A Bridge
Goes to Brooklyn
A CultureMap®
by James Waller
Published on 7/18/13

The Brooklyn Bridge belongs to all New Yorkers—and is common property of the human imagination. Admired as an engineering marvel and beatified as a symbol of transcendence, it has inspired modernist poetry and TV sitcoms and appeared in romantic comedies and disaster flicks; it even lent its name to a 1960s vocal group. This bridge doesn’t just link boroughs—it connects the realm of steel and stone to the realm of the spirit.

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Brooklyn Bridge
to  Brooklyn

When the Brooklyn Bridge was completed, in 1883, it provided the first land link between Manhattan and Brooklyn, then separate municipalities. That connection eased Brooklyn’s annexation to New York City, in 1898. Whether becoming an outer borough was a good move for Brooklyn is debatable; for the next century, Brooklynites lived in the shadow of “the City” across the East River.

No longer. Brooklyn’s self-esteem—dealt blows by the Brooklyn Dodgers’ 1957 leave-taking, the Bedford-Stuyvesant riots of the 1960s and the decades-long deterioration of Coney Island, among other indignities—has rebounded. New York City’s most populous borough (at 2.5 million) is now arguably its hippest. For the past two decades, an influx of artists, young singles, gays and diverse other urban pioneers (and the speculators who followed) has transformed formerly down-at-the-heels Brooklyn districts like Williamsburg, Greenpoint and Fort Greene.

Gentrification is not an unmixed blessing, however, as longtime residents are priced out and neighborhoods’ distinctive personalities become lost amid all those trendy bars, boutiques, galleries and eateries. But even Coney Island is coming back. And in 2012 Brooklyn welcomed the Nets basketball team—its first major-league sports club since the Dodgers.

Hart Crane  (1899–1932 | American poet)
to  Brooklyn Bridge

In the poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (1856), Walt Whitman found a vehicle for his world-embracing reverie in the boats traversing the East River. In his 1930 poem cycle The Bridge, Hart Crane used the Brooklyn Bridge as a unifying metaphor for his mystical vision of America. Unlike Whitman’s, though, Crane’s poem is a failed masterpiece, its gorgeous lyricism confounded by some impenetrably obscure passages.

Crane began writing The Bridge in the mid-1920s while living in a Brooklyn Heights townhouse with breathtaking views of New York Harbor, lower Manhattan and, of course, the Brooklyn Bridge. For Crane, its curving span was both “Prayer of pariah, and the lover’s cry.” In his life Crane manic-depressively commuted between a lover’s ecstasy and a pariah’s despair. The son of a stalwart Ohio candy manufacturer and a mother who knotted her apron strings into an emotional noose, Crane was unhappily gay, uncontrollably alcoholic and ultimately a suicide. His tragic death—beaten by a sailor he’d propositioned, he leapt from a steamer into the Gulf of Mexico in 1932—is prefigured in this image of a jumper, from his poem “To Brooklyn Bridge”: “A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets / Tilting there momentarily, shrill shirt ballooning.”

to  Hart Crane  (1899–1932 | American poet)

Brooklyn Heights is among the most “desirable” Brooklyn neighborhoods, as realtors say. Its brownstone-lined streets present a face of solid bourgeois respectability. The Patty Duke Show (1963–1966) and The Cosby Show (1984–1992)—two sitcoms of middle-class manners—were set in the Heights, and television comedy queen Mary Tyler Moore was born there.

But Brooklyn Heights has always had an artistically adventurous side. Modernist poet Hart Crane lived there while writing The Bridge; in a weird coincidence, the house where he stayed, 110 Columbia Heights, was occupied half a century earlier by engineer Washington Roebling, who oversaw the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge from its windows.

The list of art-world innovators who have called Brooklyn Heights home is lengthy. In the early 1940s a house at 7 Middagh Street accommodated a “commune” whose changing cast of residents included writers W.H. Auden, Paul and Jane Bowles, Truman Capote, Carson McCullers and Tennessee Williams and composer Benjamin Britten. Stripper Gypsy Rose Lee lived there too. Playwright Arthur Miller wrote A View From the Bridge while perched in Brooklyn Heights, and an apartment overlooking the promenade was author Norman Mailer’s last New York City home.

Brooklyn Bridge
to  P.T. Barnum  (1810–1891 | American showman)

London Bridge has been demolished and rebuilt several times, but—despite the well-worn nursery rhyme—it has never fallen down. Other bridges, however, have simply collapsed. Washington state’s Tacoma Narrows Bridge (nicknamed Galloping Gertie) dramatically buckled and broke apart in November 1940; before falling, the bridge was evacuated, and none (except one small dog) were killed. More horrifying was the sudden collapse of the I-35W Mississippi River bridge in Minneapolis in August 2007; its catastrophic failure, which occurred during evening rush hour, killed 13.

So people do have reason to be suspicious of bridges. That wariness exploded into panic on the Brooklyn Bridge a week after its opening. On May 30, 1883, a rumor spread among pedestrians crossing the bridge that the structure was about to go. Twelve died in the resulting stampede.

New Yorkers’ nervousness about the bridge’s stability persisted, inspiring circus impresario P.T. Barnum to mount a grand public-relations stunt. On May 17, 1884, “in the interest of the dear public,” Barnum marched a parade of animals across the bridge—including 21 elephants led by Jumbo, the huge African pachyderm who was the star attraction of Barnum’s “Greatest Show on Earth.”

Brooklyn Bridge did not fall down.

Brooklyn Bridge
to  Golden Gate Bridge

Let’s compare:

The Brooklyn Bridge, spanning the East River and linking Manhattan and Brooklyn, took 13 years to build. On completion in 1883 it was, at 5,989 feet, the world’s longest suspension bridge. Its stone-and-cement neo-Gothic towers give it a stolid look; its “Brooklyn Bridge tan” paint job is workaday—drab, even.

The Golden Gate Bridge, spanning the mouth of San Francisco Bay and linking the city of San Francisco and Marin County, took four years to build. When completed in 1937 it became the world’s longest suspension bridge, at 8,981 feet (a record that has long since been outdistanced). The Golden Gate’s steel art deco towers elegantly soar; its red-orange color scintillates against the cobalt California sky (when it’s not foggy).

Which bridge wins the east-west competition? As an icon of its city, perhaps the Golden Gate—San Francisco has fewer prepossessing architectural monuments than New York (the Transamerica Pyramid is no Empire State Building). But the good old Brooklyn Bridge has a couple of things going for it: No con artist ever tried to sell a yokel the Golden Gate. And the Brooklyn Bridge is free; it costs $6 to cross the Golden Gate by car.

Brooklyn Bridge
to  Bridges in Film

The Brooklyn Bridge had its first starring role in 1899, when Thomas Edison shot a two-minute film from the front car of a subway train traveling across it. (The bridge is no longer part of the NYC subway system.) Director Ken Burns used footage from that film in Brooklyn Bridge (1981), the first of his many distinctive public-television documentaries. Brooklyn Bridge incorporates clips from other movies as well, including Tarzan’s New York Adventure (1942), in which Johnny Weissmuller takes a high dive from the bridge’s cables, and It Happened in Brooklyn (1947), featuring Frank Sinatra as a homesick World War II vet who carries a photo of the Brooklyn Bridge in his wallet. Among other films that sentimentally feature the bridge is the romantic comedy Moonstruck (1987), which depicts it angelically standing moonlit watch over the made-in-heaven mismatch between Cher and Nicolas Cage. But filmmakers haven’t always treated the Brooklyn Bridge so kindly: It gets bombed in the apocalyptic horror movie I Am Legend (2007) and swept away by a mega-tsunami in the comet-hits-earth disaster flick Deep Impact (1998).

Golden Gate Bridge
to  Bridges in Film

One can cross a bridge to get to the other side—or cross it, halfway, to get to the Other Side. The Golden Gate Bridge eclipses all others in one category: the number of people who jump off. It’s the top location for committing suicide in the world. On average, someone jumps from the Golden Gate every two weeks.

That grim distinction inspired director Eric Steel to make The Bridge (2006). For all of 2004, Steel trained his camera on the Golden Gate, capturing on film 23 of the 24 people who jumped that year. The documentary, which intercuts shots of the bridge (and the suicidal jumps) with interviews with friends and families of the deceased, is either a sensitive treatment of a difficult subject or an indefensible exploitation of human suffering.

The sublime beauty of the Golden Gate has led many filmmakers to include it in their mise-en-scènes. It figures as location or backdrop in pictures ranging from Vertigo (1958) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) to The Parent Trap (1998) and X-Men: The Last Stand (2006). The climactic trans-primate battle in Rise of the Planet of the Apes is staged on its roadway, cables and girders.

The Great Bridge  (David McCullough | nonfiction book | 1972)
to  Brooklyn Bridge

Brooklyn Bridge was not built in a day. As historian David McCullough’s book The Great Bridge explains, construction took 13 long years and was complicated by technical challenges, cost overruns, political scandal and, in its later phases, public opposition born of impatience. It also exacted a toll in human life: Twenty-seven people were killed while working on it. Its designer and chief engineer, John A. Roebling, was among the bridge’s first victims. His foot was crushed in an accident during preconstruction planning, in 1869, and Roebling died a few weeks later from the resulting infection. His role on the project passed to his son, Washington, who, while overseeing underwater work in 1870, fell so seriously ill from decompression sickness that he never returned to the site. Observing construction from his Brooklyn Heights home, Washington Roebling delegated supervisory power to his wife, Emily, who became the bridge’s de facto chief engineer.

Since The Great Bridge’s 1972 publication, McCullough’s best-selling, prize-winning works have chronicled another American engineering saga (the building of the Panama Canal) and the lives of U.S. presidents (Truman, T. Roosevelt, J. Adams). McCullough, meanwhile, has made a second career narrating films and TV documentaries—including Ken Burns’s Brooklyn Bridge.