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The year of the bridge: lessons in creative maintenance

Historians may one day look at 1983 as ''The Year of the Bridge'' - a year of both triumph and tragedy. The May 24 centennial of New York's Brooklyn Bridge proved the triumph of well-engineered art. Hardly had that celebration died away , however, when the Mianus River bridge in Greenwich, Conn., collapsed June 28, with fatal results.

Since then this newspaper, like many others, has taken up the issue of the nation's deteriorating stock of bridges. Out of it all rises a common realization: that Americans seem happier building new bridges than maintaining the ones we already have.

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Cynics, of course, lay this failure of maintenance at the door of the politicians - who, understandably, prefer cutting ribbons on new, highly visible projects to voting funds for hidden infrastructure repairs. The pols, in turn, point the finger at poor capital-spending plans - noting that there is precious little earmarking of funds for maintenance projects.

In the end, both cynics and pols miss the point. Elected officials, after all , simply respond to the enthusiasms of the electorate. And that brings the issue squarely down to the question of the public's priorities. Why do we shy away from maintenance? Why all this heady concern for the new? What, finally, is this ''Year of the Bridge'' telling us about ourselves, our motives, our goals?

One hesitates to generalize too broadly. But part of the problem, surely, centers on the way the American character has been shaped. We're not far removed, after all, from the frontier mentality of our ancestors - from that sense of an expanse of unexplored land just over the horizon. Unlike the ancient Romans, we haven't built our cities on the selfsame sites (even with the same building stones) of our earlier ones. And unlike modern-day Europeans, we haven't squeezed our populations into the cobbled streets of land-short nations. It's been so easy, instead, just to pick up and go elsewhere - out to the farmlands and forests that still surround even our densest urban centers. We've moved, not maintained.

Part of the problem, too, is the efficiency with which we've developed. Even our common kitchen appliances attest to that. So inexpensive are toasters, for example, that few homes are without one. And when they break? Not for us the skilled repairman: Two hours of his time may cost more than a new toaster. The economics is against us. Where it's cheaper to buy than to mend, we become a nation of chuckers-out.

Well, so what? Why not move on? Why not scrap the old and go for the new?

Fair enough - as long as newness is not mere novelty, and as long as we maintain the things most precious to us. But here, especially, the evidence should give us pause. An increasing divorce rate suggests that we're hard pressed to maintain our marriages. An employment pattern showing workers drifting in and out of jobs suggests that we're giving too little thought to maintaining careers. Even the care of the elderly - the maintenance of the dignity of maturity - may be slipping from family responsibility into institutional control.

Are we doomed to expire in a frenzy of novelty? Hardly. The growth of preservationist groups, seeking to save everything from isolated buildings to entire cultures, speaks of our yearning to restore, recycle, renovate. So does our growing awareness of the challenges revolving around marriage, careers, aging - and bridges. We're capable, apparently, of creative maintenance.

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Creative maintenance? That may sound like a paradox. And so it is - unless we understand that creativitym entails a useful channeling of spontaneity, and that maintenancem implies a nurturing of the patterns and institutions which allow that channeling to take place.

Seen this way, maintenance itself becomes an art. It becomes a commitment to support the projects of an earlier age - a trust that newness will be fostered, not undercut, by respect for the intelligent foresight of past builders. Some of them built bridges; others, marriages and careers and maturity. All of them thought they were designing safely for the future. The more we make a priority of creative maintenance, the more we just might discover that they were right.

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