Pensacola, Florida
Monday September 24th 2018

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“A Language of the Times”

Rachael Pongetti and The Pensacola Graffiti Bridge Project
By C. S. Satterwhite

Most cities approach graffiti in one of two ways: they criminalize it or they embrace it. But is there a third way? In some rare instances, there is.

Pensacola is a city that, to some extent, takes a third way—at least when the target of graffiti is a particular railroad bridge at the bottom of 17th Avenue.

The first time I saw the graffiti-covered bridge was when I moved to Pensacola in the mid-1990s. I clearly remember riding underneath the bridge and thinking this was cool. I was a big Prince fan, and my first thought was automatically to call this overpass “Graffiti Bridge.” While Prince’s “Graffiti Bridge” has nothing to do with Pensacola, he put the term into our lexicon, and apparently it stuck—at least that’s my theory.

Decades before Prince started making movies and records about graffiti-covered bridges, Pensacola’s bridge was known simply as the 17th Avenue Viaduct, sometimes the 17th Avenue Overpass, or “you know, that train bridge that has all the graffiti on it.”

Today, the bridge is much more than an overpass for trains or an underpass for cars. Graffiti Bridge is a landmark—a landmark that changes its look nearly every day.

Over the course of a year, Pensacola artist and educator Rachael Pongetti brought her camera and tripod to the bridge and took pictures as its face-changed daily—sometimes by the hour and even by the minute.

This December, Pongetti releases her Kickstarter-funded book: “Uncovering The Layers: The Pensacola Graffiti Bridge Project,” a large collection of her photos of our very own Graffiti Bridge.

Up until recently, these photos were only available through various exhibitions. While many Pensacolians have found joy in these images, reading the spray painted messages photographed and displayed in area galleries, the project itself came from a sad place in the photographer’s life.

“I started this project out of grief and extreme heartache,” said Pongetti describing a move and a divorce.

“I was really having a hard time accepting the changes,” said Pongetti about her life. “It was a very painful experience.”

At one point, Pongetti said that she felt her life was falling apart. To understand what was happening in her life, she read books on change. This led her to study Buddhist philosophy as a means to cope with the great changes taking place in her life.

She also turned to her friends. One friend familiar with Pongetti’s artistic work, as well as her recent exploration of change, suggested she consider taking pictures of the Graffiti Bridge.

“I wasn’t particularly interested,” said Pongetti, “until he said [the graffiti] changed every day.”

At that moment, she decided she would photograph the bridge on a daily basis to observe the changes taking place.

“I’m a visual person, so I process things through observation,” she said.

“I was in a time of huge transition and knew it was the right time to plunge into a project.”

Plunge, she did.

The project was a year-long effort to photograph one of Pensacola’s most iconic locations.

Unlike all of our city’s other symbols—Pensacola Beach Sign, various water towers, certain old houses, the Saenger Theatre, the San Carlos Hotel—the Graffiti Bridge is a site for democratic, verging on anarchistic, engagement.

Sometimes the messages are political, but most often the messages are personal. One is just as likely to see a memorial for a dead friend or a marriage proposal as a “Free Palestine” mural or an American flag.

If there’s one certainty on that bridge it’s this; everything will change. This fact was true for Pongetti as it was for her subjects—both the bridge and the people who came out every day to tell the city who they were and what they thought.

In many ways, this is the purpose of graffiti.

“Graffiti brings the mark of the human hand into the increasingly corporate and controlled environment,” said writer Erick Lyle.

Lyle wrote the book “Streetopia” and visited Pensacola to promote his book discussing gentrification and the ways in which people regain their voice. Graffiti is one of those ways.

“For [people] who feel like they have no control over the way the city is made or what kinds of advertising are displayed,” said Lyle, “graffiti can be a way to simply claim space, to say literally, ‘I exist!’”

“First Class in Every Respect”: A Short History of the Bridge
Yet existence implies a history, which until now did not formally exist for the ever-changing bridge. Pongetti, an educator who teaches art at Pensacola High School, offers the first history of the iconic bridge in “Uncovering the Layers.”

Culling together the sources for such an ambitious project are difficult, to say the least, ranging from historical markers, newspaper articles, and interviews, to name but a few. Most of the information in her book is collected here for the first time in an effort to place the bridge in its historical context: a gift to social historians of the city.

Pongetti’s timeline places the bridge’s story (and that of the surrounding area) within Pensacola’s early days as an American city.

The area adjacent to where the 17th Avenue bridge currently stands was, at one time, a famous local dueling ground in the early 1800s. Dueling was eventually outlawed as Florida became a territory of the United States and the area became more industrialized.

As with much of America, the railroad changed the city and allowed commerce to dictate much of the terrain. The drastic evolution of this area took place over a century, culminating in the early 1900s when the L & N Railroad built the Bayou Texar train trestle simply out of a need to link the city with points east and west.

The bridge itself, as we see it today, was not officially built until 1912.

Originally called the “17th Avenue Viaduct,” the bridge was heralded to be “of concrete and will be first-class in every respect,” according to a contemporary story in the Pensacola News Journal*.

As the Great Depression hit Pensacola, thousands of unemployed locals built make-shift camps called Hoovervilles—named after Republican President Herbert Hoover—in the surrounding area of the bridge. As trains slow down to take the turn, the spot is an easier place to jump on or off a passing freight.

Once Democrat Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933, his New Deal relief programs put thousands of Pensacolians back to work. One of his administration’s many local projects was repair work on the 17th Avenue Viaduct.

Though the Hoovervilles dissipated, the camps in some form or another, remain to this day. Hobo Beach, or Hobo Island as the location is sometimes referred to, is a long-standing remnant of that era which grew under the Great Depression but never went away—and most likely never will.

Two of the most dramatic single moments in the bridge’s history both came in 1977 within a month of each other when two separate L & N trains derailed—the first on the bridge itself.  The ammonia leakage from the train forced the evacuation of hundreds of local residents for over a day. A second derailment occurred on the same track, also leaking ammonia, but further down on Scenic Highway. The second derailment took the lives of two people and injured 46 others.

But What About the Graffiti?
Just as with the blank canvas of any freshly painted bathroom wall, surely some vandals hit this bridge at some point much earlier than anything recorded. Anecdotal evidence, however, points to the first tagging somewhere in the 1950s, according to Pongetti.

While she admits this is difficult to prove conclusively, what is clear is that the first tagging was evidently not the last.

Historically, most cities look down on graffiti and Pensacola is no exception. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the local government tried numerous time to stop people from putting graffiti on the bridge. Taggers were temporarily imprisoned and fined, but the graffiti continued. In a pattern which must’ve been dizzying, the bridge was painted and tagged, re-painted and re-tagged, etcetera. The city used new graffiti resistant paints, but the graffiti artists kept up their slow and methodical resistance and won.

As Pensacola moved into the 21st century, the city as a whole appeared to come to terms with the bridge. Local artists sold images of the Graffiti Bridge alongside pictures of McGuire’s, the Saenger Theatre, the Blue Angels, and the Pensacola Beach Ball.

A customized textbook at the University of West Florida even uses the bridge for its cover.

By 2007, the daily paper listed the Graffiti Bridge as one of the “Seven Wonders of Pensacola.” Though somewhat significant, the true acceptance of the bridge came in 2009 when the City of Pensacola approved City Code 12-2-223 (n) Section 302.9.

This city code clarified its previous policy concerning graffiti and the defacement of property to make room for one exception: “No person shall willfully or wantonly damage, mutilate or deface any exterior surface of any structure or building on any private or public property by placing thereon any marking, carving or graffiti. Exception: The 17th Street CSX Railroad Trestle shall be exempted.”

Graffiti Bridge was now an officially sanctioned landmark. Yet unlike most landmarks tagged with spray paint, such as Andrew Jackson’s bust or the Confederate Memorial, this graffiti is legal.

Capturing the Moment
One of the great ironies of the area is its history as dueling ground. Though dueling with pistols in Florida was outlawed nearly 200 years ago, paint replaces bullets, and the duels continue to this day.

Pongetti captured the various duels during her year photographing the bridge.

One of the most interesting moments captured was when city government removed the Confederate Flag from the city’s flagpoles after the mass shooting at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

The local decision to lower the Confederate Flag came at the same time as the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage.

The symbolism of the two flags, one of the past and one of the present, could not be starker.

“The two sides were at the bridge at the same time,” said Pongetti recalling the instance.

“They kept painting [over] each other’s message. I think there must have been 50 to 100 people all gathering at the bridge at the same time.”

Pongetti takes her role as a documentarian seriously, which shows in her objectivity and empathy for her subjects.
“In order to photograph in a situation like the above, I have to be very mindful when approaching people with a camera. I never try to hide from them or sneak a photo. I let them know what I’m doing and usually they just keep going about their business and I keep making images,” said Pongetti.

“I never like being photographed, so I’m trying to be very respectful of the person I’m photographing. I may adamantly disagree with what they are doing, but they are a person, not an object. I try to always remember that.”

The challenges of this project did not end with her concerns about graffiti wars, but in many ways began after she set her camera down.

Although this is only a small line in the book itself, one of the most time-consuming phases of the project was the research into the bridge’s history. Until now, few looked seriously at the bridge as historical. This is understandable as the most unique quality of the bridge isn’t that it’s a static mural.

Visually, this is appealing. For historians, this is a problem.

Most infrastructure is built with little fanfare. Even if there is a ribbon cutting ceremony, the public quickly forgets dates once the infrastructure starts being used. What many people think is historic when it happens rarely holds the same significance in the future. A quick glance at several of Pensacola’s official historic markers demonstrates what was once seen as historic feels irrelevant generations later. Vice versa.

For Pongetti, much of her research time was spent laboriously pouring over microfilm of old newspapers trying to find the unwritten history of a viaduct. The most elusive fact she was trying to uncover was its most simple and primary: the Graffiti Bridge’s birthday.

“Trying to find the date it was built became very difficult,” said Pongetti.

“All of the historical illustrations and photos stopped just short of the trestle. It started to become funny. In addition the trestle at the time it was built was called a ‘viaduct,’ which I later learned from [the university's downtown historical archives] UWF Voices,” said Pongetti.

“So I was searching under the wrong name. Once I started to search under that [name], I was able to find a little information.

Her first big break came when a graduate student at UWF, researching a prominent Pensacola newspaper owner, “found a little side note to a reference of a viaduct,” said Pongetti.

After going through “a lot of microfilm,” Pongetti eventually found an “article that explained a viaduct was scheduled to be built in a few weeks. But I had a hard time finding a follow up article.”

Eventually, Pongetti uncovered a “small notice in the paper [congratulating] Pensacolians for their persistence with the [railroad] company.” Yet there was a small glitch in her research.
The article did not list the bridge as being on 17th Avenue, but 16th and Wright.

“Well, I was very confused since the bridge is on 17th,” said Pongetti.

“I even drove to 16th and Wright and found nothing that indicated there was anything ever there. The article, however, gave exact measurements of the viaduct.”

Pongetti and her editor-in-chief, none other than Pensacola’s Poet Laureate Jamey Jones, went to the bridge with a tape measure, braving traffic, to see if the measurements from the century old newspaper article aligned with the Graffiti Bridge.

“I still remember us waiting for a break in the traffic to measure the inside of the bridge,” recalled Pongetti.

“Jamey took off running across the street with one end of the tape measure, and I held the other end. It all matched. We were so excited.”

Giving the Silent a Voice
The photographic aspect of The Pensacola Graffiti Bridge Project took one year exactly. The post-photography aspect has taken much longer than Pongetti expected.

“Like any book worth reading, it is a work of art from cover to cover,” said Jones.
“Yesterday Rachael and I dropped by Tom White, [the book's printer] and watched the colorful pages coming out of the big Heidleberg presses, and man was it exciting!”

Jones, who worked for the City of Pensacola as a printer, described the process very enthusiastically.

“The noise and wind of the press, the smell of the ink and paper, and to watch these top-notch pressmen and bookmakers doing their thing—real pros, real artists— it was profound,” said Jones.

“The quality printing accurately honors the content of this beautiful book.” When it’s officially published in December, “Uncovering the Layers” will be a 184 pages, have a Smyth-sewn linen cover, with a dust jacket along with essays, poetry, a timeline, and updated photos from 2012-2016.

Books and printing aside, the enormity of capturing an ever-changing moment was not lost on Pongetti. Neither was the importance of what she was photographing.

“I’ve been very touched by all the memorials left on the bridge,” said Pongetti.

“I’ve met some of the families, and it is always been very meaningful. One mother told me during my exhibition at the [Pensacola Museum of Art] that I was helping to keep her son’s memory alive. I never thought of it that way. It makes me feel like what I’m doing is beneficial to others and that brings a smile to my face,” said Pongetti.

Graffiti Bridge means many things to many people. As a space where someone could voice her support for the Black Lives Matter Movement, the Graffiti Bridge is that billboard not otherwise allowed. As a space to memorialize a friend who committed suicide, Graffiti Bridge is an outlet. As a space where Joe could tell Patricia he loves her, Graffiti Bridge is like a large-scale, concrete love note.

There was even a large mural dedicated to Prince the day after he died, a fitting tribute considering my earlier theory.

There’s really nothing like it, and the graffiti on the bridge speaks to our most intimate moments and our most visceral emotions.

To Pongetti, graffiti is both personal and political, all in the same space, and as impermanent as we are.

“I think it is part of our nature to want to communicate and be heard, validated…[graffiti] gives the silent a voice.”

“Of course, what is of benefit is subjective, and what I think is appropriate someone else may not,” said Pongetti.

“The gray area, the questions, the difficulty of defining what is art and what is inappropriate are all aspects of what I love about [graffiti]. It leads to more questions than answers. It is a language that it very much about the here and now. I find that part exciting and valuable. It’s not a language of the academics or the dictionary. It is a language of the times.”

For The Pensacola Graffiti Bridge Project, that time is now.

For more information about  Pongetti’s “Uncovering The Layers: The Pensacola Graffiti Bridge Project,” go to pensacolagraffitibridgeproject.com and to buy a copy locally next month visit Open Books at 1040 N. Guillemard St.

*Editors note: Pensacola Journal is one of the early names of the local daily paper that we now call Pensacola News Journal.