A friend always kicked off her tours of New York City by herding friends onto the subway for a hike up the Brooklyn Bridge. You don’t have to go all the way up to appreciate the wonders. After only a few hundred feet, you’re seeing the city as you’ve never seen it before, from a perspective increasingly up and away.
Walking up the bridge is an event, one too few visitors get to experience. It isn’t commercial. Nobody’s standing behind a barrier waiting to collect a fee. That’s an obvious plus, a benefit of being in busy city where getting from one place to another as quickly and conveniently as possible matters.
Going Up The Brooklyn Bridge
When Gabriella walked her friends up to the center of the bridge, it was with purpose.
An Italian, born in Venice, who worked in New York long enough to love the city as nearly her own, she believed that the middle middle of the bridge, with its views upriver along the shores of Manhattan Brooklyn and south in the harbor, was the best place to get the true sense of the city’s power, grace and complicated presence.
Up on the bridge, you look south past Governors Island, traffic in ferries and barges, as far as Staten Island and New Jersey’s ports. This sheltered harbor made the city one of the most wealthy in the world.
Before cargo hauled across the nation and through the Erie Canal made this its final destination, New York City was only third highest in U.S. population, behind Boston and Philadelphia.
Before subways, elevators and skyscrapers were invented, canal trading made it rich, densely populated and powerful.
If you walked out on the Brooklyn Bridge on the day it opened in 1883, you’d have seen piers all along the shores of Brooklyn and Manhattan. Separate cities then, they would be unbreakably joined by bridge construction, melded into one giant metropolis that includes Queens, Staten Island and The Bronx.
From the crest of the bridge, the boroughs fall back toward their respective horizons. The Bronx isn’t visible at all.
The piers are gone now as shipping dropped 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 streats inland. A belt highway is tucked under Brooklyn Heights while on the Manhattan Side, the FDR speeds drivers between downtown and Harlem.
What strikes you as you look away from the harbor is how massive the buildings are, how packed together in enclaves for business. Less business, these days, as older buildings downtown have been converted to residences after the offices that filled them were lured away by lower rents and easier access.
The Brooklyn side is mixed, with the elegance of Brooklyn Heights chock-a-block with office towers, government buildings and hotels.
Up the East River (or down, depending on the tide), the size and scale of structures diminishes as you look past the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges and Brooklyn yields to Queens. Back out across the harbor, you see Staten Island and New Jersey, not joined as they appear to be, ferries, cruise ships and ocean bound tankers.
The view is stop-in-your-tracks breathtaking in every direction, and 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 carries about 125,000 vehicles a day. These facts tell you very little about it. Other spans around the world far exceed those statistics.
Designed by John Roebling, using skills he learned in bridge building during the American Civil War, the structure was not built with any intention of carrying automobile traffic between the, then, super cities, Brooklyn and Manhattan. Cars were decades away.
People walked the bridge on a boardwalk above the horse-powered vehicles below, lifting them above the dangers as well as biological hazards horses were known for.
Except for the different noise and smells from cars and trucks, you walk today much like our Nineteen Century ancestors did.
What was built up all around changed more than the bridge did. A walk up the bridge can be a history lesson.
The most obvious one is probably the least known. When the bridge was built, Manhattan and Brooklyn were competing cities, each vying for recognition as the greatest in the country. One-hundred and thirty years later, the balance is out of whack.
After consolidation, municipal power was concentrated in Manhattan, and the you can see the results from the bridge.
Look east and Brooklyn blossoms reasonably, it’s commercial and government buildings in fair proportion to its residential neighborhoods. The borough is fast becoming the place to live, its streets not as crushed with traffic, its communities rich with people who actually seem to know each other.
Manhattan, for all its gifts and resources, looks like it could sink into the waterways that surround it from the massive uplift of buildings stacked tight together as far as you can see.
An interesting fact few people know: on 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, a subway had been built, cars had begun to replace horses and elevators made the vertical city you see today possible.
Taking Your Walk Up The Brooklyn Bridge
You can make your way onto the pedestrian walkway that runs up and down the center from either Brooklyn or Manhattan, but the Manhattan entrance is considerably easier. It’s also surrounded by historic structures you’ll want to see, and it’s easy to access by subway or bus.
So, pick a good weather day and treat yourself to a walk into the sky. The buildings look smaller when you see them from above or, with the tallest, a mid-level perspective. The energy of one of the world’s greatest urban centers vibrates in every direction.
The East River forces its waters back and forth with the flood of Atlantic tides. The traffic simply roars at such a consistent level, it becomes a forgotten background. Everything is moving, going somewhere.
History reaches out with rehabilitated reminders, like the lively South Street Seaport, just below the bridge. New York’s Municipal Building, which almost seems to anchor one end of the bridge, shows an elegance recalling the respect for government we once had.
Farther inland, the Empire State Building, even challenged by new skyscrapers, stands so solidly in the middle of Manhattan, it makes a statement about persevering through any and all crises and triumphs. In a void to the west, you can see clear through the void left behind by the World Trade Center as it’s resilient successor begins to refill the skyline.
You walk straight up between the cables, once triumphs of engineering prowess, that suspend the Brooklyn Bridge above the water. They sag and stretch in graceful, metallic webs. Every few steps, someone is pausing to take a picture. Tourists pose. New Yorkers are exposed by their deliberate indifference among the awestruck outsiders.
On one side, a few bicycle riders whiz by. Below, the trucks and cars and buses rumble, stopping and starting in a grind you are happy to be lifted above.
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 are absorbing and being absorbed by a great metropolis.
You might even be at the center of the universe.