Classic New York: The Brooklyn Bridge
Among the many essentials for the New York City visitor—and something New Yorkers should do at least once a season—is walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s not the best way to get anywhere, it’s a huge way up and over a mile across, it’s super windy and normally either roasting or freezing, but it is, I’m afraid, compulsory.
It’s not just that it’s one of the best vantage points going. In most cities, to encompass everything, you have to go up; but from the bridge Manhattan hits you like an orchestral strike. it’s not just that you can see the islands and the skyline and four of five boroughs, or that the air pours through you thick and clean as child’s hair. The Brooklyn Bridge is in some sense the best expression of the city– it’s the New Yorkiest thing out there. The Statue of Liberty is French, the skyscrapers are all corporate, the uptown hotels are full of ghastly people, Central Park has been themed to within an inch of its life… but what was then called the East River Bridge was created, back in the early days of Reconstruction, by the people and for the people. Encouraged by Brooklynites fed up with the freezing ferry crossings, the state got the ball rolling on the project, which—amazingly for public works of that, and, indeed, this, era—came off without signficant delay or screwup (the Washington Monument in D.C., by comparison, took 50 years). And on its completion in 1883, the then largest suspension bridge in the world opened the era of titanic American engineering—if we’re going to stick to the citizens are made not born view of America, which we are, because that is how America works (Johann Roebling, its architect, was German). A toll was collected for the first few decades, until the bridge was paid for, at which point the toll was extinguished. It has been free to use ever since. And more than anything else it created the modern city: 15 years after completion, the separate cities of Brooklyn and Manhattan finally tied the knot.
For the moment, of course, much of it is under tarpaulin, undergoing repairs vastly more expensive than the original construction. But the fabric of it isn’t the point. And because Roebling knew what he was doing, he built it six times stronger than it needed to be anyway, so that of the 70,000 structurally deficient bridges mentioned in the President’s State of the Union speech, this is not one. So walk it. It provides the timeless experience of New Yorkers getting all up in each other’s grills, for a single uninterrupted block a mile long—during which no-one will try to sell you anything—which leaves you with the sort of wholesome satisfaction church used to provide: you are reconfirmed as an observant New Yorker. Well done. Brunch will taste better.