The weight of love threatens Paris bridges

Lots of love locks - padlocks bearing lovers' names in a public declaration of love - are affixed to the Pont des Arts in Paris.
Lots of love locks - padlocks bearing lovers' names in a public declaration of love - are affixed to the Pont des Arts in Paris. (AP, File)
Posted: August 19, 2014

It's an infrastructure crisis with a social-media solution. Or so the city fathers of Paris are hoping.

"Our bridges are more fragile than your love," says the official announcement.

"Our bridges cannot withstand your love," says the official Web page.

What bridges? Bridges versus love? What is this?

It exists. It has a hashtag: #lovewithoutlocks. So it's now all over Twitter.

It's a new initiative announced by the city of Paris. For years, lovers from all over the world have gone to the City of Love to hang "love locks" - padlocks bearing the lovers' names, or some other love declaration or symbol - on a public place of high visibility. You're supposed to hang it on a bridge, a fence, a fountain, a statue, or a tower, and, yes, throw away the key. It's an ancient practice that picked up steam worldwide in the first decade of this millennium.

Some world-famous structures - the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy, the Ha'penny Bridge in Dublin, Ireland, the YTN Tower in Seoul, South Korea, and, closer to home, the Roberto Clemente Bridge in Pittsburgh and the Brooklyn Bridge - have borne thousands of love locks. At times, those locks have unlocked civic tension, with city councils cutting and junking them and lovestruck lovers moaning. But Paris, face it, is the place for locking down love. (Even there, the locks are but temporary: City crews cut them down regularly.)

In Paris, one of the most popular lock-hung structures is the Pont des Arts, spanning the Seine and linking the central square of the Louvre with the Institut de France, which houses, among other learned societies, the Académie Française. It's a very artsy bridge. Full of feeling.

And on June 9, part of it collapsed.

Some blamed the locks.

The city says the Pont des Arts and other bridges are beginning to sag under the sheer weight of love. On Monday, the city started posting #Lovewithoutlocks stickers on popular lock sites, pleading with lovers not to hang locks.

And what does Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo want them to use as a replacement?

Selfies.

"Declare your love in images," says the #Lovewithoutlocks website (paris.fr/lovewithoutlocks), "and the bridges will return to a light heart." The amorously inclined can post their selfies on the site for all the world to see. It's a contest: "Replace your love with selfies with the hashtag #lovewithoutlocks. The most beautiful photos shared before Sunday will be published by the city of Paris on social networks." As of this writing, there were more than 100 posts on the website, some of them indeed selfies instead of locks, a few satirical, a few protesting (as one tweeter puts it, correctly: "It's not the same").

(By the way, the buckling Pont des Arts is also a prime place for selfies, both amatory and otherwise. You and your sweetie pose in front of the bristling, bridge-long bank of locks, and everyone knows you're in love.)

Love locks are controversial. Lovers love them and lover-lovers think they're fun. But a lot of people don't. "Get out the lock-cutters!" tweets @Milly_Dbt. "Remove these tons of silliness!" Parisienne Isabel L. tweets, "#LoveLocks are lame, save #Paris & choose #lovewithoutlocks instead!" Hashtag and website campaigns such as No Love Locks call them ugly and hazardous. Two U.S. expats in Paris, Lisa Taylor Huff and Lisa Anselmo, started a petition on Change.org to ban them. They said "the heart of Paris has been made ugly," the Seine polluted by all those thrown-away keys.

Worst of all, it's widely seen as a tourist thing that borders on vandalism.

But the city hesitates to declare an outright ban. There's that City of Love rep to preserve and promote, after all, and that rep helps tourism. (That's right: The locks on the Pont des Arts are themselves a tourist attraction.) The city takes great pride in the belief that it's the birthplace of freedom of speech. The spontaneity and passion of the amatory padlocks is something many French people find rather French.

Can social media step into the breach? True, social media have created new ways for people to meet, court, and tell the world of their love. (Consider that, to many young lovers, love isn't "real" until it's announced on social media.) Will besotted pairs forgo this old tradition, which combines vandalism, travel, and the most romantic city in the world - for a posted selfie? The City of Paris hopes so - or a Paris bridge may come falling down.


jt@phillynews.com

215-854-4406 @jtimpane

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