Igniting The Flame
Texas Street Bridge lights to shine even brighter
As Polish immigrants, Antoinette and Joseph Bakowski came to the United States with “nothing but themselves and a suitcase.”
Well, they also came with a 1-year-old son named George. Once George became older, his parents gave him some advice.
They said, “You have to get an education. Work hard, and you will be successful because America is the land of opportunity.”
George – who became Dr. George Bakowski – made the most of that “land of opportunity,” and Shreveport-Bossier will soon be a beneficiary.
The recently retired optometrist, who practiced in Shreveport for 45 years, has – together with his wife, Sandra – pledged one million dollars to buy LED lights, which will be installed on the Texas Street Bridge.
“The community supported me and my practice all those years, so I decided I wanted to give back to the community,” Dr. Bakowski said. “What better way than lighting up the bridge? It is something that can be enjoyed by all. It will showcase Shreveport-Bossier, instill civic pride, and be seen by millions driving I-20.
Once known as the “Neon Bridge,” the Shreveport-Bossier connector has been dark since 2014. It stayed lit for 23 years. Gradually, however, the neon tubes went out and were too costly (and at times, too dangerous) to replace. But, thanks to the Bakowskis’ gift, a $1 million allocation from the Red River Waterway Commission to install the lights, and a $25,000 donation from the Downtown Development Authority, the 87-year-old bridge will beam again.
However, this time, the bridge be will be bathed in LED lights.
“It will always look like it’s on,” said Pam Atchison, executive director of the Shreveport Regional Arts Council (SRAC). “It can change colors pretty constantly.”
With a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, SRAC will bring in Tracey Dear, whom Atchison calls “a leading bridge art designer.” His resume’ includes the lighting of 11 bridges over the Chicago River, as well as the stages for entertainers such as Emmy Lou Harris and former Elvis Presley lead guitarist James Burton, who grew up – and still lives – in Shreveport.
“He’s going to be here for eight months,” Atchison said of Dear. “He will have a team of six artists who are going to be his apprentices. They are going to learn everything about this control system.”
But Atchison’s goal is to have locals – namely students – learn how to light the bridge.
“We’re going to be going into schools – from fifth-graders and high school students to area colleges – even the social service organizations – and teaching how to think about light as art, and then, how to use the controller on this system.”
Atchison said the bridge will be the only lighted bridge in Louisiana. But because of the ability to change the color and animate the lights, Atchison believes the bridge will stand out from those beyond Louisiana.
“It’s ours,” Atchison said. “While other bridges across America – and the world – are now lit in neon, we will have a bridge that our local artist community can design, keep it enlivened and artistic.”
Having recently celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary, Dr. Bakowski is quick to credit his wife for their gift.
“We decided to do that when we saw the headline in the paper about five years ago,” Dr. Bakowski said. “The bridge lights are out permanently. Sandy came up with the idea – let’s light up the bridge.”
But that was easier said than done. There were strands of permits and permissions that had to be granted. Then there was the bridge’s poor condition.
“Before it was painted, it was a rustbucket,” Dr. Bakowski said. “I said, ‘I’m not going to put lights up on a rustbucket.’” Now, after a $15 million facelift by the State of Louisiana, the Texas Street Bridge is ready to put on makeup.
“We need happy news,” Atchison said. “It’s been a hard year, but I also think besides it being a hard year for everyone, it’s also been hard for lots of us not to have the foundation, the anchor, the what is it about Shreveport- Bossier that you see that (lets you know) you’re in our community? How do you know? I think the neon bridge was that for us, and the LED bridge will do that for us again, but in a much more vibrant, dynamic and animated manner that no one is ever going to get tired of, or think they’ve already seen it, because a new light design will be coming up so regularly.”
Along with new lights, the Texas Street Bridge will get a new name. When the project is complete – the target date is July 4, 2021 – the bridge will be known as the “Bakowski Bridge of Lights.”
“I think it will be pretty exciting,” Dr. Bakowski said. “It’s not often you get a bridge named after you.”
And it’s not often a city gets a milliondollar gift from a husband and wife.
“I just want to give back to Shreveport something people can see and enjoy, and not have to pay for anything,” Dr. Bakowski said. “It will instill civic pride. It should make people proud of Shreveport-Bossier.”