Saturday was fabulously balmy in New York, so I scrapped my indoor plans and decided to walk the Brooklyn Bridge instead. After all, how often does a warm, sunny day in January happen?
This is one of the iconic New York experiences. And it’s free! How often does that happen in New York City?
The Brooklyn Bridge isn’t soaring, graceful, or particularly handsome, as suspension bridges go. The Mackinaw Bridge in my home state of Michigan is all that, plus it spans the conjunction of two great lakes. Not that I’m partial or anything.
The Brooklyn Bridge is stalwart, however. It’s symmetric. It’s strong. And over the decades it has become imbued with the romance and culture of the city. It’s hard to think of a more iconic New York sight.
Its construction was costly for the family that designed and managed the project for 14 years, however.
John Roebling, bridge-builder and German immigrant, designed its stalwart neo-Gothic towers, its web of steel cables and three fail-safe systems to withstand stress. But he died of tetanus after getting his foot crushed while surveying for the bridge.
The mantle passed to his son, Washington, who became paralyzed from caisson disease after working in boxes of compressed air (caissons) during the bridge’s construction. (It’s like scuba divers who get the “bends” from surfacing too quickly–it can kill–or in this case–paralyze you.)
So Washington Roebling’s wife, Emily, fearing neither man nor fate, assumed the role of liaison for her immobilized husband. Having absorbed the math, specs, and tolerances of bridge construction, she managed the project for the next 11 years and was the first to cross when the bridge opened to jubilant fanfare on May 23,1883. At the time, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world.
A week later, a rumor that the bridge was collapsing caused a stampede that killed 12 people. Over 200 years later, massive crowds surged across the bridge from lower Manhattan when the subways were closed following the 9/11 terrorist attack. Still, the bridge held firm.
I wanted to cross from the Brooklyn side because “the view will be better, and you’ll be going in the opposite direction from the crowd,” explained my son-in-law.
So, I took the number 2 train to the Clark and Henry Street stop and exited in the well-maintained Brooklyn Heights neighborhood where locals strolled around in shirtsleeves and ate out on patios. In January, mind.
After my own stroll on the promenade overlooking the East River and the Manhattan skyline, I ferreted out the secret stairway to the bridge and began the 1.3-mile walk.
The boardwalk is divided into pedestrian and bicycle lanes, and you seriously have to watch your step. Bikes hurtle past bearing silent and grim-faced riders. If you want to take a photo from the other side or are simply nudged across the line at the wrong moment by the crowd, you will be road kill. Ask me how I know.
I crossed as the sun was setting. The air was warm; the views were magnificent; people were happy, and the whole experience was like meeting a celebrity. You thought you were too sophisticated to be impressed, and then you find yourself unaccountably stammering and emotional in the presence of greatness.
It was over too quickly. I walked into Manhattan, by the Municipal Building, and back to Broadway, which by now I know well enough to locate a metro stop for the A train to the upper reaches of Manhattan.