New York has a grand Gothic cathedral in St. Patrick’s, but for many New Yorkers, the city's true cathedral, the point at which earth and water join and thrust upwards toward the heavens, is the Brooklyn Bridge.
To fully appreciate its dazzle, you must walk the bridge. Start on the Manhattan side and walk first to one of the great Gothic towers that hold up the bridge’s cables. It took 7 years and massive heartbreak to build these two structures. When architect and immigrant John A. Roebling was surveying the area in 1869 (just 2 weeks after the project had been approved), a ferry accidentally rammed into the place where he was standing, crushing his foot. He died of lockjaw 3 weeks later. His son Washington took over and created a method of sending pneumatic caissons, basically large pressurized pine boxes into which compressed air was pumped to keep the water out, down to the river bed. This allowed six workers at a time to descend and lay the foundation for these towers. Because they didn’t have a good understanding of the effects of underwater pressure on the human body (known to scuba divers as “the bends”), many were killed or injured in the caissons, including Washington Roebling. In 1872 he had to be carried out of the chamber, partially paralyzed. He remained an invalid for the rest of his life, and his wife Martha took over directing the job, learning advanced mathematics in the process. Washington watched the progress of the bridge through binoculars from his apartment, and when the bridge was competed after 13 years, Grover Cleveland (then president), the governor, and the mayor all came to his home to personally thank him for his efforts.
Walk to the center of the bridge and take in the spectacular views of both Brooklyn and Manhattan. When the bridge was built, its span—1,595 feet—was the longest leap across an open space of any on Earth, and the first bridge to connect Manhattan with any of the lands that surrounded it. Take a look up at the cables; these, too, were an innovation, the first steel cables to be used on a bridge (before then cables were iron). It took 2 years to string the cables back and forth before work could begin building the suspension bridge. The cables each contain 5,434 wires and weigh 870 tons. Take a moment at the Brooklyn side to read the plaque on the construction of the bridge.
When you depart the bridge, consider taking a stroll in brownstone-heavy Brooklyn Heights, the first neighborhood in the city to be landmarked. You can catch the A train at Cadman Plaza/High Street back to Manhattan.
- Pauline Frommer