It was when my then 10-month-old son refused to go back to sleep one morning in July 2008 that I first crossed the
We were on holiday (vacation) staying in TriBeCa. On our second morning, the
jetlag from flying from Brooklyn Bridge London
not yet having worn off, he wouldn’t nod off again after waking up at 5am. I’d
headed south with him the previous morning, down towards the Staten
Island ferry terminal. This time, I decided, it was about time I
saw this bridge across the East River that I hadn’t properly seen on any
previous visit to New York.
This, I suddenly realised, was
more like some vast, cross-estuary bridge – I’ve ridden in the past over the
Erskine, Forth and Tay bridges in Scotland – than almost anything I’d
previously encountered in a city. Yet it was nearly 100 years older than most
of those similar spans and taking off from the middle of one of the most
densely-packed sections of one of the most densely-packed cities on earth.
But, unlike the others, I eventually realised, the Brooklyn Bridge would land me in
the middle of lower
less than half a mile from the Hudson River Greenway and four miles of convenient, traffic-free riding uptown. As a result, I am now one of those lucky souls I spotted freewheeling off the bridge in 2008. I’ve ridden when snow is accumulating
on the wooden walkway and in torrential rain, as well as suffocating heat and
on days of such wind I’ve walked over the bridge’s centre. I’ve seen
days when fog obscures Manhattan from Brooklyn, those when mist collects
in the Manhattan streets and the skyscrapers poke out up above and days when rain on my glasses obscures the whole scene. I’ve cursed the wood's slipperiness on wet days and the walkway's narrowness on
sunny days that bring out the tourists. On one especially memorable evening, I rode home over the bridge as spectacular thunderstorms broke over New York Harbour, periodically highlighting the buildings around me against great flashes of sheet lightning.
Other old bridges in cities had shaped my expectations. I’d cycled across the Chain Bridge in
Budapest – another 19th century
suspension bridge. I’d ridden over pretty much every Thames crossing between Tower Bridge
I’d walked over the Clifton suspension bridge in
Bristol. I had
even noticed – with mild irritation – the numerous references in The Path Between the Seas, David
McCullough’s fine history of the building of the Panama Canal, to the written a previous
book on the subject. How big a deal, I wondered, could a bridge across a river in the middle
of a city be? How had he found enough in such a bridge’s building to write a
whole book about it? Brooklyn Bridge. He had
All of which meant I was unprepared for what I found as I pushed my little boy’s pushchair (stroller) over the road beyond City Hall Park and started out on the long, sloping walkway. The twin archways of the bridge’s
Manhattan pier stood
hundreds of yards away, towering over even many tall New York buildings. The four enormous main
suspension cables reinforced the bridge’s scale.
|The Invisible Visible Boy:|
wide awake on his first visit
to the Brooklyn Bridge
I also, as I made my way out towards Brooklyn, started to notice the Manhattan-bound cyclists freewheeling down the slope. There were, it occurred to me, some lucky souls who got to commute by bike every morning over this marvel of engineering, taking in one of the world’s great views – lower
Manhattan’s clustered skyscrapers. As I rolled the still wide-awake boy over the bridge, at
an hour I’d normally still be sleeping, I started to imagine an alternative
life from our existence in London. We would live in Brooklyn and I would get on my bike
each morning and ride, amid the drama of the Brooklyn Bridge, to my job in
There will by this point be many people familiar with cycling in
puzzled at my enconium for this particular bridge – and for good reason. The Brooklyn Bridge,
oldest of the fixed East River crossings and
the most distinctive, suffers as a place to cycle from its celebrity. I have
endured journeys on sunny Saturdays when I’ve spent virtually every yard of the
main crossing ringing my bell, shouting warnings or braking suddenly as
heedless tourists have wandered into my path. I had a young woman shout at me, “This is a tourist area!”
after I tutted at her dumping her suitcase right in the cycle lane by the Manhattan pier. I felt her view failed to capture the bridge's fundamental bridge-iness. Most
bizarrely of all, I once had a wedding party remonstrate with me that I was
cycling too fast (at a sedate 12mph) and had disrupted their efforts to pose
for wedding photos in the bridge’s bike lane. I suggested that, if they didn’t
mind obstructing traffic, the view from one of the adjacent car lanes might be even better.
But the challenges of using the bridge shouldn’t obscure how marvellous and unique a structure the bridge is. Using it can also be one of those interactions with a city that cyclists are peculiarly privileged to enjoy. The bridge played a significant role in forming the current
New York City.
It's no accident that it was only in 1898, after the bridge's completion in 1883, that the cities of New York and Brooklyn merged to form one metropolis.
The aesthetics of the
– as it was known during construction – also summarise something about the
city itself. When John Roebling, the bridge’s designer, was planning it in the
1860s, he could easily have gone for a different look. There is, in
retrospect, something eccentric about giving what was then the world’s most
ambitious, modern bridge two twin stone archways in the European gothic style.
The mixture of modern steel cables and gothic styling must initially have
seemed as strange as, say, one of the modern-day shopping malls in Great
East River Bridge Dubai themed around the
medieval Muslim world.
Yet the slightly pompous adoption of European styles and modern construction techniques turned out to be the perfect mixture for a city taking over from Europe the mantle of world leadership. There were buildings in
York and Brooklyn in an archaic style before the .
But it’s hard to believe that mixture of old and new would have become quite as
prevalent without the Roeblings’ bridge. Look at the Great Bridge Brooklyn
Bridge’s towers and you’re seeing, right
there, where ’s Gothic aesthetic
was born. Gotham
That aesthetic stems partly from the bridge's unique place in the history of bridge building, as McCullough's book points out. It was one of the first suspension bridges on such a scale – but the last big one before steel towers became standard. None of the
Great Bridge’s East River successors features the mixture of stone and steel.
But it's the myriad human stories behind the bridge's building that really play on my mind as I ride across.
|The commemorative plaque: heroes and villains side by side|
That's been particularly the case since the morning in early March when I stopped on the bridge to change my warm-ish cycling jacket for a cooler high-visibility vest. Above where I rested my bike, on the bridge’s
tower, stood the plaque that was unveiled on May 24, 1883 when the bridge,
after 14 years’ work, finally opened to the public. Having read McCullough’s
The Great Bridge since that day in 2008, I recognised many of the names on the
plaque - and found many bringing the bridge’s history to mind.
The name John Roebling, the bridge’s original engineer, was marked with a small cross and the date 1869. He had, I knew, died slowly and painfully of tetanus after being injured surveying the bridge’s
Brooklyn landing. The accident happened almost
exactly beneath where I was standing. The cables above my head – a mixture of stays to hold
the bridge deck steady and conventional suspension cables - bore testimony to his
continuing influence. Such dual sets of cables were a trademark of his bridge
designs – and testimony to his caution and thoroughness.
The name Washington Roebling, John’s son, below him, conjured up still more stories. He suffered terribly for years from the effects – both on his nerves and his body – of tackling a fierce fire in the caisson that formed the base of the bridge’s
tower. The caisson was on the river bed, directly below my feet.
The long list of the bridge’s trustees featured less unequivocally honourable names. Henry Murphy and William Kingsley, the president and vice-president of the board, had both been involved in awarding the contract to make wires for the suspension cable to J Lloyd Haigh, a shady
Brooklyn contractor. Haigh perpetrated a long-running
fraud to supply the bridge with sub-standard wire. The width of the
cables I had noticed in July 2008 testified to it. Washington Roebling had extra
wire added to the cables to protect against weaknesses in the sub-standard
wire, still in place more than 130 years on.
I looked at the same plaque with far less insight back in 2008. My son had finally fallen asleep when I reached the Brooklyn pier and I turned back towards
eager to suggest the Invisible Visible Woman and the Invisible Visible Girl come back with us for a second visit to the bridge. That second visit - and a picnic lunch the next day with two old friends in . The notion of relocation to the Big Apple remained strong enough, even though the
prospects of its happening seemed remote, that I rhapsodised on the possibility
of commuting over the Fort Greene - further nurtured my growing idea of how we could live in New York in the first post on this blog. The notion made me all the keener to apply when, unexpectedly, a
suitable job with my employer in Brooklyn
York became available.
Yet there was no inevitability about my using the
My early research revealed a strong bias among cyclists in favour of using the pedestrian-free Brooklyn Bridge, even once we'd selected a Brooklyn apartment Manhattan Bridge bike path to travel between downtown Brooklyn and lower Manhattan. I’ve used all three other East
River bridges – the Manhattan for trips to Lower
East Side destinations, the Williamsburg
for an occasional change and the Queensboro for a few days following Superstorm Sandy.
|The Invisible Visible Boy, now a Brooklyn resident,|
on the bridge last Christmas Eve
Through all of that, there are still days – frequent ones, in fact – when the highlight of my ride to work is the moment when I turn a corner on the walkway and the bridge first comes into view. The Roeblings’ twin gothic towers come into view against a backdrop of lower
Manhattan skyscrapers glistening in the sunlight
– and I remember what made me want to live in this city in the first place.