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Will the Embarcadero ‘Promenade Ribbon’ ever light up again?

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2.5-mile long glass block art piece once lit up the night

Photo via Stanley Saitowitz

A joint effort by Barbara Solomon, Vito Acconci, and Stanley Saitowitz, the Promenade Ribbon, a 2.5-mile long linear sculpture that wraps along the Embarcadero sidewalk, was completed in 1996.

Punctuated by lighted glass blocks set in paving, it once provided gentle illumination for nighttime passersby. Today, twenty years later, it lights up no more.

A few factors contributed to the darkening. Sea level rise and king tides have resulted in water corroding of Ribbon’s power source. And the fiber optic lights, beautiful when they worked, suffered from water damage caused by the porous nature of concrete.

“The Arts Commission has explored numerous options for restoring light to the sculpture, none of which are feasible,” says Kate Patterson, director of communications at the San Francisco Arts Commission.

She adds: ”It’s important to keep in mind that the light element is just one aspect of this project. The Ribbon continues to exist as a sculptural element of the Embarcadero streetscape.”

Indeed. The snaking art piece can still be seen, but now in an altered state. A few years after completion, SkateBlocks (or “pig ears,” as SFPD calls them) were clamped onto the raised portion of Ribbon. The results, which can be seen today, were less than spectacular.

Art and Architecture notes that Solomon, Acconci, and Saitowitz had different reactions to their skaters digging their work.

When [Promenade Ribbon] was first constructed, the skateboard community found the sharp edges and different lengths of concrete very appealing; however, chips started appearing almost immediately in the structure from the skateboards. The differing reactions of the architects mirrored the various responses from the community.

Saitowitz asked furiously, “Can’t you understand you’re ruining something that belongs to you, the people?” Solomon, however, responded differently, “I love it that the skateboarders love it, and Stanley hates it that the skateboarders love it.” She felt that skateboarder’s usage was “part of the world.”

Acconci also supported the skateboarders with this statement: “Our goal is to make spaces that free people-to make devices and instruments that people can use to do what they’re not supposed to do, to go where they’re not supposed to go.”

How the raised sections appear after “pig ears” were installed in 2008.
How the raised sections appear after “pig ears” were installed in 2008.

There is something so intrinsic about California and skateboarding that, especially in San Francisco, eschewing the two-wheeled rapscallions seems as blasphemous as it does unjust.

No matter, Ribbon remains an excellent example of contemporary art along the waterfront, one that helped kickstart a busier and more fully realized promenade.

Ass for whether or not it will light up again soon—don’t hold your breath. A limited city budget will keep this beauty in the dark for a few more years.