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The U of M Quietly Killed the ‘Paint the Bridge’ Tradition

The decades-long ritual of student groups painting the Washington Avenue Bridge officially ended in 2021.

The final event, circa 2019.
@umnsua via Instagram

To quote University of Minnesota dropout Bob Dylan, the times they are… a-becoming quite different. The print edition of the student-run Minnesota Daily was unceremoniously kiboshed after 120+ years; crooked shenanigans inside the president’s office have reached egregious new heights.

Of less consequential, more nostalgic U of M concern: The pedestrian stretch of the Washington Avenue Bridge.

Since 1997, various student groups have seized on “Paint the Bridge” day to splash colorful advertisements along the paneling of the bridge’s interior walkway. Around 1,000 such groups exist, from obvious ones (Greek orgs, Alpine Ski Team, Black Student Union) to wildly obscure ones (the seemingly dissolved Lettuce Club, the very active Minnesota Quidditch). Strolls across the Mississippi River bubbled with a sense of campus interconnectedness, even if one had no intention of ever joining the Existentialist Reading Club or the Walken Appreciation Society. It was reassuring to know that those fellow Gophers existed, that they cared.

Credit: Bolobilly via Flickr

Today, the Washington Avenue Bridge doesn’t evoke anything at all, as the the wood-paneled walls have been washed with maroon paint:

Paint the Bridge was “discontinued” in 2021, university PR rep Christopher Kelly tells us, adding: “The Washington Avenue Bridge has been undergoing scheduled repairs, including replacement of the interior panels due to deterioration.”

Among our follow-up questions that have so far gone unanswered*:

  • Was the decision to discontinue Paint the Bridge related to this controversy?
  • Was the discontinuation decision made by students running Student Unions & Activities (SUA) or by the university?
  • Can you give us any idea about what the aesthetics of the new interior will look like?
  • Are there any plans to bring Paint the Bridge back?

To that first point, a bridge painting by the College Republicans sparked protests in 2016. The still-unrealized MAGA cry of “BUILD THE WALL” was painted across two of their three panels, which led to cries of white supremacy. In fact, protestors painted over the signage with the phrases like “STOP WHITE SUPREMACY” and “QUEER POWER.” Then-President Eric Kaler defended the College Republicans’ right to “free, political speech.” The space continued to be a flashpoint for vandalism and protests, right up through the fall of 2019. That was the last semester before the U went into COVID-19 lockdown, and the last time SUA hosted Paint the Bridge.

Credit: @umnsua via Instagram

Now that life on campus has returned, students seem pretty annoyed that Paint the Bridge hasn’t.

“We used it to advertise our intramural program and our big fundraising events, so not having that does kind of hurt,” Peter Joncas, president of Minnesota Quidditch, told the Minnesota Daily this past fall. “It’s just a great event all around you know, it really spiced up the bridge, made it a nice walk.”

“Being a freshman, you don’t really know what clubs exactly there are and what is offered, so that was a really good way to showcase what the U had,” said Anthony Vystoropski, co-president of the Distributive Education Clubs of America. “For me, it offered a sense of the U’s story.”

“I am really sad that it didn’t come back,” said Alexis Friesen, a student with no skin in the game. “Every year you get to see the different groups and the mark that they leave on campus.”

According to the Daily’s Gillian Haveman, every student interviewed for her story felt the U had lost an “important part of on-campus culture.” Haveman notes that the university comms machine declined to elaborate on the demise of Paint the Bridge, but trumpeted other, unrelated SUA activities like the Fall Activities Fair, Homecoming Parade, and Spring Jam. (Racket received the same non-elaboration and non-sequitur.)

In an era that suffers from the tandem rise of PR sanitization and profound loneliness, it’s a shame to see those forces manifest as a lifeless bridge corridor. And, as dramas surrounding campus speech erupt in our own backyard, it’s depressing to see one university choose the removal of all speech as a solution.

Pray for the Shoe Tree.

Credit: Michael Hicks via Flickr

*Update: U of M PR got back to us and said: 1) “The decision was made to end the program due to ongoing repairs and maintenance of the bridge”; 2) There are “not presently” plans to bring it back; 3) And that “Facilities Management, in consultation with Student Unions and Activities staff, made the decision to discontinue the event.”