Monday, May 2, 2011

Brooklyn Bridge

It started out a gorgeous sunny day in New York on Sunday with a maximum of 20oC predicted. We headed downtown on Subway F from 23rd Street to Delancy St on the Lower East Side with a few hours to spare before our Big Onion walking tour of the Brooklyn Bridge.

We walked down Essex Street to the intersection with Grand Street. We're obviously on the edge of Chinatown again, but it's easy to imagine these tenements bursting with all the newly arrived immigrant groups over the centuries.

We find the famous Kossar's Bialys on Grand St and snack on a garlic bialys (lighter and fluffier than a bagel) and a more traditional pumperknickel bagel - very good too. While this area is no longer Jewish a few traditional bakeries have remained - still kosher, under the supervision of their rabbis.

To walk off the bagels we take a look at the district nearby which is very close to where we were the other day in Chinatown/Little Italy.

It's a beautiful Sunday morning so crowds of locals are gathered in the Sarah Roosevelt Park, chatting, playing mahjong, and families walking with their children. We watch some young men struggle to referee this game of Soccer with a group of (very) young children while their grandmothers play Chinese card games.

Eventually we thought we could tackle a light lunch. I was looking for Pho Grand, a highly recommended Vietnamese restaurant in NY's Chinatown.

The Pho was up to my high standards.

But instead of sticking with a light lunch I had to succumb to buying (and eating) my favourite sticky rice cakes from the nearby bakery for dessert.

We met up with Jill from Big Onion Walking Tours at the SW corner of Broadway and Chambers Street at City Hall at 2.00pm. Jill's a Phd student at Princeton University (in Comparative Literature) and her scholarly approach is very evident as we listen intently while she establishes the historical and social context for the building of the Brooklyn Bridge from the 1860s-1880s.

Lower Manhattan WAS New york in those days, a busy port city, full of teeming tenements, warehouses, commerce, noise and corruption. A lot of the wealthy people settled away from it all over the East River in Brooklyn Heights, coming across to Lower Manhattan when needed by ferry. There was a great need for a commuter bridge, but it wasn't wanted by everyone and there were great fears of cost overruns, corruption and all the safety concerns attached to building the longest suspension bridge in the world (at that time). The 5 boroughs of New York hadn't even coalesced as one city by that time so it was a very brave decision by the government of the day (It cost $15,000,000US in those days) to go ahead. Luckily they had a German engineer John Roebling who designed a very robust and beautiful and visionary bridge for them and who supervised its early construction.

It's a bridge that has captured the hearts of many American artists and writers. Jill read some of Walt Whitman's free form verse about the bridge and quoted other writers too, including Arthur Miller, who've all extolled the bridge's virtues.

From the middle of the bridge, it's highest point, you get a great view of the NY skyline (and the need for some maintenance paint work on the bridge).

Jill told us some of the amazing stories of sacrifice and death that are a part of the story of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. John Roebling died early on from the mishandling of a foot injury (sustained while working on the bridge). His 32 year old son Washington took over responsibility, but unfortunately he suffered permanent neurological damage from "the bends" caused by his involvement with the workers digging out the foundations (under great pressure, under water) of the great stone pylons. Of course many of the workers died from the bends as no one knew anything about how to treat or avoid this happening in those times.

Jill enjoyed telling us the story of how Emily Roebling (Washington's also young wife) took over the supervision of the bridge building. She saw the job through over the next fourteen years. There is a small plaque to her on the pylon on the Brooklyn side but it tends to underestimate her contribution, I think.
The bridge is a mile long. There are great stories too about it's opening and the fears people had about its safety. There were fatal crushes caused by mass crowd panics. They called in Barnham's Circus and its fleet of elephants to finally prove the bridge could take the weight. Eventually New Yorkers came to love their bridge, believing it stood for all that was good about their city and their county.

Having crossed the bridge, and over in Brooklyn Heights there were more good stories. Here we are at the Plymouth Church and the statue of Henry Ward Beecher, the prominent (and controversial) Congregationalist preacher and abolitionist, and brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom's Cabin).

Around the corner as we turned left into Willow Street we could see more of the charming Brooklyn Heights residential area, so beloved by, and so out of reach of most New Yorkers: tree lined streets, quiet roads, low rise buildings, pretty flowered front courtyards, historic brownstones.

Truman Capote lived here for a time (in the basement, not on one of the upper floors as depicted in the film we saw last year).

.........and Arthur Miller lived here, in the basement.

By now we had walked through to the Brooklyn Promenade and got some last great views of the Brooklyn Bridge, looking back to Manhattan.

With the tour finished we walked back up Montague Street and enjoyed a reviving Brooklyn lager at the Heights Cafe before catching a train back to Times Square where we had some seats to book (for a show later in the week) before the box office closed at 6.00pm.

We had a few Subway stuff ups getting back to 23rd Street so we ended up walking another 11 city blocks to get home. I was dead tired by this and completely lost my usual good sense of direction. Rob had to take over (and proved to be quite capable)

1 comment:

Athena said...

Hi, Appalachian Mountain Club Books is interested in using your photo of Sara Roosevelt Park in a book, Outdoors with Kids. It's hard to find a good picture of this park! Please reply back via email to Athena Lakri, Production Manager, (you can see our website at