –
it’s real. There is incontrovertible evidence. Unfortunately for the Bridge Authority, this film will live on forever,
and it’s up to the people of San Francisco to exert pressure on them to do what’s right.”