Daring to rethink the Brooklyn Bridge on its 140th birthday
BROOKLYN BRIDGE — To the west, the setting sun frames the towering buildings that define Manhattan as they slowly begin to sparkle with their own lights. To the east, the brownstone row houses of Brooklyn Heights fade into the night. Connecting them all is the Brooklyn Bridge, which will be 140 years old on May 24, 2023. Such a momentous occasion provides the opportunity to reflect upon the Brooklyn Bridge for what it was, what it is today, and perhaps what it can be in its next 140 years.
John Augustus Roebling’s life is the fabric from which American dreams are spun. His design of the Brooklyn Bridge and his pioneering introduction of steel cabling made the Brooklyn Bridge, at its opening, the longest and strongest suspension bridge ever. Before the Brooklyn Bridge, suspension bridges were held by ropes or iron chains that often failed.
The Brooklyn Bridge would be the first to use steel for its wires, cables, and trusses. Today, Roebling remains the pathfinder of modern bridge building. His Brooklyn Bridge, at its opening, cost $15.1 million with Gothic arches that echoed the architecture of the past while its steel cabling foretold the future. Hailed as the “new eighth wonder of the world,” its presence signaled the start of the “Golden Age” of American bridge building and a time of immense hope, ambition, and invention.
But maintaining a treasure of this magnitude comes at a steep price. In 2010, when major renovations on the Brooklyn Bridge began, the expected cost was $508 million with a completion date set for 2014. By 2015, falling behind schedule, costs rose $100 million, eventually soaring to approximately $811 million for the repairs.
The truth is an aging bridge is always going to be full of unpleasant surprises, no matter whether the city, state or federal government manages it. To keep the Brooklyn Bridge safe, healthy, and standing, forever, it needs to go beyond government coffers for support.
Tolls might be one solution. After all, the George Washington Bridge reportedly collects almost one million dollars in tolls daily. Originally, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge came at a price: a penny to walk across it, five pennies to cross on horseback, and ten pennies to cross with a horse and wagon. Yet, from its inception, exacting tolls on the Brooklyn Bridge were a hot-button political issue. For this reason, pedestrian tolls on the Brooklyn Bridge ended in 1891, and by 1911 all other tolls were removed. Talk of their revival has persisted for more than a century and will no doubt continue…just as the Brooklyn Bridge will continue to age.
Perhaps a better way exists.
Consider the model of the Ponte Vecchio, a beloved footbridge that spans the Arno River in Florence, Italy…and a bridge, as it turns out, is so much more than a bridge.
From its earliest beginnings in 1335, the Ponte Vecchio contained shops and residences. In addition, farmers, tanners, butchers, fishmongers, and other vendors rented space on the bridge and successfully plied their trades. Like many bridges throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, the Ponte Vecchio supported itself by renting commercial space, effectively serving as both crossings and profitable shopping centers.
The result was a welcome solution for maintaining a bridge’s financial well-being — and, in some cases, when business boomed, even raising money for underfunded public works. Over time the bridge’s working-class farmers, tanners, butchers, fishmongers and all other malodorous vendors were replaced by Florence’s most elite merchants, such as bankers, art dealers and high-end jewelry stores, who remain there today.
The Ponte Vecchio and the Brooklyn Bridge are similar in that they are both world-famous and beloved. They are dissimilar, however, in an important way: the Ponte Vecchio can pay for its upkeep while the Brooklyn Bridge is dependent on infrequent and unreliable government largess.
What if we could make the Brooklyn Bridge into a profitmaking operation that would guarantee its future without destroying its heritage? Remember, the Brooklyn Bridge, finished in 1883, was likely built more for pedestrians than automobiles. The day the Brooklyn Bridge opened 150,000 people scrambled across it, plus 1,800 vehicles; some of those vehicles likely were wagons, bicycles, and horse-driven carriages.
Today, thousands of New Yorkers and tourists already walk across the Brooklyn Bridge weekly. Why not make the walk more memorable? If the Ponte Vecchio can entertain tourists and the citizens of Florence with a slew of 46 emporiums on a bridge 312 feet long, think of what could be supported on a bridge of 5,989 feet.
A new aspect of the Brooklyn Bridge walk would be its treasure trove of foodie opportunities, for example. Booths and tables could be set up in a food court. A short list of gourmet opportunities might include bagels and lox from Zabar’s or Russ and Daughters, Franks at Gray’s Papaya, and dumplings from Joe’s Shanghai.
And in Brooklyn, lots of choices, too, such as Austrian food from Werkstatt and divine Italian desserts from Monteleone’s Bakery. For the Jewelry Court, Tiffany & Company and Harry Winston top the list. For the Clothes Court, Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and Uniqlo offer variety. Plus, Services such as CitiBank, CityMD, Apple, Samsung, will also be present. Added, too, are souvenir shops, plus booths to buy tickets to Broadway shows, concerts, ballets, and sporting events. And this is just a wee peek of the future….
Given its beauty, its reputation, and its critical real estate, the Brooklyn Bridge could become a dominant locale for the quintessential New York experience by exemplifying its history, excitement, glamour, and gourmet opportunities. And think about it — every one of these businesses will pay rent that will go directly into the coffers of the endlessly needy Brooklyn Bridge.
History reveals over and over that smart change is often the breeding ground for growth and prosperity. Consider the High Line on Manhattan’s West Side, where an old, decrepit rail line in a shabby industrial neighborhood was transformed into a sublime 1.45-mile elevated park, drawing millions of visitors annually. Importantly, but not surprisingly, the High Line has inspired new buildings, galleries, restaurants, and markets, as well as a move downtown by the Whitney Museum of American Art to 99 Gansevoort St.
The point is that change sparks change. In Harper’s Weekly, May 24, 1883, Montgomery Schuyler, critic and journalist, wrote:
“It so happens that the work which is likely to be our most durable monument, and to convey some knowledge of us to the most remote posterity, is a work of bare utility; not a shrine, not a fortress,
not a palace, but a bridge.”
Let us now honor the bridge and its architect and builders by securing its future and making it our “most durable monument.”
Joan Marans Dim is a novelist, essayist, historian, ghostwriter and marketing and public relations strategist. Her latest book is Lady Liberty: A History of America’s Most Storied Woman (Fordham University Press).