NEW YORK – There’s a sublime moment that occurs when I reach the top of the Brooklyn Bridge – a marine breeze whiffing up from the East River, traffic rattling along on the roadway below, hundreds of people shuffling, loping, toddling, jogging, moseying, and biking past me, smartphones and selfie sticks raised in all directions, the American flag hoisted high overhead, the Manhattan skyline working its magic in the background – when I pause to hope this scene never will cease to stir my heart.
I promised my editor this story about walking the Brooklyn Bridge so many months ago, it’s embarrassing. It was meant to coincide with the long-anticipated completion of a major, multi-year rehabilitation (its first since 1958). Over budget and, like my story, way behind schedule (a projected completion date of the end of 2014 has been pushed back to spring 2016), the project has left this National Register Historic Landmark draped in tarps and mired in construction inconveniences for several years.
My writing problem was that I really wanted to do the thing justice without overstating my case. After all, on the face of it, the Brooklyn Bridge is just . . . a bridge. A functional structure carrying people from Point A to Point B. But for all its simplicity, maybe because it’s so simple, the bridge offers one of the most authentic and stirring New York City experiences I know. (As a bonus, it doesn’t cost a dime.)
The first time I remember seeing the bridge was in the famous opening sequence of the 1979 Woody Allen film “Manhattan.” Allen’s shameless affection for it set the stage for my feelings when finally I saw it in person a few years ago.
Opened in 1883, the span is the oldest of the three suspension bridges – along with the Williamsburg (1903) and the Manhattan (1909) – that cross the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn. According to the New York City Department of Transportation, more than 120,000 vehicles, 4,000 pedestrians and 3,100 bicyclists cross the Brooklyn Bridge every day.
The upper span of the bridge is open to pedestrians and bicyclists 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Walking it requires very little preparation; my first time was totally spur-of-the moment. You can enter near the spectacular, Beaux-Arts-style New York City Hall on the Manhattan side. But I happened to already be in Brooklyn (reporting on Henry Ward Beecher’s legacy there), so the decision as to which side to start on was a no-brainer. And it worked out well: Walking from Brooklyn to Manhattan affords superior views, since you’re facing the Manhattan skyline the whole time. But in fact it hardly matters. Nothing’s to stop you from turning to look behind you, right? And though this might seem obvious, it wasn’t to me till someone pointed it out: It’s okay to march halfway across, then turn around and head back where you started. (In fact, I did just that on one of those impossibly sunny days in early December, stealing some time between meetings in the city.)
The Brooklyn-to-Manhattan trek starts in the super-trendy section of Brooklyn known as Dumbo – for “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass.” I got a bit disoriented and found myself headed toward the Manhattan Bridge. That would have been fine; it’s walkable, too, and I hear it has its charms. But I saved that for another day.
I learned pretty quickly to obey the cardinal rule of the Brooklyn Bridge: Bicycles rule. Bikes and pedestrians have separate lanes in the 15-to-20-foot-wide passageway, and the bikers don’t take kindly to walkers straying into their territory. Many ride like a gold medal’s at stake, and only some use bells to warn of their approach. Stenciled walkway markings (recently repainted as part of the overhaul and already looking a bit shabby again) designate the bike and pedestrian lanes. If you’re walking with kids, you’ll want to hold hands.
This 1.3-mile walk isn’t actually much of a hike; the incline is gradual, and there’s ample opportunity to stop and rest. Most guides suggest allowing an hour for a leisurely stroll. It’s best to wear comfy footwear, and definitely not heels, as their spikes can get stuck in the wooden walkway. The path is accessible to wheelchairs and strollers.
The first few minutes of the Brooklyn-to-Manhattan trek are at such low elevation that they don’t offer much in the way of spectacular views. That’s when the people-watching kicks in. The Brooklyn Bridge brings you elbow to elbow with a remarkable and colorful cross-section of humanity. Locals, traveling from one borough to the other as part of their routine commute, are easy to spot, walking briskly and staring at their smartphones, earbuds in place, as they dodge tourists, sometimes barely concealing their annoyance. Everyone else is in free-for-all mode, swarming up the walkway, causing traffic jams by stopping abruptly for photographs. Vendors selling snacks, touristy trinkets and $5-for-two-minutes caricatures line the entry ways.
Soon the bridge looms ahead. It looks just the way it did in the late 19th century; even its low-key paint – officially called Brooklyn Bridge Tan – gives it the feel of a sepia-tone daguerreotype.
I don’t know much about civil engineering, but I find the neo-Gothic structure itself riveting. Its trusses, beams and coiled wire supports are evidence of the incredible mechanical feats people achieved back in the high-ambition, low-tech days of the late 1800s. Designed by German immigrant John Augustus Roebling, who contracted a fatal case of tetanus while surveying the site, it was for a time the tallest structure in the Western hemisphere. It took 14 years and 600 workers to build; about two dozen of them died in the process, many from “the bends” because they were brought too swiftly to the water’s surface after working in chambers within the caissons below. Roebling’s son Washington took over the project after his father’s death, but he, too, got the bends and became unable to work on-site. His wife, Emily Warren Roebling, took over the first-hand supervision under his direction. She was the first person to cross the bridge.
In 1884, P.T. Barnum paraded 20 or so elephants from his circus, the famous Jumbo leading the way, across the bridge, ostensibly to demonstrate that it was safe, strong and sound. The whole thing smacks of publicity stunt to me.
Two sturdy granite central towers, named for Brooklyn and Manhattan, rise at the pinnacle. The platform connecting them is prime photo-op real estate. I was preparing to take a selfie there when a couple I’d bumped into in Brooklyn spotted me struggling to set up my shot and offered to take my picture. I did the same for them; we exchanged emails and swapped photos.
I also came across, and briefly glommed onto, a group taking a guided tour. The guide was a member of the organization Free Tours by Foot, which turns out to be just what it sounds like: a group that offers tours – for free! – of varying lengths and focuses. I’m not big on guided tours, though; I prefer raw, unfiltered, solo experiences. On the other hand, the historical markers that appear along the walk are hard to read and, once read, not super informative. I gave up deciphering them and focused on broader views.
Along the way, I saw familiar New York City landmarks from a fresh vantage point.
In addition to the spectacular Brooklyn and Manhattan skylines, highlights include the South Street Seaport, views up and down the busy river, and the other two bridges. The Manhattan skyline features a densely built chunk of Wall Street, the Empire State, Chrysler, and Citicorp buildings, and Freedom Tower, marking the spot where the twin towers stood before 9/11. I was shocked to see how tiny the Statue of Liberty looked, a torchbearing Barbie doll presiding over her harbor in the distance. This being an impromptu adventure, I hadn’t brought binoculars; I was just as happy not to be weighed down by them, but you might choose otherwise.
Landmark views aside, there’s a relatively new sight to see – one not all agree is welcome. Lovers visiting the bridge have followed the “love locks” tradition famously established in European cities, most notably at the Pont des Arts bridge in Paris. It’s charming to see all those padlocks inscribed (many, I’m sorry to report, in sloppy Sharpie or nail polish) with pairs of initials and declarations of love. But those padlocks in Paris threatened to pull down the bridge itself and had to be removed and outlawed. At the Brooklyn Bridge, signs warn that affixing anything to the bridge is prohibited. Officials are clearly concerned; in December, all but a handful of the hundreds of locks I’d seen in the summer had been removed.
When it opened, the Brooklyn Bridge was deemed the Eighth Wonder of the World. That designation has shifted over the years as new feats of human achievement burst onto the scene. But if you ask me, it’s still pretty darned wonderful.
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LaRue is a freelance writer in Hartford, Connecticut.
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If you go
The Brooklyn Bridge Pedestrian Walkway begins at the intersection of Tillary Street and Boerum Place. It’s also accessible via an underpass on Washington Street, about two blocks from Front Street in the neighborhood Dumbo. This underpass leads to a stairway to a ramp leading to the Brooklyn Bridge Pedestrian Walkway. Public bathrooms are on the Brooklyn side at the head of the Brooklyn Bridge Park, as well as at the end of Old Fulton Street.
The bridge is more easily accessed by subway from the Manhattan end; the closest stop in Brooklyn requires a walk of one-third to two-thirds of a mile to the pedestrian entrance.
Check the Brooklyn Bridge Facebook page (facebook.com/BrooklynBridgeNYC) before planning your visit; the page is updated regularly with information about construction plans and bridge-related events.
For an overview of the overhaul project and construction updates, visit the New York City Department of Transportation site at nyc.gov/html/dot/html/infrastructure/brooklyn-bridge.shtml.
To book a water taxi service, visit nywatertaxi.com or call 212-742-1969.
Want to experience the bridge in the fast lane? Bikes are available for rent at brooklynbridgesightseeing.com.