A young (ish) couple tiptoed on a recent Sunday morning toward the very end of the overlook pier at Quarry Park.
The pier, constructed with a generous dollop of some $30.85 million in recreation and park bonds approved by voters in 2014, is solid, of course. It’s steel with waist-high fencing that adds to a sense of security.
But the woman was having none of it; an obvious fear of heights overruled the lure of an unobstructed spectacular view of downtown Winston-Salem and Pilot Mountain.
A conversation between another couple busy reading the inscriptions on the boatload of padlocks affixed to the pier didn’t help.
“You know that a bridge in Paris collapsed under the weight of locks like these a few years ago,” a man intoned. “They had to cut all the rest of them off.”
His information, while perhaps a tad insensitive to acrophobic, was correct.
A rapid spread
The practice of affixing heavy padlocks to bridges and overlooks is hardly a new or original thing.
The best research available in a 5-minute Google search says that it began roughly in 2008, two years after the publication of a novel which described Italian couples writing their names on padlocks, affixing them to a bridge in Rome and chucking the key into the river below as a symbol of eternal love.
Sweet, right? A sappy, modern version of carving initials into a tree trunk.
Anyhow, this “tradition” — likely fueled by social media — spread like kudzu across the European landscape and eventually landing most famously on the Pont des Arts bridge in Paris.
People being what we are — unoriginal and yet sentimental — eventually put hundreds of thousands of such locks onto the bridge, which caused a section of it to collapse under weight estimated at 40 tons.
Accounts of the collapse (and the underlying practice that caused it) were shared across the internet at the literal speed of light.
Of course, destruction or not, copycats soon replicated the practice around the globe. And it wasn’t long before it found its way to little old Winston-Salem.
And Quarry Park, with its pier and spectacular views, became the favored target, despite the existence of a metal lattice-work arch at an entry point to the Arts District at Sixth and Cherry streets where such displays are encouraged tacitly.
It’s difficult to say when the first padlocks appeared at Quarry Park; it’s safe to say a handful showed up not long after the park opened in 2017.
City officials noticed, and began cutting them down. But like kudzu, the more you cut, the faster the locks seem to reappear and spread.
“We keep taking them down,” said William Royston, the director of the city’s Recreation and Parks Department, in 2019. “We could come back later, and there’d be 10 more.”
A different way
As of Sunday morning, the pier looked to have a couple hundred more locks affixed to the thin custom mesh lining the overlook railings.
Problem is, that thin mesh wasn’t designed to hold up under the weight of heavy padlocks and so it tends to fray. “It causes damage to the railing that protects people when they’re on the overlook,” Royston said in 2019.
On a list of problems and issues facing city officials, dealing with the proliferation of locks is way down there, just above graffiti removal (the weight of the locks do pose some risk) and vegetation control. (Hungry goats have a hard time keeping up with kudzu.)
Retaining (and paying) good cops, repaving streets (more or less), providing clean drinking water and fully functioning sewers rightfully commands more attention.
Hanging a padlock on the overlook — we’re looking at you, A&J from March 2021 and Joseph and Katelin, who went to the trouble of getting a professional-looking engraving — is a simple romantic gesture which, even when multiplied, might add up to a half-day’s work for a city crew armed with bolt cutters.
More troubling is the fact that a few jugheads have gone past a padlock and moved onto spray paint and permanent markers.
I couldn’t help but wonder about the parent-child relationship memorialized by whoever decided that defacing a railing with “father daughter 4/12-20” was the best way to celebrate. Perhaps a charm bracelet? Or a tattoo?
On second thought, given the “permanence” of so many relationships these days, go with the padlock. A snip of the bolt cutters is quicker (and a whole lot cheaper) than laser removal.