Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Great Bridge

I live near the Brooklyn Bridge, and while I stare at it quite a bit, particularly as the Staten Island Ferry is pulling out of its slip, I don’t walk across it nearly often enough. I appreciate the Bridge and recognize it as one of the icons of downtown, but almost certainly I don’t grant the Bridge its due as that most practical of the world’s greatest monuments.

To get an idea how much it is revered, a writer I deeply admire, Philip Lopate, compares the Brooklyn Bridge to the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids, the Acropolis, and the Colosseum. And he’s hardly the first. According to Lopate, when the 100th anniversary of the completion of the Bridge was celebrated in 1983, at least one nearby shopkeeper proudly displayed the following sign on his storefront: “Babylon had her Hanging Garden, Egypt her Pyramid, Athens her Acropolis, Rome her Atheneum; so Brooklyn has her Bridge.” But for Lopate, as for others, the Bridge is less a monument to be venerated, and more a myth to be loved for maintaining a kind of timeless equilibrium between “old and new, handmade and industrial, granite and gossamer.”

For those who don’t fully understand why this bridge has meant so much to so many, it is profitable once again to consult Mr. Lopate. His point is that the Bridge is especially “lovable,” that it somehow has an ability far greater than its East River mates – the Manhattan or the Williamsburg - to “inspire tenderness.” This is attributable to the beautiful curves of its immense steel cables that clash so appealingly with the Gothic style of its enormous base towers, and the fact that a unique elevated boardwalk was set aside for pedestrians, which has allowed millions, not just to see the Bridge but to experience it directly as well. Surely, this invitation to walk the bridge, to take full advantage of its spectacularly expansive view of the city has warmed hearts and inspired poets (who tend to be great walkers) like no other bridge before or since.

So as beautiful and inspiring as it may be, the Bridge’s accessibility and inseparability from everyday life in New York are ultimately what make it so endearing, so lovable. Although the Bridge is sometimes a distant object that is gazed at longingly from afar, it is just as often a real, solid presence in the city that anyone can enjoy without difficulty or cost. Like so many other pleasures of the city, the best way to see it and to be a part of it is to walk it. Your two feet treading on a kind of hallowed surface that still offers a breathtaking view of a great city, while also conveying you, quite conveniently and directly, from one borough to another.


  1. Before the airship, there weren't many ways people could experience the sense of flight; walking the Great Bridge was one of them. A stroll over the East River provided a gull's eye view when skyscrapers did not yet exist and the only truly high places were features of the natural landscape. Imagine the impression of such an experience on the city dweller of the 1880's. It must have been exquisite! And available to all who could manage the walk.

  2. Great comment. In the marvelous series on the history of New York City that Ric Burns did, David McCullough, the great historian of the Bridge and many other things, says something similar. Incidentally, I cannot recommend that documentary by Ric Burns highly enough.