When he was fundraising to light the Hoan Bridge, Michael Hostad received a phone call from a woman he’d never met. She’d lost her brother to suicide in the 1970s after he jumped off the bridge, and her family was adamantly opposed to the project. “She said they felt disrespectful to those who had taken their lives, but she felt differently,” Hostad recalls. “She said, ‘I looked at the bridge for so many years and only saw pain, but now, I can look at it in a new light and think about my brother in a positive way.’”
Stories like this are exactly why Hostad and Light the Hoan co-founder Ian Abston have worked tirelessly to breathe new life into the soaring freeway span just south of Downtown. In 2018, Hostad combined his IT background with his passion for the city and began fundraising to install thousands of LED lights on the bridge. The organization Light the Hoan officially launched in October 2020, and since, it’s been lit in different color combinations in honor of more than 80 Milwaukee communities, causes, organizations and events.
The Hoan, once merely infrastructure in the city, has become a bridge in a new sense, connecting Milwaukeeans to all the things that make the city special with a landmark that’s visible to so many of its residents. Each bulb on the bridge has been sponsored by an individual or nonprofit who wants to shine light on something that matters to them, whether a social cause, an anniversary or new baby, or a lost loved one. “The bridge itself already means a lot of things to a lot of people, and we’ve created this way for it to turn into a meaningful symbol in so many different ways,” Hostad says.
Since 2020, the organization has lit the bridge with different color schemes and designs to honor special events and causes, from holidays and sports games to International Transgender
Day of Visibility, Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Juneteenth, National Women’s History Month and Hispanic Heritage Month. In 2021, Light the Hoan launched its Shine a Light campaign, honoring inspiring community organizations each month with new light schemes. People can learn more about the organizations and donate money through Light the Hoan’s website.
During Hanukkah, Hostad stood in a crowd of Milwaukeeans watching the bridge transform into a giant, upside-down menorah. “Someone said to me, ‘I hope you take a minute every now and then to think about what you’ve done for the community,’ and I got a little misty,” Hostad says. “I don’t think when we set out to light the bridge we really knew the impact it would have.”