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Pasadena seeks to curb suicides at Colorado Street Bridge with messages of hope

Pasadena officials plan to install signs like the one above along the Colorado Street Bridge in an effort to curb suicides.
(City of Pasadena)

Hoping to dissuade despondent people from leaping to their deaths from the Colorado Street Bridge, Pasadena officials plan to install signs that encourage those considering suicide to instead call for help.

City workers will install two 12- by 18-inch metal signs at each end of the storied century-old bridge sometime over the next two months, Assistant City Manager Steve Mermell said.

Proposed designs display the number of a suicide prevention hotline and messages such as “Life is worth living” and “There is hope” against a background image of the bridge on a sunny day.

“If we can save even one life with one reasonable step we can take, we should,” said Pasadena City Councilman Steve Madison, one of four elected city leaders to endorse the signs during a public meeting on Monday.

The decision marks the first time in decades that Pasadena — a city where enthusiasm for historic preservation borders on religious fervor — has taken action that acknowledges the dark and deadly legacy of one of its most celebrated architectural icons.

More than 100 people have ended their lives by jumping from the Colorado Street Bridge, which at its highest point rises to 148.5 feet.

According to an historical Los Angeles Times archive, the first person to commit suicide did so on May 28, 1915, followed by another 10 days later. The 25th person died in March 1929, months before the stock market crash launched the Great Depression and accelerated the rate of suicides at the bridge — with 45 logged as of September 1933, 65 as of March 1935, and 89 as of June 1937.

Though reports of fatalities continued, Pasadena police tallied bridge deaths at 91 in a 1974 article in The Times, and a report commissioned by the city in 1988 set the total at 96.

Since 2006, 13 people have jumped to their deaths from the bridge, including two women this year, Pasadena Police Chief Philip Sanchez said.

Despite the frequency of deaths during the 1930s, Pasadena officials were slow to respond amid concerns over how any safety measures would affect the bridge’s aesthetic.

Officials considered hanging wire nets beneath the bridge as early as 1929 and even pondered deploying police officers disguised as ice cream vendors. But it wasn’t until 1937 — when a distraught woman took her three-year-old daughter with her in a deadly plunge over the side — that officials finally took action.

The girl survived without serious injury, her fall broken by tree branches in the Arroyo Seco below.

The bridge got a 7 1/2-foot woven-steel fence topped with barbed wire, which was replaced by a different barrier in the 1950s before the current wrought-iron fence went up during a seismic renovation 20 years ago.

In the 1930s, “there was this great caterwauling about putting up a fence — it’s such a blight, such an eyesore,” said Pasadena author Chip Jacobs, who has published articles on the bridge’s history and is writing a novel centered around its construction. “In a way, it was pre-suburban NIMBYism.”

Even today, city officials sought support from local preservationists before publicly discussing the suicide prevention signs, but this time found a positive response.

“While any additional signage on the bridge should be carefully considered, if this prevention measure can help someone it should of course be implemented,” Pasadena Heritage Executive Director Sue Mossman said.

Pasadena officials say the project was inspired by similar signs installed at emergency phones along the Golden Gate Bridge in 2005.

But signs alone are not enough to stop all who are bent on self-destruction, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Medical Director Paula Clayton said.

“It’s clearly better than nothing, but there’s no evidence that putting up signs changes the rate of suicide from a bridge. The only effective stoppage, really, is putting up barriers that people cannot get over,” she said.

Sanchez said the signs are “one piece of a very complex solution to addressing suicide” that must include expanded public mental health services.

Councilwoman Jacque Robinson, an initial advocate for the signs whose older sister died by suicide 16 years ago, said the city must balance preserving history and public safety.

“Hopefully, this is the beginning and not the end of that discussion,” Robinson said.

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Follow Joe Piasecki on Twitter: @JoePiasecki.

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