I have been watching the superb series of DVDs called New York, thanks to one of my currently vacationing pet sitting clients who owns it (now I wish to own this series too, so I can watch it over and over again). Because of this series, I was inspired to republish a story that I originally wrote in November 2004 about my adventure on the Brooklyn Bridge.
Image: Henri Silbermann.
Dans les champs de l’observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits prepares.
(Chance favors the prepared mind.)
– Louis Pasteur
As a west coast native, the only times I ever heard of the Brooklyn Bridge was when someone was trying to sell it to me. In fact, as a kid, I was most impressed by the Tacoma Narrows Bridge (the only interesting feature in the disgusting little backwater of Tacoma, in my estimation) because the original span, a suspension bridge nicknamed “Galloping Gertie”, was captured on film as it disintegrated under moderate winds in 1940, several months after its completion. Thanks to that film, collapsing bridges haunted both my daylight and twilight hours for years to come. But by the time I attended college, the “failure” of the original Tacoma Narrows Bridge lost its ability to inspire terror but instead, was transformed into a source of fascination. As a learning opportunity, it was used by my Physics instructors with great effect as a warning against ignoring natural resonances of building materials.
So I became a young adult who never gave the Brooklyn Bridge a second thought, indeed, I never had a reason to contemplate whether it was real. So it probably does not surprise you to learn that it wasn’t even the first NYC bridge that I saw. In fact, the first NYC bridge that I saw was the sleek and modern-looking George Washington Bridge (nicknamed the GW (or “Gee Dub”) Bridge), which captured my imagination as I fell asleep to the spectacle of millions of tiny twinkling lights tracing its graceful curves against the night sky outside my bedroom window. But after I joined the Shorewalkers, a group of people who routinely walk around Manhattan and across its bridges, I not only learned more about all of NYC’s bridges, but I was influenced by my fellow Shorewalkers’ passion for the Brooklyn Bridge in particular, so I enthusiastically added it to my growing list of NYC rambles to complete.
So I was quite pleased when I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge for the first time in my life. Despite the fact that I enjoy planning things, this event was absolutely spontaneous. I was returning to Manhattan on a Sunday afternoon one month ago after grooming the rascally Amazon parrot, Rocky, who lives in Brooklyn with one of my “bird clients”. Happily, this visit put enough cash into my pocket to feed my own parrots and myself for several weeks so for a few blissful hours, I forgot my worries. The sun smiled in the robin’s egg blue sky that curved overhead, the wind stroked my face lightly and I fell in love with NYC yet again. Energized by the unexpectedly good weather and by my financial windfall, I suddenly felt more like my old self than I had in months, and one of the many things that my old self enjoys doing is exploring.
I was seeking a shortcut to the subway and soon was sauntering along a paved sidewalk I had never traveled before. It was bounded with concrete barriers and it ran down the middle of a wide busy street, dividing traffic by direction. I followed the sidewalk as it veered gently to the left and suddenly found myself facing the Brooklyn Bridge rising up in front of me, golden with sunlight while Manhattan glittered in the background like a handful of jewels.
I walked along the boardwalk as it rose above the traffic, feeling curiously energized and optimistic as I approached the Brooklyn Tower that framed open sky. The bridge itself is suspended from two towers constructed of rough-hewn granite blocks that provide a solid gothic look and feel that contrasts powerfully with the slender steel span that they support, an elegant partnership between nature and man. I touched the ponderous spun-steel cables that appear to be as delicate as spider webs when viewed from a distance. How many millions of other people, living and dead, touched these cables during the past century? Who were these people, where are they now? I stopped to look down at the crowded roadway and at the steely water below. I marveled at the height of the thing.
On my left, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty were visible while on my right, the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges completed the famous “triplet” of great NYC suspension bridges that span the East River. As I approached the Manhattan Tower, I recognized the Chrysler Building’s elegant spire poking up through a misty gap in the forest of blocky mirrored buildings. I took my coat off and felt the wind pushing against my body. Great Black-backed gulls soared effortlessly next to me. Even though they were more than one hundred feet above the East River, they were so close that I could almost brush their plumage with my fingertips. In my exalted position on the wind-swept wooden deck of the bridge, surrounded by these exquisite masters of flight, I felt I was flying, too.
Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, experiencing its trembling vitality from my toes to my nose, it is obvious that this bridge is more than just a physical structure, more than a paragraph in a dusty history textbook. True, it was the first bridge constructed between the huge and growing metropolises of Manhattan and Brooklyn, which relieved their dependence on ferries to shuttle commuters across the East River. But more than that, it was a monument to optimism, a memorial to opportunity and the accompanying risks and rewards. For example, the city of Brooklyn, seeking to expand its economic influence and to increase its real estate values, invested heavily in the construction of this bridge. During construction, the bridge provided jobs for approximately 1000 men, most of them (and their familes) were new immigrants whose lives and futures were forever changed. After completion, the Brooklyn Bridge was the first physical link between these two great cities, reaching from city hall to city hall, a harbinger of the day when all five neighboring boroughs would be united into the grand and vibrant municipality that we know and love today. The bridge also manifested the reawakening national optimism, its completion signalled that America was once more looking toward the future, that the terrible wounds incurred from the Civil War were finally healing.
But the bridge was not without its demands: It claimed the lives of roughly 27 men, beginning with its chief designer, John Roebling, who died mere days after construction was initiated. Roebling’s son, Washington, stepped in and micromanaged construction of the bridge until he was permanently incapacitated by an on-the-job injury several years later. But with the spectre of bad luck hanging over it, the bridge was also generous; it compensated for this loss by providing unprecidented opportunity to Emily, Washington’s wife and intellectual partner who had studied engineering, primarily to assist her husband.
Initially, Emily Roebling was viewed as a go-between her ailing husband and the politicians, workers, and the press, but thanks to her poise, excellent education, commanding knowledge of the bridge and her masterful politicking during her eleven years as construction supervisor, she came to be viewed as the chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge. Although Emily had never intended to become an engineer (in fact, she later completed her law degree at NYU and became an ardent promoter of Women’s Rights), she was the first woman to address the American Society of Civil Engineers and is widely credited to be the first female field engineer. During opening ceremonies in May of 1883, Emily and her husband Washington were honored as deserving equal recognition for the completion of the bridge. But fifty years later, it was Emily Roebling’s outstanding achievement and dedication to the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge that was immortalized with a plaque installed on each tower, for without her, it would not have happened.
* The facts about EMily Roebling cited here can be found on this webbed resource, The Brooklyn Bridge Website.