Bearing messages ranging from the inspiring to the insipid, "love locks" can be found clamped onto bridges in major cities around the world. But no place has it worse than Paris, where the padlocks cover old bridges in a kind of urban barnacle, climbing up every free surface.
Take the Pont des Arts, Paris' most famous footbridge across the Seine river. Hundreds of thousands of padlocks cover its old iron railings; the light of day barely passes through them.
Lisa Taylor Huff, an American living in Paris, has seen enough. She says Paris is not just for tourists but also for Parisians. And two months ago, she started a campaign to take back the city's structures.
"These are historic monuments, these bridges, and they're being completely desecrated by this so-called tradition," says Huff, who notes that the practice is no way a Parisian or even a French tradition.
That she and her partner in the anti-love-lock campaign are American has only brought the online campaign more publicity, says Huff — who adds that she has dual nationality but is Parisian through and through.
But what about "the city of love," I ask her?
Shooting right back, she says, "What about love for Paris?"
Tourists have a responsibility to be respectful of places they're visiting, Huff points out.
"There's that adage," she says. "Tread lightly, take only photographs, leave only footprints."
Huff calls the locks "heavy footprints." She says they threaten architecture and cost Paris taxpayers. City officials, she says, have taken a laissez-faire attitude because they don't want to dampen Paris' romantic reputation. Huff hopes her petition, which has already garnered thousands of signatures, will force the city to consider banning the locks.
No one from city hall wants to speak on the record. They say only that the city regularly replaces overburdened railings on the bridges.
On a recent day, standing in the middle of the Pont des Arts, with a perfect view of Ile de la Cite, Austrian tourists Isabella Schauffler, 19, and Fabien Hampel, 21, throw the key to their newly clamped lock into the Seine.
"I think it's a great idea," says Schauffler.
"To show our love together," adds Hampel.
Schauffler says she hopes they will stay together for a long time: "As long as the lock remains," she says.
The love lock trend took off in the late 1990s. Paris is hardly the only city dealing with the problem, but as the world capital of romance, it takes the brunt of it. Le Monde newspaper estimated in February that there were as many as 700,000 locks on the Pont des Arts alone.
And the practice has spread beyond traditional romance. Now you can find friend and family locks on the bridge.
The Ericson family is looking for a place for its pink padlock. Tim and Sonia's 5-year-old daughter, Eva, has written her parents' initials on one side and her grandmother's on the other — she's back home in Seattle and not in good health.
Tim and Sonia say it's a way for their daughter to think about her grandmother and wish her good health.
The Ericsons hope to be back in a few years and find the lock they've left that day.
Not surprisingly, there are plenty of people ready to cash in on all the love lock enthusiasm — like Arman, from India, who doesn't want to give his last name because it's illegal to sell padlocks on the bridge.
Arman glances left and right as he talks. He says the money's good, especially on weekends, but he has to keep a constant watch for cops. He shows me a segment of bridge grillwork that was recently replaced: It's already filled up with padlocks again.
So just how long do these eternal love locks actually last?
The lock could last years, he says, or it could last only a week. It all depends on how long the railing holds up.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Love locks are padlocks that couples attach to structures. The key is thrown away in a romantic gesture. They can be found in cities all over the world, but they're starting to cause headaches in Paris. Some people there say love locks are anything but loving to the city's architecture.
NPR's Eleanor Beardsley sends this report on a new campaign to ban them.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Well, I'm on the Pont Des Arts, which is one of the most famous bridges in Paris. It's a little, picturesque footbridge. And the old iron railings of this bridge are just covered in padlocks. There's hundreds of thousands of padlocks on this bridge. The light of day barely passes through them.
LISA TAYLOR HUFF: These are historic monuments, these bridges. And they're being completely desecrated by this so-called tradition, which isn't even a French tradition or a Parisian tradition in any way.
BEARDSLEY: That's Lisa Taylor Huff, who launched an online campaign to get rid of the locks two months ago. If you thought you detected an American accent, you did. But Huff has dual nationality, and considers herself a Parisian through and through. The anti-love-lock campaign's American roots has gotten it a lot of publicity. Huff's webpage went viral on social networks. Now, her petition has thousands of signatures.
OK, but what about Paris love?
HUFF: Well, you know, what about love for Paris? (Laughter) This is the city of love. But we believe that when you're a tourist, when you're traveling, you have a responsibility to be respectful of the places you're visiting. And there's that adage: Tread lightly, take only photographs, leave only footprints.
BEARDSLEY: Huff says the locks threaten architecture and cost taxpayers. She says city officials have taken a laissez-faire attitude because they don't want to dampen Paris' romantic reputation. But the city regularly replaces overburdened railings on the bridges.
(SOUNDBITE OF RATTLING)
BEARDSLEY: Some of the padlocks are huge. One says in marker: Because life without you just isn't life, Henry and Christina, Paris 2013. It has smaller padlocks attached to it.
Austrian tourists 19-year-old Isabella Shauflah and 21-year-old Fabien Humpel are throwing the key to their lock into the Seine River.
ISABELLA SHAUFLAH: I think it's a great idea, to...
FABIEN HUMPEL: To show our love together.
SHAUFLAH: And maybe that we stay together for a long time, as the lock stays here for a long time.
BEARDSLEY: Paris isn't the only city in the world with a love lock problem, but few cities have it so bad. And the practice has spread beyond traditional romance.
TIM ERICSON: She wrote our initials - her mother and father - and her initials; and on the other side her grandmother, who's sick back home.
BEARDSLEY: That's the Ericson family from Seattle: Sonia, Tim and 5-year-old Eva, looking hard for a free space to hang their love lock.
ERICSON: All right, all right. And whenever we see Paris, we'll remember the lock on the bridge, won't we?
BEARDSLEY: Not surprisingly, there are those here to cash in on all the love lock enthusiasm.
(SOUNDBITE OF PADLOCKS)
BEARDSLEY: Arman is selling padlocks on the bridge - which is illegal, so he doesn't want to give his last name. He says the money's good, especially on weekends. But you have to keep a constant watch for cops. He shows me a segment of bridge grill work that was recently replaced.
ARMAN: 'Cause the last time it was - become heavy, and it was - broked.
BEARDSLEY: It's already filled up with padlocks again. So just how long do these eternal love locks actually last out here? I ask him. It could be years, he says, or it could be a week. It all depends on how long the railing holds up.
Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIEGEL: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.