2016-03-24 / News

No loss of love for locks in Cape Elizabeth

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

CAPE ELIZABETH — If you want to express your undying, unbreakable love anonymously, yet publicly, to the world, you’ll have to find some place to do it other than Fort Williams Park.

The tradition of affixing padlocks to fences, bridges and other public spaces in hopes of protecting a relationship reportedly dates back to World War I and the pedestrian bridge Most Ljubavi — which translates literally into “Bridge of Love” — in the Serbian town of Vrnja ka Banja. There, a school mistress named Nada was said to have died of a broken heart when her lover, an officer in the Serbian military, met another woman while away at war in 1915 and broke off their engagement. Young girls reacted to the death of the teacher by writing their initials, and the initials of their own loves, on padlocks and affixing them to the bridge where Nada and her officer used to meet. The keys to the locks were then thrown into the river, to keep them from ever being found, in order to symbolically bind the love forever.


Although so-called “love locks” have appeared on fences, bridges and other public spaces worldwide over the past 15 years, Cape Elizabeth officials took action to prevent the fad from overwhelming historic Fort Williams Park when locks began appearing there, installing this sign last month to warn away would-be lovelorns. Left, located on Commercial Street in Portland between Long Wharf and the Portland Lobster Co., these padlocks began appearing in February 2013. (Duke Harrington photos) Although so-called “love locks” have appeared on fences, bridges and other public spaces worldwide over the past 15 years, Cape Elizabeth officials took action to prevent the fad from overwhelming historic Fort Williams Park when locks began appearing there, installing this sign last month to warn away would-be lovelorns. Left, located on Commercial Street in Portland between Long Wharf and the Portland Lobster Co., these padlocks began appearing in February 2013. (Duke Harrington photos) The tradition was popularized in the poem “A Prayer for Love,” by Serbian writer Desanka Maksimovi. Still, the act of everlasting love remained a local tradition until 2006, when Italian writer Federico Moccia put out a book titled “I Want You,” which features a passage of a teenage couple attaching a padlock to Rome’s Ponte Milvio bridge as a means to make their love last forever. The book became a movie and, within a year, the lamppost on which most padlocks were placed, partially collapsed from the weight.

As the tradition of placing a “love lock” token spread around Europe, other sites were similarly overwhelmed. In May 2014, a parapet on the Post des Arts bridge over the River Seine in Paris fell from the weight of the padlocks attached to it.

The first lock on the Portland love fence was traced by former Portland Press Herald writer Tom Bell to Kristel Hayes, a middle-aged media consultant. According to Bell’s article published on March 16, 2013, Hayes and two friends hatched the idea during an “alcohol-assisted discussion” on the night before Valentine’s Day at the popular Old Port bar, Gritty McDuff’s.

“We planted a little seed in the name of fun — and love — but we don’t feel we should take credit for what it’s grown into,” Hayes was quoted as saying at the time.

According to Bell’s story, as the locks began to proliferate, they remained in place mainly because of confusion over who owned the fence to which they were attached. Both DiMillo’s Marina and the Portland Water District denied ownership. By the time the city decided it owned the chain-link fence put up to keep people away from the water district storm drain, there were enough locks that officials elected not to risk a public backlash.

Nicole Clegg, Portland’s director of communications at the time, said the city would monitor the fence to ensure the weight of the padlocks does not interfere with its function, but, as Bell wrote, “does not otherwise plan to stand in the way of love.”

The same attitude of laissez faire to love did not spread to Cape Elizabeth, however, and perhaps with good reason.

According to Town Manager Michael Mc- Govern, a visitor to the park in September alerted him to the presence of a pair of padlocks hooked to the fence that keeps people who may be craning for the best possible picture of Portland Head Light from tumbling over the cliff and into the waters below.

By the time McGovern sent someone to remove the locks, two had multiplied, he said, into seven.

After the locks were removed, McGovern and Cape’s public works director Bob Malley talked it over and decided the best thing they could do to maintain the integrity of the popular viewscape would be to discourage others from aping the lovelorn act. And so, up went a sign that declares, simply, “No padlocks.”

“They’re ugly and they’re not part of the natural environment,” McGovern said on Tuesday. “And, if you allow one type of expression, you have to provide for all types of expression. If someone wanted to put up a sign that says, “John loves Mary,” or wanted to put up a Bernie Sanders sign, that also would have to be allowed. Do we really want the view of Portland Head Light by everyone freelancing on their own expression?

“The expression there is the natural expression of the sea, and that’s what we ought to be looking at and enjoying and preserving,” McGovern said.

In 2013, Cape Elizabeth got into a minor dustup with a local artist who has set up shop selling his wares in the park. Fear of a lawsuit over First Amendment violations prompted the town to reach an accord, allowing the artist, and others, to sell their works in the park.

That form of freedom of expression is allowed, McGovern said, because it is tightly regulated to occur only in a specific spot.

“That’s allowed in a certain place in a way that does not take away from the reasons why people want to visit the lighthouse,” McGovern said. “We’re trying to preserve the view of the lighthouse, and the view of the ocean, and the love of the natural environment, and that means not allowing everyone to do what they want to do that could infringe on the rights of other individuals.”

McGovern said he is aware of the love fence in Portland — in fact, it was pointed out to him by the person who initially complained in September — and while a fence full of rusting locks may add a quaint touch to the urban environment, the vision of what could be was deemed wholly inappropriate for Fort Williams.

“It was beginning to snowball and it seemed the best thing to do was to cut it off, and cut it off quick,” McGovern said.

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