Each bridge of Gotham is different. Not just in construction date, the many stories of the builders and general drama in creating any epic structure in a seething teaming frothing city, but in the spirit of that crossing. The neighborhoods shape this character. The bridge reaches from one to another and in doing so spills elements on either shore, so there has always been a smattering of Fulton Street on the Manhattan side or some manner of Wall Street within the first neighborhoods of Brooklyn. The culture of the bridges is also informed by whatever mythos has taken shape around the bridge. Some bridges have been elevated to icon status through popular culture, car commercials, and literature while other languish in utility and remain part of an unseen facet of the cityscape, something only remarked upon when talking about This Nation’s Infrastructure.
This writer is part of a merry band of hikers, and it has come to pass that yearly we take on as many if not all the bridges spanning the East River. This is done on foot, and it takes all day to cover the 16 – 20 miles (last year it was 20 miles but this year we took a ferry for two stops). This year, we started on the Upper West Side (UWS) of Manhattan, walked across Central Park, and took our first bridge at 102nd Street, the Ward’s Island Pedestrian Bridge.
The Ward’s Island Bridge connects Manhattan to what is now known as Ward’s Island and Randal’s Island, named after two old families and both joined into one island in the middle of the 19th century by decades of landfill or bodies or both. Ward’s Island as was Randall’s were both used for a number of social services institutions for decades, and even today there remains a hospital for the criminally insane while all other traces have gathered into piles of dust. On the island for much of it’s history were workhouses and such dealt in the trade of orphans, criminally incorrigible, the Idiot Asylum (a place for those marked as ‘idiots’ rather than a place to escape them – which today would be in high demand), drunks, and all manner of dangerous social ills the city was able to dump there. I am surprised that in crossing the pedestrian bridge from east of East Harlem, we were not met with an army of ghosts. It was my first time over Ward’s Island Bridge in all the decades I lived in Gotham. I remember it as constantly raised during all of Mayor Giuliani and much of Bloomberg’s administration. I could be wrong, but I seem to remember being told it was kept this way to prevent people from Harlem entering the park. Bethatasitmay, today the bridge is open and this morning we found the healthy crowd to be those using the bridge. People who apparently jog or bike every day, or at least are physically active in excess of the average resident. On the island, we were met by a delightful fellow who worked for the part Alliance, who then told us some history and fun facts. We walked down the island to find the entrance to our next Bridge, the Triborough Bridge.
The Triborough Bridge was built in 1936 and contains enough cable to circle the earth twice and enough cement to pave an eight-lane road between New York City and Philidelphia (these facts I learned from the boy who met us on Ward’s Island). Walking the suspension bridge (the Queens-Ward’s Island span) is a precarious venture. The walkway starts out with a full enclosure, a cage of wire (on the island), and just when you get to the top of the span and would like this structure to continue to ensconce you, there is no barrier either to the churning murky waters of Hell’s Gate below or the pounding traffic rushing by at breakneck speeds. The bridge walkway is long – a good section of the total 2,780 feet of the bridge span – and for the most part empty of life except for a few cyclists who maintain that while the walkway is no wider than a tenement hallway, they can ride with impunity and not obey the law to walk one’s bike. Cyclists are why I do not look forward to a future of bike-driven transportation. They are – perhaps just in Gotham – unbearable and demanding people. Another feature of the bridge is the update that the Triborough Bridge has been renamed the RFK Bridge, or Bobby Kennedy, the one who wasn’t POTUS nor dumped his girlfriend in the bay. Few New Yorkers call this bridge by this new name, and it may take a few generations before this is recognized.
Our group then pounded through the wasteland that is Queens to the next bridge, the Queens Borough Bridge, a fantastic Double-decked Cantilever bridge built in 1909 and inexplicably also renamed after a politician – but this time, it is former Mayor Ed Kotch, Gotham’s first-not-openly-gay-mayor. While the legacy of Mayor Kotch is for another deeper discussion, the naming of so iconic of a Beaux-Arts bridge seems ill-fitting even for a mayor who was a steward of the city during its darkest days. A fantastic structure in itself, the bridge’s walkway is thankfully shaded at times from the sun by the many girders and cables above. Here, the cyclists are in their own lane, and there are more pedestrians as Long Island City and the wastelands of Queensbridge are coming into their own and gentrifying to some degree. After having a pause and a drink at a very boring bar at the foot of the bridge, our group made its way across, taking in the views of the Upper East Side and the closer view of Midtown. As we were behind schedule, we had to then walk twenty-five blocks to get to the ferry in order to be on the right side of our next bridge, as well as to get another drink in order to remain calm and carry on.
Once our party had crossed the bridge, we had to make time to catch the ferry. For some time, Gotham has been blessed with a resurgence of its maritime past and on the East River (as in some other locations) a ferry can transport you across the way. We needed to take this method of the back and forth would then at the end leave us on the wrong shore, wrong as in not at the restaurant we intended to patronize once this trip was over. At issue, in addition to the heat, was the cold hard fact that the bridge we had just crossed was some twenty-four blocks north of the ferry terminal. And the ferry was to leave in just over twenty minutes. Regardless, our group much resolved, we made for the ferry and by no small effort, made it in time to board the boat and take it two stops, skipping our having to walk Long Island City and Greenpoint. We made berth at Williamsburg North and went our way at once to yet another bar for some afternoon refreshments and to recover from the blistering sun of the late springtide.
When so collected, the next bridge was the Williamsburg Bridge. Another grand span of historical note, the bridge connected Manhattan to the once prosperous city of Williamsburg, long since incorporated into Brooklyn and then the City itself. Once a rickety structure, the walkway is today a modern amenity and spacious for separate traffic of bicycle and pedestrian. The rise is slow but steady and on a bike it is a strong workout to get up the incline rewarded of course by the unencumbered ride down – just you, gravity, and other bikes in the day or whizzing past without regard to life and limb. It is on this bridge that a few tourists may be seen as are the many hipsters that one would expect at any and every hour. Unlike other bridges, there were congregations of people neither walking to nor fro but enjoying the bridge as an extended escape from the pavement and yet another rooftop. It made me remember the bad-old-days when the walkway was unlit, unfit, and in places, the iron tiles lifted up to reveal the traffic beneath as one walked or cycled across. It was not a place to tarry. A friend of mine had gotten mugged on the Brooklyn side by a gang of youths, but that was nothing surprising, and he even remarked that it was his fault to be out there since in those late 90s the area around the bridge was still a wasteland of crime and meandering Hasidic families and little else.
Back then, the younger me disregarded the danger, both of the structure and the muggers, and biked and skated across the bridge to then meander about the quiet and rotting summer Chinatown and lower quarters of Manhattan before it was a Total Police State (TPS). Our walk this day was somewhat slower than our other bridges since the day was long and fatigue and madness were setting in. The sun was resting behind gathering evening clouds, and some comfort was given, but it was still murky hot. The views were the startling and iconic Manhattan and the restless and now growing waterfront of Brooklyn. We crossed in no time and found ourselves in the home stretch. The Lower East Side and the next journey.
After yet another rest stop, this time, a hip Chinatown bar called Mr. Fongs; we made for the next bridge, the Manhattan Bridge. A gem of a bridge, this masterpiece by Leon Solomon Moisseiff, seems overlooked by the throngs of tourists and transplants that prance and bounce about in this coveted part of the city. Perhaps the bustle of hipsters is kept north to pose on the Williamsburg Bridge while the tourists – with a few days in the city and maybe a Woody Allen movie as their guide* – choose the Brooklyn Bridge as their Manhattan Meca. As with the Williamsburg Bridge, this bridge has separated traffic for pedestrians and bikes, and the view from either side is stunning. Unlike the other bridges, this walkway hugs the subway tracks and from time-to-time, the cacophony of creeping railcars can rattle the bridge and deafen. Bethatasitmay, the walk is uncrowded even during the weekend Golden Hour, that time of evening where the light is ideal, and the world soon-to-be shrouded in darkness still had a churlish moment of childhood potential and magic. We crossed in a limping lumber, our mortality and respective ages showing through. Still, we continued to the other side, to Brooklyn and DUMBO (Divorced Uncles Marry Buxom Ottomans), the neighborhood that is more a warehouse for wealthy dipshits than an actual ‘neighborhood’ neighborhood.
After some trepidation, a tinkle in the bushes, a cigarette, and some courage, we faced our final challenge and last bridge of the day. We had gone about sixteen miles, not counting the ferry, and were tired and on our last wind. Those who drank spirits and those who imbibed only water appeared in similar shape and humor. We all were either native New Yorkers or had been in Gotham long enough to know about the Brooklyn Bridge. It sucks. It sucks so hard. On the Brooklyn side, there are a cluster of food trucks and such that form the first of what will be many bottlenecks.
Tourists from several continents have traveled far to forget how to walk here, usually just drop prone in front of you in order to take the blessed selfie. Thousands of bodies wandering a linear path, chattering, selfie-ing, and blocking all movement at once time and then sprinting a moment later to crash into the crowd would be bad enough, but unlike the other bridges or order to this Flesh Pot of Goa meets the Black Hole of Calcutta that is the Brooklyn Bridge are added bikes. Not just any bike, the fixed gears, the racing bikes, the serious mountain bikes of the dickwads – the bankers, the webtech 2.0 designers, alpha-coop-green-machine trustafarians, freelancers in a hurry, and yes mostly white men 25-48 years old who come screaming by yelling “BIKE GET OUT OF THE BIKE LANE!” To add yet another layer, there are the blundering dunderheads on rented Reichsbank Bikes, who have learned how to plug in their credit card into a machine but not the finer points of actually riding a bike, especially one that weighs 500 lbs and appears designed by the finest Soviet mind.
We fought hard to push our way through the masses of jabbering yammering yelping four squaring visitors, police blocking the way with their toys, selfie sticks being waved about as eye gougers and loving couples dry humping to the sight of the skyscrapers being lit for the night and the summer funk in the sky turning into a pink glow by so much light pollution and industrial dander. Our party broke rank, and it was everyone for themselves. Those of us trained in the dark arts of subway commutership turned our heads down, to protect our neck, tucked in our arms to protect our soft underside, and plowed through the crowd at a determined pace. When we reached the other side, we had to reassemble at our chosen dining spot in order to affirm and celebrate the day, and each one of us become their own private puddle of fatigue and satisfied suffering.
I am sure this survey is but a small snapshot of what could be a much larger study. The cultures of each bridge, the way the structure informs the journey, and the many wonders of each construction project. Today, it was all about that final drink, we toasted and slipped into our seats sore but knowing that yet again, we had each conquered Gotham.
*Are Woody Allen films still a thing?