Tearing down the Bockau Arch Bridge: Lessons Learned from the Loss

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I would like to start off this entry with this quote: If my uncle was rich and had a couple million dollars, enough to purchase and restore the historic bridge at the Rechenhaus, the Saxony Ministry of Transportation (LASUV) would double and even triple the price to make that purchase impossible. My uncle owns an arena football team in Texas known as the Jackalopes and has made a profit ever since taking ownership a couple decades ago. Like the states’ residents, the state of Texas takes pride in its historic bridges through policies and practice. One in three historic bridges have either been restored for reuse or bypassed by a concrete bridge with half of those having been restored at a later time. Whether my uncle would have tolerated LASUV’s price-jacking in an attempt to keep the bridge for the demolition crews would have been questionable, for Texas has one of the toughest legal systems that makes libel and fraud a crime punishable with prison. Having lived there for over four of his six decades of life, he has dealt with and used these laws wisely. In either case, the stench of libel and kickbacks would have set him off as much as our group, the Friends of the Bockau Arch Bridge, as well as locals who have followed us and expressed anger over this mishap.

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As of this entry, LASUV had it its way and our 150-year old stone arch bridge is no more. We had our send off on Tuesday of last week with a documentary by German public TV channel MDR. The next day, on a beautiful Wednesday afternoon, the last of the four main arches was downed by the digger. Filming the scene with my camera, I had a difficult time trying to comprehending what had just happened. A mix of anger, sadness, confusion, perplexity and just being lost in translation flowed through me and it would be a small photo tour of the historic bridges in Zwickau and Glauchau that helped me regain my composure and find some lessons behind this debacle.

The whole theme behind this demolition was the fact that we had no chance. LASUV wanted it gone because no two bridges should be allowed to stand side-by-side, a concept that exists in many places due to policies and practice, like in Texas. The agency was determined to see the structure gone and was diligent enough to repel those interested in the bridge for reuse as a pedestrian and bike bridge. And despite attempts to bring the issue to the table, none of the communities wanted it- neither Zschorlau nor Bockau, where the old bridge used to cross, nor any of the communities in the Ore Mountain District (in German: Erzgebirgskreis), from Aue to Schwarzenberg. Even with the smallest of amount to purchase, all of them considered the bridge a liability even though the arch bridge was still structurally sound. All of them said: “We have the future generations to worry about.” In other words, Smartphone gaming and malls trump history and outdoor recreation.  I myself was about to turn to the people in Glauchau, in the Zwickau district for help. After all, they are rebuilding their own arch bridge in the Hirschgrund at the Castle Complex and they would probably have had some ideas of their own.  That idea vanished with every drill of the digger. And lastly, the state parliament in Dresden turned down our petition to save the bridge, days after the last arch of the bridge was gone.

And to put the icing on the cake, because of the lack of will to even talk about reusing the old bridge, the Rechenhausbrücke is the first bridge ever to be used as bait for a replacement project despite its historic status! That means when building a replacement on a new alignment, one has the option to demolish the historic structure even if it is a historic landmark. This practice is common in the USA for national historic landmarks, which make the laws very weak and forces locals to jump in to save the structure with their own funds, even though as a national landmark, grants and other financial incentives are available for restoring historic bridges. For Saxony, the only incentive to save and restore the Rechenhausbrücke is if an uncle has a couple million Euros to purchase it and even then, there’s no guarantee that the purchase will happen.

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So what can we learn from this experience to pass onto our future preservation groups? After all, there are other historic bridges that are under the loop for replacement and from this experience, no bridge that is protected by cultural heritage laws is safe when it comes to progress. It’s easy to point fingers, but it’s more sensible to learn some lessons for the next project even though they are rather tough to achieve. From my personal perspective, here are some items to keep in mind for those who have a historic bridge that is worth saving and repurposing for other use:

1. Start as early as possible. If you learn of a project to replace the bridge you want to keep, you have to begin as early as you can. The window of opportunity will close quicker than you think. This was probably one of the painful reasons we lost our bridge. We just could not keep up with LASUV and the politicians who wanted to turn a blind eye at any cost (and did so).

2. Get actively involved in the discussions. Do not stand on the sidelines nor allow others to influence you. We had voices but need more of them to bring the issue to a head. Not to mention a couple trips to Dresden to get some politicians on our side.

3. Create an organization to save the bridge. This one we did a bit too late but we gained some traction in the process. Your organization should have some people with deep pockets full of money and resources as well as a will to share your interest and help. This one we lacked a great deal but part of that was LASUV’s unfair hat trick.

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4. Have some capital with you if you want to (fight to) own the bridge. Despite the T-shirt idea, fundraising should be done once you create your group. However, that requires a lot of time and effort to achieve your goal. What is needed is money right away from sources that are willing to help you. Even grants and financial support from the private sector helps a great deal. That one we didn’t have in the end, even if we had the 1.7 million Euros LASUV offered.  By the way, the T-shirts are still selling. If interested in a memorabilia, click here.

5. Know your friends and the ways to repel your enemies. This one we learned the hard way for our organization did form a nucleus of friends, many of us will remain in contact. Yet we didn’t know who our friends from outside were. Especially at the April 2018 at the bridge, where despite the invitation to many members of three ministries and several parties, many of them were either clueless about the situation of the bridge or showed no interest in saving it. The latter was very obvious with a “behind closed door” meeting that occurred after our meeting between the head of the petition committee and the two mayors of the communities which the old bridge connected- two opponents of keeping the bridge.

6. Involve the parties at every meeting, including the media. This one we did a great job of, especially with Heike Mann at the Chemnitz Free Press, Aue Office, plus people at MDR-TV based in Leipzig-Halle and the Leipzig Glocal via Chronicles. Being a journalist on the side, it is difficult getting the information needed to write a great story on it. What I found disturbing was their exclusion from the meeting in April where they all waited about 50 meters away while we had a great debate going. Fortunately, I played Terry Bradshaw of the Pittsburgh Steelers and bootlegged a story out of it as I could do it in English. Normally one’s head could get ripped off for that. However, we did forge great ties with our media correspondences and they were able to get it done objectively, which helps when they are involved in every phase of the project.

7. Know the preservation laws, the options in saving the historic places and the loopholes involved. I did some research on German preservation laws for a presentation in 2010 and compared them with the National Historic Preservation Laws in the US. Both have one common denominator involved: They are flawed! When you know them early enough, you can come up with a strategy to fill in the holes. Make sure every exit is covered and no wide receiver is open before the quarterback throws the ball.

8. If you are ready to buy the bridge, know your responsibilities. It’s like owning a car: your car, your responsibilities. If anything happens, make sure you have enough capital to fix the problem. I believe we had enough money to buy the bridge, yet the need to maintain and perhaps rehabilitate the bridge, would require help from outside, which was impossible to get, in the end.

9. If they argue for demolition, make sure they have clear cut evidence. Also with the historical documentations. This was one that irked us the most. The process from replacing the bridge to offering the old bridge to a third party lacked transparency and evidence to justify the reasoning behind the actions carried out.  We wanted to document the bridge before it was demolished. According to LASUV, it was documented, but there was no hard evidence. We wanted reasons behind the cost for rehabilitating the old bridge compared to demolishing it after the new one opened. We received numbers that were arbitrary and lacked evidence behind the facts and figures. The petition was supposed to be discussed in parliament- it was after the demolition had started! The arguments for demolition lacked hard and sufficient evidence to justify the claims. If you are not sure about them, ask them and have them provide you with evidence. Then compare with other projects to see if they are standard or fixed to their advantage. Chances are the claims against your arguments are flawed. Be empirical about the claims.

10. Involve the public- hold a referendum! This was never held although if it had, the outcome would have been different. There were no reasons behind not having held it except for the mayors to save their faces, which they have lost along with the bridge. Yet while they will certainly be voted out in the mayoral elections later on this year, you can force your city officials to hold a referendum. Petitions, active involvement, constant phone calls, that’s all they are needed to get the city officials to carry it out, even if it takes a lot of effort.

And lastly, know if you are in the right and fight for it! In the end, we knew we were in the right when we saw several flaws in the whole bridge replacement process. We saw the lack of flexibility and ability to compromise. We saw the lack of interest and will in saving the bridge and helping the group achieve the goal. And lastly, we saw the lack of enthusiasm that is needed for saving a piece of history and heritage. After all, a bridge is a bridge, but if it has history, unique design and character, it does have a chance to be saved.

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I’d like to end this entry with a quote by Sharad Vivek Sagar that best fits the ending of a tragedy of this story: “For too long, information, opportunities, and resources have been constraints, they need to be the bridges.”  We have been limited by the color of money, the lack of information on the laws protecting historic places, the lack of will to cooperate and compromise and the inflexibility, all in the name of progress and power. Learning the lessons the hardest way possible, we need to take these  and teach the next groups about the importance of our heritage and ways to protect them. In an ever-changing environment where everything is being modernized, preserving what is left of our history is of paramount of importance so that we can learn about our region and our heritage. It’s for the sake of future generations. Otherwise what do we have to teach our children?

 

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