OKLAHOMA CITY -- Rita Moore, Classen High Class of '49, cannot remember a time when Graffiti Bridge was not covered with graffiti.

"In the early days, the city would whitewash over the graffiti and run articles in the paper warning us not to do it again," she said. "Then they just gave up."

Almost since the day it was built for the interurban line to Guthrie in 1936, the small railroad bridge at N.W. 59th and Western has been a target of youths wielding paint brushes.

"If you were pinned to someone," Moore said, "you ran right out and painted that on the bridge. I don't think things have changed much over the years."

Rhoda Rizzo, McGinnis High Class of '84, estimated that she has painted the bridge about 50 times. "It took enormous planning and a lot of money to do it right," she said. About 20 people contributed $10 each and worked four to six hours to complete the job, she said. "The biggest problem was getting there at a time when no one else was already painting it."

Now, to the horror of the hordes who have painted Graffiti Bridge over the decades, the city wants to demolish it to make room for a new road.

"There is a tremendous amount of sentimental value in the bridge," said City Council member Mark Schwartz, whose district includes the bridge. "If there is some way to maintain it, I'd like to. But that road is important too."

Such thinking does not sit well with many Oklahoma City residents. Graffiti Bridge is a big chunk of their past that they intend to preserve for the future.

Graffiti themes have remained largely unchanged through the years. They proclaim high school rivalries and who loves whom. Births have been announced, friends memorialized and marriages proposed. Even campaign workers for new Gov. David Walters (D) saw fit to paint political material on the bridge.

The bridge also has served as a sign of the times. In 1969, an effigy of the judge who ordered the desegregation of city public schools was hung from the bridge. Throughout the 1960s, peace signs cropped up and, more recently, "Nuke Iraq" and other statements supporting U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region have been scrawled there.

Painters of Graffiti Bridge scorn the modern method of spraying from a can. A long-respected tradition holds that buckets of paint, brushes and rollers are the only acceptable means of starting a graffiti attack at the bridge. Painters show up about midnight, whitewash the entire bridge spanning a busy four-lane street and then cover it with their own art. The messages change as often as every day. Apparently through some tacit understanding, seldom are the graffiti obscene or hate-related.

"Once, someone painted some swastikas on it," Schwartz said. "I came up here myself the next morning and painted over them."

The bridge won a reprieve earlier this year when developer Glen Hunt bought it from the county for $37,000. It was a business venture, he said, citing plans to open a restaurant in a railcar on the bridge, name it the "Graffiti Express" and keep the bridge open to the painter's brush. More recently, he said, the purchase has become a matter of principle.

"The tendency in Oklahoma City has been, if it gets in the way, bulldoze it," he said. "All of our historical landmarks are being destroyed. The question now is: Is Oklahoma City really interested in preserving its historical landmarks?"

If the past is any indication, Graffiti Bridge may be doomed. In the 1960s and 1970s, Oklahoma City aggressively pursued and received federal urban renewal funds and, in a construction frenzy, demolished many older structures in order to erect glass and steel skyscrapers.

"We lost some beautiful buildings," said Bob Blackburn, deputy director of the Oklahoma Historical Society. "And Oklahoma City still has a long way to go toward understanding the importance of historical preservation."

Blackburn is fighting to save the stately old Skirvin Hotel, vacant since 1988 and one of the few historic buildings downtown. Although listed on the National Register of Historic Places, "that only saves it from being torn down with federal funds," Blackburn said. "We lose beautiful old buildings all the time that are on the national register."

The possibility of losing Graffiti Bridge has propelled city residents to action. A radio station broadcast for several days from the bridge and collected 1,800 signatures from people seeking to save it. Popular artist Greg Burns designed an ink and watercolor print, leaving the bridge itself plain white so the buyer can fill in graffiti. It is one of the most popular items in his gallery.

Other entrepreneurs scrape off particles of the two-inch crust of paint and make jewelry to sell in a fund-raiser for the structure.

The recent discovery that Graffiti Bridge lies on the path of old Route 66, one of the nation's landmark highways, has given a boost to supporters seeking to have the bridge declared a historic landmark.

"A restaurant there would make it a perfect roadside attraction," said Danny Scott, founder of the Route 66 Association and John Marshall High Class of '64 who spent many nights painting the bridge. "I eat, sleep and breathe Route 66, and I know a good roadside attraction when I see one."

The City Council is to determine the fate of Graffiti Bridge sometime next month. By moving the proposed road about 60 feet north, the bridge can be saved, although the neighboring funeral home is fighting those plans.

"It's built of reinforced concrete so there's just no way you can move it without tearing it up," Hunt said. "I don't know why the road has to be there. It's a great business location."

If the bridge goes, part of the city's character goes with it.

"It has always been a source of great entertainment," Rita Moore said. "It's a fixture in Oklahoma City."