Bay Bridge

‘They Don't Want to Go Quietly': Old Bay Bridge Lights Flicker as Funds Are Raised for New Display

The "Bay Lights" display was officially shut off on March 5 while funds are raised for a brighter, more durable replacement

NBC Universal, Inc.

While the nonprofit behind the "Bay Lights" display on the Bay Bridge officially shut down the light sculpture on March 5, it's had some challenges keeping those LED bulbs off.

Ben Davis, the founder of San Francisco-based nonprofit Illuminate, said twelve years ago he got an idea that "the Bay Bridge didn’t have to just be a bridge, it could be a canvas of light." In 2013, that vision became a reality as the "Bay Lights" display went live, bringing these LED lights to the western span of the bridge.

Ten years later, Davis said the elements had taken a toll on those lights, leaving them failing at a rate faster than they could be repaired. So on March 5, Illuminate officially shut those lights off, while fundraising for a brighter, more durable version.

"Well the lights were supposed to go off, but they have a fierce spirit!" Davis explained.

He said this was the first time the nonprofit had to turn the lights off and there was a glitch in doing so. One week after the initial shutoff, Davis said the lights program automatically re-set, bringing the display back for an unexpected reprise.

On Thursday, Davis went onto the center anchorage of the bridge along with work crews and the San Francisco Chronicle to cut off the power to the lights.

Davis met up with NBC Bay Area next to the bridge on Saturday to talk about the bridge which had finally gone dark. But to his surprise, when we walked up to the bridge, several strands on the westernmost stretch of the bridge remained illuminated.

"Uh oh, I see lights stuck on," Davis exclaimed, then marveling at the LED bulbs, "Amazing!"

Davis wasn't sure how these last few strands remained on, but he found it all poetic.

"This  bridge wants to be with us, I love that its not going quietly in the night,” he said.

He's hoping the tenacity of these lights will inspire donations. Illuminate is raising 11 million dollars to create a new display, which will run on both sides of the bridge cable, have double the number of LED bulbs, and be visible to more people across the San Francisco Bay.

NBC Bay Area spoke with visitors looking at the bridge about this fundraising effort.

“11 million? Wow," commented Jules Valdez of Marin, "Well I think in the long run with the city it will be worth it, its beautiful.”  

Valdez actually brought visitors to check out the straggler lights on the bridge Saturday night.

"They didn’t know how to turn them off, and I was really happy," she noted.

John Hathaway of Oakley said he likes the idea of expanding the display to both sides of the bridge cable.

"It's much more attractive with them on," Hathaway said of the lights display.

"I was here when it started, I loved it and I thought it was beautiful," said Natasha Keswani of San Francisco.

"If we’re going to put that [money] towards art and design, it should be done here, people love this," Keswani continued.

So far, illuminate has raised more than $6 million for this effort, with more than $109,000 coming from smaller crowdfunding donations.

Davis said that his team will get to work addressing the straggler lights that remain on while they continue the fundraising effort to get to $11 million.

He's pitching to prospective donors that this bridge is part of San Francisco's appeal. In fact, Illuminate thinks San Francisco has earned the moniker of the "City of Awe."

"If Philadelphia is the City of Brotherly Love, Paris is the City of Light, Los Angeles is the City of Angels, we are an awe-filled city," Davis mused.

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