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Sixty years ago this week, on September 25, 1963, President John F. Kennedy rode in an open convertible motorcade from Brees Field at the Laramie airport to the University of Wyoming Field House. There he would provide an address on natural resources and conservation. “There is really not much use in having science and its knowledge confined to the laboratory unless it comes out into the mainstream of American and world life,” said Kennedy to nearly 13,000 students, faculty, residents, and dignitaries. Kennedy’s speech, optimistic in tone, was meant to bridge a divide between science and social problem solving.
“This trip that I have taken is now about 24 hours old, but it is a rewarding 24 hours because there is nothing more encouraging than for those of us to leave the rather artificial city of Washington and come and travel across the United States and realize what is here, the beauty, the diversity, the wealth, and the vigor of the people.”
En route from the airport to the Field House, Kennedy travelled through a neighborhood of diversity and vigor, through a neighborhood of unconventional beauty and wealth measured by not by financial wealth; rather, the wealth of its heritage and social belonging. Kennedy drove through the West Side neighborhood of Laramie.
To get from the airport to the Field House, Kennedy’s motorcade crossed the recently opened Clark Street Bridge which connected Laramie’s West Side neighborhood to downtown Laramie. Former West Side resident Velma Vialpando recalls holding her 18-month-old baby while waving at Kennedy as he crossed the West Side neighborhood to the University. He waved back to the West Siders lining the bridge.
Saul, another long-time resident of the West Side and a neighbor of mine, proudly recalled himself as a boy shaking Kennedy’s hand. Saul’s memory of the day included Kennedy dedicating the newly constructed Clark Street Bridge. Although I can find nothing online to show that happened, it is significant that Saul’s memory of Kennedy involved a bridge. Though perhaps not factual, it is a metaphor.
The Clark Street Bridge simultaneously connected and divided. West Side, largely a Hispanic neighborhood since the 1910s and always a working-class neighborhood, is separated from the rest of Laramie by the Union Pacific. Prior to the bridge’s existence, the neighborhood was connected by a pedestrian footbridge over the tracks and by an older bridge at University Street that intersected with Pine Street near the tracks. The new Clark Street Bridge connected a block further west at Cedar Street. Westbound traffic crossing the bridge bypassed neighborhood businesses on Pine Street and many of them disappeared. The new bridge’s design largely divided the West Side neighborhood into two separate neighborhoods. But the bridge also connected, and it allowed for a fleeting connection between West Siders and Kennedy.
Five days before Kennedy visited Laramie, he addressed the United Nations. “Peace,” he said “is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process, gradually changing opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new structures. And however undramatic the pursuit of peace, that pursuit must go on.” Fifty-eight days after visiting Laramie, Kennedy was killed in another motorcade.
Kennedy’s short life has become an American allegory that is still present in our public psyche. The Clark Street Bridge is now largely forgotten. But for a few old-timers in the West Side, the two are connected. And in that connection, one can find meaning.