Under my hat: The new graffiti Mecca

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For many years, Graffiti Highway in Centralia was the place for self expression by street artists.

It was a section of Route 61 lost due to an underground mine fire. It eventually became a magnet for spray paint enthusiasts.

Then, four years ago, property owners covered the road with dirt and closed it to the public.

The problem wasn’t necessarily graffiti, but accompanying vandalism and littering which had gotten out of hand.

However, it didn’t take long for graffiti artists to find a new mecca.

Abandoned West Shore Drive Bridge in Maidencreek Township near Shoemakersville is their new haven.

I decided to check out the Berks County site a few weeks ago before the snow storms hit.

It’s a place steeped in history. The bridge was built in 1927 by Reading City Bureau of Water as part of Ontelaunee Reservoir.

The three-span, open spandrel arch structure is made of concrete and is 403 feet long.

For decades it functioned as Pennsylvania Route 1003, carrying traffic on two lanes over a section of the water.

For whatever reason, it was allowed to deteriorate. It’s been closed to traffic since the 1990s, mostly due to deck and flooring issues.

The arches themselves are said to be sound and sturdy, according to my research.

But the bridge has become an iconic symbol of abandoned Americana.

And yet, in a twist of irony, the roadside attraction has found new life and is more popular than ever.

It’s visited by fishermen, photographers, walkers, hikers, bicyclists and anyone looking to escape the rat race for a few hours.

I spent a Sunday afternoon there, grabbing a few landscape photos on a bright, sunny day during cold, colorless February.

The absence of foliage and flowers made the graffiti appear even more vibrant.

“We come here quite a bit. It’s actually a good fishing hole,” said a middle-aged man accompanied by two youngsters, possibly his children.

Once they left, I had the place to myself.

The sound of silence.

I walked into the adjacent forest and found spots that provide a panoramic view of the water. But graffiti was a distraction.

I normally enjoy art in all its forms. Yet I couldn’t help but think how scenic the bridge would be if it hadn’t been desecrated by paint.

Graffiti is art. Even if it’s vulgar. Even if it carries curse words. Sometimes it’s a genre hard to appreciate.

I was reminded of lyrics by Simon and Garfunkel.

“The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls.”

But the words I saw apparently were a product of false prophets.

Without question, the bridge itself is a work of art. In my opinion, it doesn’t need graffiti adornment.

I’m not sure what will become of the span.

It’ll probably continue to deteriorate.

If there was lack of interest in maintaining it long ago, what are the chances it’ll be protected during its decline?

In the meantime, Graffiti Bridge is a place to go if you prefer to visit sites off the beaten path.

But do so at your own risk.

The site is remote and not your typical tourist trap.

You won’t find souvenir shops, bathrooms or cute little kiosks.

However, you’ll see lots of color. Lots of art.

And even some words that got you kicked out of class in junior high school.

The former West Shore Drive Bridge in Berks County was abandoned in the 1990s and now serves as an unofficial graffiti canvas.

The 1927 West Shore Drive Bridge in Maidencreek Township is made of concrete and stretches 403 feet over a section of Ontelaunee Reservoir. DONALD R. SERFASS/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS

Despite being abandoned and defaced by graffiti, West Shore Drive Bridge provides a panoramic view of Ontelaunee Reservoir near Shoemakersville.

Spray paint enthusiasts have plied their trade at the abandoned West Shore Driveway bridge at Shoemakersville near Leesport. The span at Lake Ontelaunee has become almost completely covered with artwork. DONALD R. SERFASS/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS

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