Walk the Brooklyn Bridge
Walk the Brooklyn Bridge… That’s how my friend kicked off tours of New York City, herding visitors off on a hike up the Brooklyn Bridge. No need to go all the way up. After a few hundred feet, you see the city as you’ve never seen it before, and if you keep walking, it just gets better.
By David Stone
Although some New Yorkers walk or ride a bike up the Brooklyn Bridge, all the time, it’s surprising how few have never actually done it.
Walk up the bridge.
It isn’t commercial. With lanes set aside for bikes and foot traffic, nobody stands behind a barrier, waiting to collect a fee. Planners designed the bridge for people walking across, back in the 1870s and 80s, before cars.
Why Walk the Brooklyn Bridge?
When Gabriella walked her friends up to the center of the bridge, it was with purpose.
Italian, born in Venice, she worked in New York for years and loved the city as nearly her own. She believed that the middle of the bridge, its views upriver along the shores of Manhattan, Brooklyn and south into the harbor, was the best place to get a sense of the city’s power, grace and complicated presence.
On the bridge, looking south, you see ferries, barges and cruise ships going out to sea or returning. New York City’s wealth counted on the perfect shelter of this harbor.
Cargo hauled across the nation and through the Erie Canal docked in New York City, then just the third highest in the U.S., behind Boston and Philadelphia.
Before subways, elevators and skyscrapers, canal trading made the city rich, densely populated and powerful.
If you walked the Brooklyn Bridge on opening day…
If you walked out on the Brooklyn Bridge on the day it opened in 1883, you’d see piers filling East River shores. Brooklyn and Manhattan were still separate cities, bound by bridge construction. It melded them into one giant metropolis. Queens, Staten Island and The Bronx joined in.
From the crest of the bridge, all but The Bronx fall off into distant horizons.
The piers are gone now. Shipping collapsed when the Erie Canal lost traffic to the St. Lawrence Seaway and the New York State Thruway.
Manufacturing that dominated the near-shore areas is gone too, and belt highways carry traffic away from congested streets inland. A highway curls under Brooklyn Heights. On the Manhattan Side, the FDR speeds drivers between downtown and Harlem.
Away from the harbor…
Look away from the harbor. The buildings are massive, tightly packed. There’s less business, these days, downtown. Older buildings became residences after lower rents lured companies elsewhere, but a more human feel followed.
The Brooklyn side is mixed. Elegant Brooklyn Heights give way to office towers and government buildings.
Up the East River (or down, depending on the tide), the size and scale of structures diminishes. And Brooklyn yields to Queens.
The view is stop-in-your-tracks breathtaking in every direction, but as Gabriella knew, it’s a compact digest of New York.
Add sports and Broadway, and you’ve got your hands on the whole package.
Facts About The Brooklyn Bridge
The Brooklyn Bridge is just under 6,000 feet across, and it carries about 125,000 vehicles a day. These facts aren’t the story. Other spans around the world far exceed those numbers.
Designed by John Roebling, using skills he learned in bridge building during the American Civil War, the bridge wasn’t built for cars. Cars were decades away. It was designed to unite super cities, Brooklyn and Manhattan, and it worked beyond anyone’s imagination.
People crossed on a boardwalk. They walked above the perils horse-powered vehicle, and they avoided the equine biological hazards too.
Except for the different noise and smells from cars and trucks, you walk today much like our Nineteen Century ancestors did.
The Bridge and Development
What was built up all around changed more than the bridge did. A walk up the bridge is a history lesson.
The most obvious is probably the least known. When the bridge was built, Manhattan and Brooklyn competed. Each vied as the country’s greatest. One-hundred and thirty years later, the balance is out of whack.
After consolidation, municipal power centered in Manhattan, and you can see the difference from the bridge.
Look east, and Brooklyn blossoms reasonably.
Its commercial and government buildings are in fair proportion to residential neighborhoods. The borough is the place to live for many, its streets not as crushed by traffic and its neighborhoods more people-friendly.
Manhattan, for all its wealth, looks like it could sink into the waterways that surround it. The massive uplift of buildings stacked tight together looks almost make-believe.
Fact: The day the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883, it was the tallest structure in New York, replacing Trinity Church. It held the title for thirty years, until the Woolworth Building, just across City Hall Park, opened in 1913.
In the meantime, subways were built, cars replaced horses and elevators made possible the vertical city you see today.
Walk The Brooklyn Bridge
A pedestrian walkway runs up and down the center from either Brooklyn or Manhattan, but the Manhattan entrance is easier. And, it’s also surrounded by historic structures you’ll want to see. There’s easy access by subway or bus.
Pick a good weather day and treat yourself to a walk into the sky. Seen from high on the bridge, buildings take a more human perspective. Energy vibrates in every direction.
East River forces waters to push back and forth with the flood of Atlantic tides. Traffic simply roars at a consistent level. It becomes a forgotten background., and everything moves, going somewhere.
History reaches out with recoveries like the lively South Street Seaport, just below the bridge. New York’s Municipal Building shows off an elegance that recalls respect for design governments once honored.
Inland, the Empire State Building, challenged by new skyscrapers, stands in Midtown. To the west, the Freedom Tower fills a skyline left blank by September 11th.
On your way…
You walk straight up between the cables, triumphs of engineering, that suspend the Brooklyn Bridge. They sag and stretch in graceful, metallic webs. Every few steps, someone pauses to take a picture. Tourists pose. New Yorkers pass in a stream.
On one side, a few bicycle riders whiz by. Below, trucks and cars and buses rumble.
If you stop at the top of the bridge, as my friend Gabriella always did, the city comes to you in all its vibrant complexity. You absorb and are absorbed by a great metropolis.
You are at the center of New York City and, maybe, the universe.