Brooklyn Boro

A Bridge Over Troubled Waters

February 26, 2021 William A. Gralnick

In Boca Raton, bridge is a game. In Brooklyn when you talk about bridge you’re talking about history. Some weeks ago, the Eagle ran a reprint from a 1909 edition. It was about the big hullabaloo over the finishing of the Flatbush Avenue extension and its opening up to the just finished Manhattan Bridge.

While never having the acclaim accorded to the Brooklyn Bridge the Manhattan Bridge, the youngest of the three East River spans, was sort of the Murphy’s Law of bridge construction. Let me give you one stunning example. Track was laid across the bridge, first for Trolleys and two and half decades later for the subway. I always found it interesting that even though the train was hundreds of feet above ground it was still the subway. Anyway, it took two sets of geniuses to pull this off. The first was the set that thought of the idea but didn’t think that with all the track on one side of the bridge it might affect its stability, which it did. The bridge would tilt. A bit unnerving, I’d say. The second set had to figure out how to redress that a) without the bridge and all on it ending up in the river and b) not having to tear it down and start again. Last I heard, they succeeded. Now not only does the bridge carry mass transit but it has a second deck. Pretty sturdy, I’d say.

With the completion of the Manhattan Bridge the borough now had three spans that connected different part of Manhattan with different parts of Brooklyn. Why troubled waters? It seems that depending on the bridge it was either opposed by the folks in Manhattan, who thought three portholes from Brooklyn into the hoity-toity borough of Manhattan were at times three too many, or two too many. Then there were the stalwart German and Dutch farmers who looked down on Manhattanites as Manhattanites looked down on them. To them the time-honored system of barge ferries for trade between the two boroughs was “just fine thank you very much.” One of the enduring lies that came and went with each bridge and later the tunnels was that when the tolls paid for the construction the use of the infrastructure would be free. What’s the old saying…? “If you believe that one, I’ve got a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn…”

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Permit me an aside. This is an only in Brooklyn story. There was this guy George C. Parker. He made his living selling property he didn’t own. Selling the Brooklyn Bride would be the gem in his crown. He set up a real estate desk on the bridge after it’s opening offering the bridge for sale. After the police shooed him away, he’d pop up in different places around the city making the same offer, and it came with a property deed. He sold the bridge  multiple times before the law had had enough of him. He earned a penitential vacation, life in Sing-Sing. Crime, it seems, didn’t pay—at least not enough.

I have several vivid memories of the bridges, one of which is actually about the Battery Tunnel. I’m sure some of you share them. Fortunately, at their occurrences I knew not the stories about the tipping of the bridge from the weight of the transportation. The first was abject, patent fear. Remember people saying, “He hides behind him mother’s skirts?” Well that what I did on our first running of the gauntlet. Suddenly, out the window I was leaning against was mostly nothing except a very long drop into the river below. Forget physics. Even today while my head tells me about the aerodynamics of keeping a plane in the air, I know better. They made flying toys about of balsa wood instead of steel for a reason. So it was for bridges. My young mind said there was no earthly reason why x thousand of feet of steel, plus car and trains, should stand over a bridge. Common sense said that when enough tonnage got to the middle, down we’d go.

Later, even though my knowledge of science increased, I was still uneasy, but I didn’t need anyone’s skirts. I could appreciate the view, especially from the Manhattan Bridge. I love seeing the variety of river traffic and the sights of cars and trucks loading up the vegetable markets and the Fulton Fish Market. Yet the thought returned in my teens during the reign of the “Mad Bomber.” Wouldn’t a bomb in a car exploding while said car was over the river etc etc etc. Fortunately, the ride across wasn’t long enough for me to work up a real panic.

Memories of endless lines of traffic are stuck in my brain. Maybe melted onto my brain is better. In the early years our cars had no air conditioning or did but if you used it too much it froze up.

Having “solved” the Brooklyn/Manhattan connections, the city turned to getting to NY. If you’re my age you remember well the merry-go-round route that finally got you to the NJ turnpike. It was like taking a trip before you took a trip. “A tunnel!” That would fix it and so began the construction of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. It would cut out going to Manhattan and trying to get into the Lincoln or Holland Tunnel. Talk about madhouse traffic! Who puts the entrance to a tunnel in the middle of a city neighborhood?!?

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My favorite memories of the tunnel were these: first of course the dyed in the wool promise that tolls would pay for it and then it would be free for you and me. Now I think at the toll booth there is a bank that gives home equity loans to pay the tolls. The next is the fact that it leaked. It was very disconcerting to be driving under the Hudson River inside a tube and have water drip from the ceiling onto the windshield or watching it run down the curved walls into the lanes of traffic. I often wondered how healthy it could be getting stuck in traffic inside the tunnel when there were special rooms for the policemen to run into that we were told had fresh oxygen for them to breathe. Then there were the few weeks before opening when the people who didn’t read the paper well were sure the tunnel was open and found themselves in a woeful mess of construction in a neighborhood they probably hadn’t ever been in, having to navigate their way back onto Ocean Parkway.

The piece de resistance however was that the opening of the tunnel coincided with my brother’s receipt of his first driving license. As parents are wont to think, my mother had the superior idea of learning how-to drive-in New York. She was from the “throw them in the lake and they’ll learn to swim” school. Her idea? Drive to the Battery Tunnel, learn how to pay a toll, drive through the tunnel, and then wend and weave our way through the streets of lower Manhattan back to the tunnel entrance and head home.

Since my brother never had had a tunnel experience, we had no idea he had claustrophobia. About 25% of the way through the tunnel sweat began to pop out on his forehead. His breathing became rapid. He inched closer and closer to the wall side of his lane to the point where my mother was flirting with hysteria. Midway he began to slow down. “What are you going?” asked my nervous as a cat mother. His response. “I think I have to stop.” “STOP? YOU CAN”T STOP IN THE MIDDLE OF THE TUNNEL!” In Yiddish her decibel level would qualify for being called a “gashri.” Easy to translate.  

I don’t know if it was the yelling or the reality that did it, but my brother started to cry. Now he not only was trying to get out of the tunnel via the side wall, but he could see much either. My mother put her hand on the wheel and urged him to keep going. At about half the allowed speed, cars honking behind us, we got to the end and were hit with the glare of the sunlight.

I’d never been so happy to see lower Manhattan in my life.

My mother drove home.


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