As the sun dawdled Wednesday in the space between the arches of the 6th Street Viaduct, then dipped beneath the city skyline, everyone on the bridge turned to watch it go, no matter which way they were walking.
It was a perfect cool summer night, and they were taking in the sunset from the only place in the city worth watching it from.
It’s the summer of the bridge in Los Angeles, and as the sun goes down the rhythm on the young structure picks up — the dog walkers and juice drinkers give way to partiers and beer drinkers all eager to find out what it is that’s drawing everyone to this spot.
“In the whole scheme of things, it’s just a street that crosses another street and gets you from one thing to another,” said longtime downtown resident William Gillard, 79, shaking his head and looking down over the bridge from a dusty hill on the Boyle Heights side. “But if you grew up here, it’s a part of you. It’s our bridge.”
Gillard lived in the Cecil Hotel for 34 years and loved the old 6th Street Viaduct. He took photos as they tore it down and then more as they built its replacement.
“It’s ownership. It’s our bridge because it connected the two sides. People would walk across it constantly, for generations. Kids would come up here and it would be an excursion,” he said.
The bridge has gone from physical structure to phenomenon. The $588-million concrete mass has become the beating heart of Los Angeles over the last two weeks, a must-see and must-experience location for tourists and Angelenos alike.
The antics ramped up to such extremes — from drag races and cars doing donuts in the street, to a man giving a haircut in the middle of the span — that the cops shut down the artery connecting downtown to East LA on four of the last six nights.
The energy on the reopened bridge Wednesday night was festive but relaxed, framed by a blazing orange sunset that gave way to a shroud of blue.
People idled their cars under the bridge next to the Department of Water and Power plant for photo shoots. A cat named Dorothy, on a leash and in a sweater, went for a walk. A woman stripped down to a bathing suit for a photo, then quickly dressed back up. Two dozen cyclists rode down the middle of the street toward downtown. Families returning to Boyle Heights from dinner ambled past. Drones shooting the scene buzzed overhead, under police helicopters. A couple of photographers for the design firm that worked on the construction took photos of people using the bridge “respectfully.”
All the while, LAPD SUVs, like the revealers on the viaduct, slowly patrolled back and forth from downtown to Boyle Heights to the rhythm of the drums being played beneath the bridge.
“I’m connecting with something — the stars, the elements, the music gods, the drums from Africa,” said 54-year-old Army veteran and amateur drummer Jeff Jackson, who lives in an apartment overlooking skid row.
The high beams from his Chevrolet Trailblazer shone toward the bridge, where passersby looked down at the man and his drum set and watched as he bopped along to Kanye West’s “All of The Lights.” Others walked right past without stopping.
“I’m not into the audience part because then you lose the intent. If they like it, cool, but it’s more about your own experience. … I don’t need attention. I just want to play for the bridge,” Jackson said.
The 6th Street Viaduct completed Los Angeles, Jackson said. Driving up it as you come down Whittier Boulevard, the city opens itself up and tells you you have arrived, he said.
“This bridge makes a statement like, ‘Welcome to LA,’” he said.
Jackson was not the only person moved to make music on the new bridge. Earlier Wednesday, while the sun was up, Geovany Taleon, 34, walked across the span playing his alto saxophone.
He played “Stand By Me” as he marched toward downtown.
“Everybody gets a second and first chance,” said the self-admitted former drug user, who dreamed of getting clean and becoming a musician like his family members in Guatemala, where he is originally from. He bought his first saxophone from a friend on $300 credit.
“For me, this is my second chance,” he said.
On the Boyle Heights side, DJ Robby Dinero spun tracks with his headphones on.
“It’s a new beginning. I just want to be a part of it,” said the 33-year-old Inglewood resident as he produced an R&B beat. “The bridge is inspirational. It’s something brand-new and part of our culture. I’m listening to the cars as they go.”
For others, the viaduct is a neighborhood spot, somewhere to take kids at the end of a long day.
“Before, there wasn’t a lot of interest from the city for putting anything in Boyle Heights,” said Joanna G., a longtime resident of the neighborhood, as she walked her son across the bridge. “It’s great. It’s something different, but I don’t like the way some people are acting right now and the way they’re treating the bridge.”
Blair Martin, a 33-year-old construction worker, agreed.
“We have to learn to treat our toys well,” Martin said after posing for photos on the divider. “But also, it’s LA, what are we going to do, let it be pretty?”
As night grew, small groups drinking beer and smoking weed dotted the viaduct. Fireworks shot off from somewhere in Boyle Heights.
Steven Ramirez and his cousins sat on the concrete guardrail between the bicycle and pedestrian lanes enjoying the view of downtown glittering behind the lighted arches.
The group went to the bridge to enjoy some Modelos and kick back at the city’s newest attraction.
They sipped slowly on the north side of the bridge around 10 pm, without a care in the world. It was their second stop after killing some Coronas in Elysian Park.
“Personally, I’ve drank in front of the police before, that’s not what they care about,” Ramirez said. “The cops don’t care about us. It’s the people burning rubber. The people doing donuts. The people going up the arches.
“We enjoy views like this in LA It’s like an amusement park here, everybody walking back and forth,” he said.
“This is the best thing LA has to offer,” his cousin added happily.
“We’re just chilling, doing nothing bad,” Ramirez said again.
Ramirez — wearing a Nike palm tree shirt and with a palm tree tattoo on his neck — was so convinced he was doing nothing wrong that he didn’t immediately believe that the LAPD cruiser that had pulled up about 100 feet away was coming for him. Two officers got out and holstered their night sticks.
“They’re not coming for us,” Ramirez said, sipping his beer.
His cousin returned some unopened Templates to a backpack. The cops got closer.
“They might be coming for us,” Ramirez admitted.
The cops shined a flashlight in the men’s faces.
“You guys been drinking?” one asked.
The men tried to deny it, but the empty Models on the railing betrayed them. The police offered them a chance to leave the bridge instead of getting ticketed.
As one of his cousins gathered up the empty cans, Ramirez tried to take his open Modelo with him. When he did not immediately pour the beer out, one of the two officers grabbed him and pulled his arms behind his back as Ramirez yelled at the officer to let him go.
“I’m doing nothing wrong,” Ramirez said.
“Think about your kids,” Ramirez said after the cop twisted his arm to splash out the remainder of the beer.
“I don’t have any kids,” the officer retorted.
The cop eventually released Ramirez. who was dragged off toward Boyle Heights by his cousins. They held him back as he continued to yell obscenities at the cop. The officer threatened Ramirez with a night in jail if he kept talking.
The minute-long interruption disturbed the otherwise tranquil night. The crowds thinned as Jackson continued to beat his drums.
“It’s really nice and quite peaceful,” said Shanelle Oquinn, who lives in East LA “We haven’t had anything new in a long time and everyone is used to the places we have. When you finally have something new, everybody’s drawn to it.”