Keys to the heart: Love locks fall in France, sound in Portland

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PORTLAND — Lovers, rejoice.

While the end of a famed French monument to l’amour last week made international headlines, Portland’s “love locks” fence seems secure.

At least for now.

On June 1, workers in Paris began to dismantle hundreds of thousands of padlocks, inscribed with lovers’ names and initials, that hung from an iron grillwork along the historic Pont des Arts bridge. Paris authorities claimed the “cadenas d’amour” were weighing the span down with an estimated 45 tons, endangering the structure, and blocking panoramic views of the River Seine.

In Portland, more than 3,000 similar locks, weighing nearly 1 ton according to an unscientific survey, hang from a chain-link fence along Commercial Street near Long Wharf. The fence overlooks a sewage and storm-water outflow into Portland Harbor, 10 feet below.

Paris will soon install Plexiglas covers to shield the grillwork while allowing pedestrians to glimpse the river.

Portland is shying from such steps. But Director of Public Services Mike Bobinsky said the city is keeping a close eye on its locks to make sure they don’t jeopardize the fence and create a safety hazard.

Bobinsky last week said he was following the story of the Paris bridge, but did not feel Portland so far has to prohibit more padlocks. The city is responsible for the fence, he explained, while the Portland Water District owns the overflow structure and its small gate.

“We will continue to monitor the situation … we want the public to be safe,” Bobinsky said. “But to the extent there’s any strain on the fence, we’ll have to take appropriate steps. We don’t want anyone to go ‘overboard.'”

Facets of affection

Symbolizing the permanency of love, the locks come in all shapes and sizes. In Portland, most locks have been secured with keys, which traditionally are thrown away. But numerical combinations hold the secrets to other hearts.

Some locks are rusted; others gleam. Most carry inscriptions in ink, but many are engraved with elegant lettering.

A sculpted lion’s head guards the keyhole of a brass lock 4 inches wide. An industrial locking device with two thick bolts, each secured by a smaller padlock, commemorates the relationship of “Dee & Andy.”

There’s at least one bicycle lock, and many, many tiny luggage locks.

The beloved are as varied as their bolts. A new couple’s lock reads, “Mark loves Lisa, 2-14-15,” and another elates: “She said yes! Jenny & Drew, June 4, 2015.” Wishes to an older couple read, “Happy 30th anniversary, Tony and Renee.”

And there’s no gender-relationship barrier along this chain-link barrier. You’ll find “Emma & Courtney” remembered here, along with a large, silver-plated lock inscribed “Warren and Gordon, August 10, 2013, Portland, ME.”

Not all tell happy tales. Ann Mitchell, of Boston, recently placed a lock on the fence to honor her husband, Mike, a soldier who died in Afghanistan during 2011. Other locks pay tribute to long-gone parents, friends and loved ones.

“This is a memorial, a very public and very permanent way of remembering someone I love,” Mitchell said. “I guess maybe it’s an unusual memorial, but I think (Mike) would understand.”

Betty and Roger Williams were surprised last month to receive an engraved Master Lock in celebration of their 48th wedding anniversary. The couple hung the lock after carefully examining the fence.

“We tried to find one spot where we would always see it,” Betty said.

The couple, visiting Portland from Port St. Lucie, Florida, had learned of the love-locks phenomenon while traveling in China, Williams said. There, locks are strung along a chain that girds the Great Wall.

In fact, love locks are found throughout the world, often decorating important public structures – or defacing them, some critics claim.

Locks on the loose

From a dozen other Paris bridges to the Brooklyn Bridge, from Cologne to Canberra, from Boston, England, to Boston, Massachusetts, there seems to be no end to the power of love.

But in addition to Paris, cities such as New York, Toronto, Dublin and Florence, Italy, have removed or outlawed the locks, citing aesthetic and safety concerns.

An international protest group, No Love Locks, was formed in 2014 to halt the contagion of clasps in Paris and elsewhere. The group’s website, which has attracted nearly 200,000 visitors, claims “the historic bridges of Europe and around the world aren’t feeling the ‘love’ at all, nor are the citizens of the cities who are burdened with maintenance costs from a trend that has escalated out of control.”

The beginnings of the trend are unclear. Some claim the latches have adorned the Great Wall for centuries. Legend also holds that locks were fastened to a bridge in Serbia in memory of a couple separated by World War I.

Whatever their origin, love locks were appearing throughout Europe soon after 2000, and grew more popular when a 2006 Italian novel described them.

In Portland, the Commercial Street locks reportedly date to February 2013, when a group of friends attached a few to the fence after an evening in an Old Port bar. But there’s no way to be sure who added the first link to the chain-link.

Unlocking potential

Since then, the idea has caught on so much that the Maine Center for Creativity, a nonprofit think-tank devoted to Portland’s “creative economy,” has begun promoting the locks as a form of public art.

The installation is unique, at least in the area.

City Hall spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said she’s unaware of any other love-lock locations in Portland. The Casco Bay, Martin’s Point and Veterans Memorial bridges are all lock-free. And the trend doesn’t appear to have spread to other Maine cities.

Last Saturday, sidewalk vendors Kate Clark and Keith Nuki understood the locks’ promotional power. Stationed next to the fence, Clark was selling her handcrafted jewelry, while Nuki offered his photography services to a steady stream of passers-by.

Tourists frequently pose near the fence. Clark, who has displayed her wares there for several years, said the spot is also the site of marriage proposals and two or three wedding portraits each summer.

Nuki also sells padlocks, painted by Clark in whimsical and romantic designs of nail polish. He estimates he sometimes sells a dozen locks a day, usually for $5 or $10 each.

“The locks make all the difference,” Clark said. “Everyone stops by, even if they don’t have one, just to see them.”

Neither Clark nor Nuki is eager for the city to un-lock the fence. And neither is Bobinsky.

At this point, he said, “we have not felt we have to prohibit the locks … We understand their significance, and we’re trying to be respectful.”

Williams said she understands the predicament faced by officials in Paris.

“You don’t know if it’s right or wrong,” she said. Nevertheless, she’s optimistic about the future of her own love lock, adding, “It’s going to stay there.”

Sidebar Elements

Brittany Peters and Brett Helzer hang a padlock on Portland’s “love locks” fence along Commercial Street on Monday, June 8. Helzer, of Prescott, Arizona, was about to board a plane for home, leaving Peters in Portland. They plan to reunite next month, when Peters relocates west.

A new padlock hangs in rare open space on Portland’s “love locks” fence, near Long Wharf on Commercial Street. Brittany Peters and Brett Helzer memorialized their feelings on the fence Monday, June 8.

Thousands of padlocks adorn Portland’s “love locks” fence on June 8, near Long Wharf in the Old Port.  

The ties that bind are key

Portland’s love-lock fence, including a gate, runs for 39 1/2 feet along Commercial Street, between Long Wharf and Portland Lobster Co.

The 5-foot-high fence is most densely packed with padlocks in the top 2 feet of chain-link mesh. An estimate of the fence’s lock load is based on a count of 56 locks per square foot in one of the most dense spots. Accounting for less popular spots, such as the lower area of the fence, the result is a conservative estimate of more than 3,000 locks. At a typical weight of 8 ounces, the locks total more than 1,500 pounds.

But the weight is not a problem, according to Bill Ullrich, of the Chain Link Fence Manufacturers Institute. Ullrich said a single strand of commercial-strength chain-link mesh can support 1,300 pounds. A bigger concern is the ties that connect the mesh to the fence posts.

“That’s going to be the weakest point,” Ullrich said in a phone interview. “Somebody should be going over to the (Portland) site and making sure the (ties) are secure and spaced closely.”

— William Hall