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Have you seen this? Padlock placemaking on the Esplanade

Posted by on August 20th, 2013 at 9:20 am

padlocks on the Eastbank Esplanade

People have spontaneously chosen the Eastbank Esplanade’s grated bridge as a place to commemorate love.
(Photo © M.Andersen/BikePortland)

Every day, Portland’s Eastbank Esplanade is a thumping, clunking, whirring, panting mile of proof that human-friendly infrastructure in a common public space can create great results.

At an urban development conference I attended in May, a fellow reporter told me about a rule of thumb in the architecture world: the hallmark of successful urban design is that it makes couples want to share a kiss. Beautiful views and pleasant places make people want to express love.

Have you noticed that people have recently felt a similar impulse on the Esplanade’s grated crossing just north of the Morrison Bridge? Over the last two years, the fence overlooking the Willamette River there has started filling up with padlocks marked with hearts, dates and people’s names.

Love padlocks are a tradition that might have started in Serbia in the mid-20th century. They’ve recently spread to public fixtures around the world, from Rome and Prague to Sydney, Montevideo and Seoul. Wikipedia doesn’t know of any other spots here in Oregon.

When the $30 million Esplanade opened in 2001, some called it a triumph and others called it pork, a public handout to central-city residents and workers. But it’s not likely that the dozens of people who’ve been moved to track down padlocks, mark them with the names of loved ones, carry them to this bridge and seal them there are aware of any of that controversy.

And although the Esplanade creates very conventional economic value by providing transportation to thousands of Portlanders each day, I don’t think these people are thinking about it that way, either.

They’re just expressing the emotions that come naturally when a city has a truly beautiful piece of human-friendly public space. Creating a space like that can be expensive, but it’s also priceless.

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  • KJ August 20, 2013 at 9:25 am

    Going street ped bridge has some

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    • 9watts August 20, 2013 at 9:50 am

      I noticed one yesterday on the Hawthorne bridge (South side). I had no idea what it was there for. Thanks for clarifying. Is this at all like the habit of tying a pair of shoes together and lobbing them over the power lines?

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    • MaxD August 20, 2013 at 9:58 am

      the city also comes along and removes them a few times a year. They can’t be bothered to sweep the leaves and gravel off the bridge and ramps up, or pick up the trash, or maintain the landscape; the padlock removal, however, remains a top priority!

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      • Peter Koonce August 20, 2013 at 5:40 pm

        Max/Joey/ et al –

        One of the reasons the City removes them is that if they are placed in the area where the pedestrian/bike gates, they can result in the gate not adequately closing. If you love the Steel Bridge crossing for multimodal travel, then please don’t lock anything to those gates. This has happened twice in the past three years.

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    • JV August 20, 2013 at 3:43 pm

      I have not been over it in a while, but the Concord bike/ped bridge (over Going) has been the locus of bridge/lock culture for at least 5+ years. Which is funny, as it is a counterpoint to the statement made earlier that this would happen at places that are particularly attractive….but that spiral ramp does have a certain charm.

      When I was in Paris earlier this year I saw a few bridges over the Seine with literally thousands of locks on them. Some of the dates scratched on them were from the 1990s, so I am guessing that removel is a very low priority. This is one of those things that a city should really just accept as part of the urban landscape. I can’t believe that there would need to be any sort of effort to remove them!

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  • Spiffy August 20, 2013 at 10:21 am

    I noticed a little over a week ago… adorable… I hope the city leaves them…

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  • Joey August 20, 2013 at 10:26 am

    My girlfriend and I put one on the bridge a few months ago, but unfortunately I think the city cut it off…

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    • 9watts August 20, 2013 at 9:07 pm

      time to open a padlock shop.

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  • Granpa August 20, 2013 at 10:40 am

    How is it different from spray paint graffiti? or the roadside memorials to traffic accidents? or carving into a tree? or the bubble gum wall in San Louis Obispo. It may not be vandalism, but it is not the design intent. People feel they need to change the character of public spaces to “immortalize” their life events. Write a poem, take a photograph but leave your mark on your private property.

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    • Erinne August 20, 2013 at 11:41 am

      Haters are obviously just jealous that they have no one to do this with.

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      • CaptainKarma August 20, 2013 at 12:02 pm

        harsh on granpa, maybe he does have oine there…! but surely it’s not hurting anyone to leave them there, just an extra little something that is not crassly commercially concocted.

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        • Granpa August 20, 2013 at 12:36 pm

          Thanks Karma – FWIW, Happily married w/ 30 year old son (who does not live at home) and I am neither cranky nor a hater.

          I have opinions which you are welcome to refute, but judging me and calling me names is poor form and beneath the character of this forum.

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          • Erinne August 20, 2013 at 2:51 pm

            Taking comments too seriously is exactly within the character of this forum.

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            • annefi August 21, 2013 at 5:16 am

              Adding another viewpoint from a different perspective enhances the forum. And congrats to Granpa and his lady for successfully raising a son who actually lives on his own.

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  • Anne Hawley August 20, 2013 at 10:46 am

    Nice photograph, Michael. I can sort of see this as “vandalism” and yet I like it. It’s less intrusive than yarnbombing–those padlocks won’t look bedraggled and sad by next March–and less potentially damaging than shoes over the wires. People love to decorate their environment. Little padlocks beat the heck out of spraypaint.

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  • specialK August 20, 2013 at 10:48 am

    Hey Granpa, take your own advice and leave your cranky at home.

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  • RWL1776 August 20, 2013 at 10:59 am


    on KGW webpage today…….what about the environmental damage to the waterway from the keys being thrown in the water? Could the corrosion from the keys harm the salmon!? Could thousands of locks, over time, ruin the structural integrity of the fencing and the pathway?

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    • Slammy August 20, 2013 at 11:06 am

      Use a combo lock and make the combo the date of your special event…

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    • Todd Hudson August 20, 2013 at 11:37 am

      No, throwing keys in the water won’t hurt the salmon or hurt the environment, unless you throw hundreds of millions of them in the water.

      Source: I’m a toxicologist.

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      • John Lascurettes August 20, 2013 at 2:00 pm

        There’s already worse things than a tiny key at the bottom of the river anyway.

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  • Fourknees August 20, 2013 at 11:16 am

    There are several in the middle of the lower deck of the steel bridge.

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  • Adam Gnarls August 20, 2013 at 11:25 am

    There already is a designated site in the Western U.S. for this sort of business. Please take it there: http://www.loverslock.com/

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    • Erinne August 20, 2013 at 11:44 am

      Neat, but I can’t get to Nevada on an afternoon ride. That’s what makes the Esplanade so perfect!

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  • Josh G August 20, 2013 at 11:46 am

    Far be it for me to redirect Portland’s amorous intentions, but the highway noise in this spot puts me in a distinctly unromantic mood every time! Is it true that the phenomenon only dates back to 2006 and was merely inspired by a novel? In Italy, the lamposts are falling over from the weight! http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/aug/23/italy-bridges-locks-of-love
    I think the copper in brass keys can’t be good for fish.
    But I’m no Granpa.

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  • CaptainKarma August 20, 2013 at 12:04 pm

    Pretty amazing what people will find to b-itch about.

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  • Brian M August 20, 2013 at 12:39 pm

    My girlfriend (now wife) and I put one on the lower pedestrian/bike crossing of the Steel Bridge about three years ago. It lasted for a while, but it has since been removed.

    Maybe the Parks service will be more romantic than the cold-hearted Union Pacific folks and let them stay.

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  • Mickey August 20, 2013 at 12:55 pm

    Nothing says true love like purchasing a padlock and attaching it to a fence. No wonder Portland’s “culture” is increasingly being associated with mimetic stupidity and infantilism.

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    • ed August 20, 2013 at 1:29 pm

      Yeah, we really should be buying diamonds instead, but only those advertised on sanctioned and permitted billboards with marketing by ‘reputable’ firms.
      If that’s true love, make mine a bloody.

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    • Jules October 10, 2013 at 1:30 pm

      This is hardly just a Portland thing. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_locations_with_love_padlocks

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  • Joe Adamski August 20, 2013 at 1:08 pm

    on the chainlink fencing over Going St on the Concord bike/ped bridge there were maybe 20 a couple years ago.. not sure if they were ‘love lock’ or a ‘schools out for summer’ thing since there is a school nearby.

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  • Chris I August 20, 2013 at 1:54 pm

    This is huge in Europe as well. The train bridge in Cologne was particularly impressive.

    I wonder if the structural engineers factor lock weight into their designs now?

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  • Dwayne Dibbly August 20, 2013 at 2:21 pm

    Perfect for honing my locksport skills!

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  • Grandma August 20, 2013 at 2:22 pm

    although the Esplanade creates very conventional economic value by providing transportation to thousands of Portlanders each day, I don’t think these people are thinking about it that way, either.

    They’re just expressing the emotions that come naturally

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  • q`Tzal August 20, 2013 at 2:24 pm

    Humans: they do the oddest things when their emotions strike them.

    Realistically it is not much more ridiculous than a solid circle of metal with an uncommon rock affixed being the standard of relationship fidelity. Also not any more reliable. Certainly cheaper.

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  • Todd Boulanger August 20, 2013 at 2:56 pm

    I am a little surprised that this has made the leap here…

    …though how about putting a “Portland” [sustainability] twist on it by the City setting up a “love gateway” where lovers can lock their lock but also leave the key with the grid location marked on it (etc.) in the drop bin and then the locks are donated to school kids who might need them for their school lockers (if any exist anymore) or bikes for school transport, etc.?


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  • Rosanne June 26, 2016 at 3:26 pm

    My husband I walked the esplanade/bridge loop today for the 1st time this year, and this was the 1st time we noticed all the locks. We thought the locks were a nice addition to the bank. Sure beats graffiti! It’s harmless and has personal meaning. Besides, we have all paid for this.

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    • 9watts June 27, 2016 at 8:51 am

      “Besides, we have all paid for this.”

      By this, do you mean the lock removal?

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  • Rosanne June 27, 2016 at 11:52 am

    Why do the locks need to be removed? The donated locks sure beat some other pieces of “art” that we all paid a lot more for.

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    • 9watts June 27, 2016 at 12:19 pm

      I guess that depends on your perspective. Peter Koonce in a comment upthread explained why some of them needed to be removed.

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  • Meghan H June 27, 2016 at 3:03 pm

    Now, we’re no Paris, but this (http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2015/05/30/paris-removing-all-love-locks–pont-des-arts-bridge/28209183/) is why Portland may be aware of a problem and removing them every so often.

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