Guerrilla History & Urban Exploration

NYC: The Brooklyn Bridge

Hart Crane
From “To Brooklyn Bridge”

“O harp and altar, of the fury fused,
(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)
Terrific threshold of the prophet's pledge,
Prayer of pariah, and the lover's cry,--

Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift
Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,
Beading thy path--condense eternity:
And we have seen night lifted in thine arms."

         On my 29th birthday I finally climbed the Brooklyn Bridge.
         I had just broken up with a girl I’d been with for years, my longest relationship ever and the only one that seemed to be on track for marriage. We’d even talked about marriage sometimes, but whenever we talked about it I felt my skin start to crawl. For her, it was all she wanted. But I was terrified—terrified that the commitment would doom me to a life of boredom and monotony. After all, how can one single girl, no matter how fun or loving, be complex enough to continue giving me a sense of newness or discovery after decades lived together?
         A birthday brings on self-reflection, and I had been thinking about all these things, although they depressed me and made me worry I was incapable of real love.
         Late that night I found myself at the Patriot, a dive bar in lower Manhattan, slurping up a special birthday shot from a cocktail waitress’s belly button as she lay across the pool table. The whisky and the feel of the soft girl-flesh rushed into my head and suddenly I felt a wave of optimism and happiness. For months I had been feeling trapped, old, tired, bored and boring, caught up in a fast-flowing river where it took all my strength just to stay in the same place.
         But suddenly I knew differently. Today, my birthday, was the first day of the rest of my life, and the entire world of possibilities was open. So when Sunny, between drinks, asked me when we were going to climb another bridge, I had an answer immediately. “Tonight,” I said. “The Brooklyn Bridge.”
         I had wanted to climb the Brooklyn Bridge for years. Over time, though, i had stopped thinking about it as a real possibility. It’s illegal, of course. But it’s also illegal to climb the other bridges around Manhattan, and yet I’d been to the top of all of them. The difference is that with every other bridge around Manhattan it’s possible to go up the towers, either on service ladders or by climbing inside the latticework of girders. Going up the tower in these ways kept me more or less hidden from view. But the Brooklyn Bridge has solid stone towers rising straight up, and there are no ladders. The only way up is along one of the cables, which means the climber would be silhouetted against the sky and highly visible.
         This route also means walking up a sloping steel cable little more than a foot in diameter, using the auxiliary cables at each as handrails. We would do without any of the safety gear that bridge-workers use; though it would be reassuring to be clipped in, I knew it would make us impossibly slow. We had to move fast, which only made the tightrope-walk up the cable more worrisome.
         There’s something particularly spectacular about the Brooklyn Bridge, and it isn’t just because it was an engineering triumph that rivaled the Erie Canal or the Egyptian pyramids. It is absolutely beautiful, with nearly perfect curves and massing. And it connects what were at the time the largest and the third-largest cities in the country– New York City and Brooklyn.
         The towers, 276 feet high, are each made of three pillars supporting huge gothic arches and together form one of the most familiar sights in the world. At the time they were designed, in 1869, they were taller than almost anything else in the country– almost as tall as the spire of Trinity Church, taller than the dome of the Capitol in Washington DC– and far more massive than any other tall structure. The bridge needed to be tall so that high-masted sailing ships could still pass underneath it, going to and from what was then one of the largest and most active ports in the world.
         It was the first major bridge in the world to use steel suspension cables, which were developed by the bridge’s designer, John Augustus Roebling. Steel at the time, however, was still a fairly new development, and was considered too dubious a material for the massive weight-bearing towers. The original design for the bridge had been made in about 1869, and it would not be until two decades later that steel frames were first used to support massive structures: Holabird & Roche’s Tacoma Building in 1889 (the first building with an all-steel skeleton); the Forth Bridge in Scotland in 1890 (the first major all-steel cantilever bridge); and the early skyscrapers of Burnham & Root and Louis Sullivan in the 1890s. So it came naturally to Roebling to design these towers in stone, in the same monumental gothic style he had seen growing up in Mühlhausen, Germany, where he first passed the exam to become a Baumeister, a Master Builder.
         The towers are more massive than they need to be, as are the gothic arches they form over the roadway, and in fact they are partially hollow below the level of the road deck. In this, Roebling was using the language of expressive architecture. “In a work of such magnitude, and located as it is between two great cities, good architectural proportions should be observed,” he wrote. “The impression of the whole will be that of massiveness and strength.”

         Sunny and I left the bar when it closed. She’s a rock-climber and I’d climbed another bridge with her once before, and even after our drinking I knew I could trust her to handle herself. In the glow of the city after-hours, we walked to City Hall Park and then up onto the long wooden footpath that crosses over the bridge.
         I had walked this path for the first time almost exactly ten years before. I had just come to New York for school; I met a girl and I was in love from the first moment I saw her. On our first date, both of us still new to the city, we had walked across the Brooklyn Bridge. She wore soft black-leather gloves and I loved the feel of her hand in mine. I was completely and absolutely in love, but within a year I had successfully driven us apart because I believed I’d never be satisfied with her if we stayed together too long. She’s happily married now, and just had her first child.
         Marriage— or any relationship of true and mature love— must be a complete partnership, my last girlfriend told me. Two people decide to build a life together, hoping that as a team they can create something far more fulfilling than each could alone. This is how the Brooklyn Bridge was built, too. John A. Roebling designed the bridge, but died (of tetanus, from a crushed foot) early in the surveying process. His son, Augustus Roebling, took over as the main engineer, but was crippled by the bends while working on the underwater tower foundations. After that he watched the work through a telescope from his bedroom window, while his wife carried his orders to the workers and stood in for him at the site. The beautiful bridge that came out of these efforts is a monument to the ingenuity and glory of New York— but it’s also a monument to the commitment of one family, shared between father and son and between husband and wife.
         Sunny, walking along the path next to me, had a husband, but he wasn’t with us that night. Her marriage was on the rocks and would soon completely unravel. Like me, she’d been feeling trapped. Which, on the face of it, seemed like a silly thing for her to worry about. She’s a brilliant university professor, with three postgraduate degrees. She speaks four languages fluently and she’s an excellent rock-climber. And she’s gorgeous, and she can mesmerize a crowd by dancing to country music on a bar– which she’d been doing at the Patriot just an hour before. Her life seemed wonderful. What was she was trying to escape from? What more freedom could she possibly want or even use?
         On other hand, I had just broken up with the girl I loved and now I found myself approaching something I’d passionately wanted to do for years. And it was probably only because her marriage was in trouble that Sunny was willing to come along with me on this foolish quest. There was a connection between our romantic troubles and our willingness to go on an adventure. Why? Because adventure requires some risk— even if it’s just the risk of wasting time— and to risk yourself is to celebrate your independence. If you’re in a partnership, you can’t be so spendthrift with yourself, any more than you can gamble with funds from a company account. But when the life or the money is entirely your own, you can let go of the caution that ordinarily limits you to sensible investments.
         We walked to the middle of the bridge, where the suspension cables reach their lowest point, dipping down close to the wooden walkway. I climbed up first.
         At each end of the bridge, a police car idled at the edge of traffic. Police have been continuously stationed on the bridge since September 11th, 2001, watching for trucks that might be laden with explosives. The entire bridge, with approaches, is a little over a mile long. (The central span, between the two towers, is only 1,595.5 feet.) We were in the middle, which meant that each police car was, at most, about 3,000 feet away– a little over a half-mile. A half-mile is a long way to see at night. But with the bright lights that illuminated the entire bridge, would we be instantly visible as small dark shapes silhouetted against the towers?
         The police seeing us wasn’t even my main worry; I was more concerned with the people passing by. About 150,000 cars cross the bridge every day; that’s about 6,000 an hour, or 100 cars per minute, not including bikers and pedestrians. It was the middle of the night, but traffic still flowed unceasingly. We’d be on the cable for several minutes. How many of the drivers would look up? And how many of them, seeing us, would understand our need for freedom and independence, instead of calling the police?

         Of course, not everyone who risks themselves on the Brooklyn Bridge does it purely for the reward of the accomplishment. Police regularly respond to reports of suicide jumpers. And why would someone want to kill himself? Love, of course. As one of the Emergency Services Unit responders (officer Gary Gorman, in a 2000 interview) explained that, in addition to money troubles, “marriage or failed relationships seem to be the cause of most suicide attempts.”
         A jump from the deck of the bridge, 135 feet above the water, is
 sometimes survivable, so people who want a sure death occasionally jump from the top of the tower we were about to scale. That fall is invariably fatal. “It is hardly necessary to point out to thoughtful men the splendor of a suicide committed from this virgin height,” declared the Brooklyn Eagle in 1877, six years before the bridge was even opened.
         Suicide jumpers led to suicide guards, which are ten-foot-tall sections of fence installed along the cable. Climbing over a fence is no problem on the ground, but 150 feet above the water and fifty feet above the roadway it becomes far scarier. I’ve heard one report of a would-be suicide jumper who became so terrified while climbing over the guards that he changed his mind and decided he wanted to live. I wanted to live too, and I was very careful as I eased my body over the fence and dropped down onto the narrow cable again.

         The cable I stood on, one of the four main cables that supports the bridge, is fifteen and three-quarters inches in diameter with 5,434 individual wires inside. I take the strength of a steel cable for granted, but the bridge builders had had a hard time convincing the citizenry that it would hold the bridge up. Public confidence was shaken even more when it was revealed during the construction that a corrupt contractor had supplied defective steel, some of which was woven into the strands before it was caught. Additional strands of good steel were added to reinforce the cables, and the engineers assured the public that the bridge was not only strong enough, but far stronger than it would even need to be for the load it would carry. Nonetheless, fears of collapse led to a massive panic on the bridge a week after it opened, while sight-seers still crowded the roadways. Pedestrians fled the bridge in a mad scramble and twelve people were trampled to death.
         But more than a century later, the cable below my feet felt steady as a rock. I could feel the smaller cables thrum under my hands with the vibration of the light traffic, but I felt none of the structural vibration that I’ve felt on many all-steel bridges, in which the steel girders are always flexing slightly from the weight and motion of traffic.
         The cable slopes up more sharply as it rises to the towers, and soon I was walking up a steep slope. Roebling designed the bridge so that the weighted suspension cables would still follow a catenary curve, the natural curve that an unweighted rope will take when hung loosely between two points. I feared the slope would become so steep that my feet would slip before I reached the top, but before I had a chance to do more than think of it, I had finished the climb. The cable vanished into the stone wall; inside the tower top, it’s held in an iron cable-saddle on huge rollers. I went up a short ladder, past the overhanging cornice of the tower, and I was at the top of the Brooklyn Bridge.

         From the ladder I rolled onto my stomach and lay for a moment stretched out on the granite. I felt wonderful. The solidity of the stone this high in the air felt miraculous.
         I looked out over the skyline, brilliant in the cold air, with every spark of light on every building seeming both close enough to touch and impossibly distant and high. I felt awe and ecstasy for the beauty of it, and a deep sadness that I would never see more than the tiniest fraction of the stories behind each one of those lights.
         I rolled over onto my back and watched the stars until Sunny came over the ladder’s edge. We sat first on one side of the tower, looking north along the East River, and then we moved to the south side and looked out toward the Statue of Liberty and the still waters of the bay that once teemed with sailing ships. We both shivered from the cold, but we didn’t want to leave. Eventually I noticed the first faint lightening of the sky to the east, above Queens, hinting at the coming dawn.
         A helicopter passed over the bridge, and with a start we saw the beam of a spotlight stabbing down as the helicopter slowed. We ducked against the edge of the cornice and tried to look like shadows. Even huddled and with my face hidden, I still felt the brightness as the light washed over us. I didn’t think they saw us; the light passed and we breathed again. The helicopter circled lazily, but as it headed back toward the bridge it was joined by another. When the pair had passed over us again in a wide circle, we crawled to the ladder and hurried down the cable. It was far more frightening than going up; now we were forced to look down, and face-to-face with the drop. Another terrifying fence-climb over the suicide guard, and we were back to the walkway. Three helicopters circled now. They were probably looking for suicide jumpers, but I’ve never been so far from suicidal; I felt immortal.

         When the Brooklyn Bridge was built, New York was the busiest port in the world. It was the financial capital of the world and the industrial center of the nation. It controlled the majority of the wealth in a country that was quickly becoming a world superpower. It would soon be the most populous city in the entire world.
         Today the port traffic, always New York’s raison d’etre, is essentially gone. Still a financial center because it always has been, the city has rested on its laurels for nearly a half-century, attracting relatively little in the way of new commerce. Like Paris or Madrid, this city that was once was the center of a world empire will perhaps become just a showcase, an aged grande dame that is essentially a static— though still beautiful— shell of its past power and glory.
         But despite all this, I never worry that I’ll become bored with the city. It will never lose its power to awe and fascinate me, and it is so multi-faceted that I know I could live out my life within it and still never come to the end of newness and possibility. Maybe I’ll find that with a girl someday. Maybe I’ll even tire of New York, aging and changing as it is. But every time I see it laid out before, I fall in love all over again.

1 comment:

  1. excellent account, enjoyed it immensely. What Big Balls you must have !! regards from london, uk