The narrow walkway along the Manhattan Bridge curves through a rich forest of rooftops and graffiti. As I meander along the walkway from Canal Street the concrete barriers separating the pedestrians from the trains, traffic, and streets below hide any sense of place beyond the cacophony of traffic noise. When the concrete barriers recede, I’m eye level with the ornate ledges of brownstones from a New York long forgotten. Together they comprise the horizon of the downtown Manhattan skyline.
Before accessing this walkway, pedestrians as well as bikers, drivers, and subway trains are greeted on Canal Street by a majestic sculptural arc. Inspired by the Porte Saint-Denis gateway in Paris, the arc dramatically departs from the cluttered signage and chaotic ambience that characterizes Chinatown. Cars whizzing underneath the regal arc either come to a screeching halt entering lower Manhattan or incline upward out of the city, dwarfed under the baroque entrance. The N and Q trains rumble by me on the tracks toward Flatbush, while cyclists hug the wall swerving to avoid pedestrians. The Manhattan Bridge provides access and passage for all. She connects two boroughs while protecting the secrets and legacy that characterize the New York she was created to serve.
6,855 feet of the suspension bridge unite the worlds of Brooklyn and Manhattan. Constructed between 1901 to 1909 the Manhattan Bridge was the last of the suspension bridges to be built between the late 18th and early 19th century. She succeeded her iconic neighbors the Brooklyn Bridge built in 1883 and later the Williamsburg Bridge of 1903. Each bridge received a warm welcome with much fanfare, the Manhattan Bridge no exception.
The Manhattan Bridge’s success masked the secret of her failed sister, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington State. Leon Moisseiff’s proposal for this bridge applied the Deflection Theory, promoting a design that promised elegance, less raw material, and a lower cost. Opening in July of 1940, the bridge began swaying under relatively mild winds, and earned the name “Galloping Gertie.” She eventually twisted and collapsed just four months later, morphing from the third largest suspension bridge in the country to a twisted heap of metal in the Puget Sound below. The Manhattan Bridge became suspect to failure with this shared lineage. With age she eventually revealed alarming cracks and closed for emergency repair in the 1980s. Proving more resilient than her tragic sister, the Manhattan Bridge reopened once again, celebrating her centennial in 2009.
Today she continues to support diverse types of traffic, and as I meandered along the walkway I slowly absorbed the view that everyone else sharing this bridge merely glimpses through windows. Laundry lines draped with bolts of brightly colored clothing, carefully placed potted plants, and lawn furniture give dimension to these graffiti murals. These terraces aren’t merely canvases, but offer community to the residents that inhabit the floors below. Lights dance in the abandoned warehouses that become more prevalent near the waterfront. People mill about on the streets below, walking briskly, pushing carts, popping in and out of the doorways that lead to Broadway. The minimal curtain walled skyscrapers intermingle with the aging brownstones, creating a rich texture of bricks, glass, and steel. Side streets slice into the bustling arteries of the city, each taking on their own persona as I near the shore. The walkway hovers from the city over the East River. Standing directly over the water, I visually trace the waterfront jutting out and curving in as it disappears around toward the West Side highway.
Walking across the East River, I observe textures and reflections of the cityscape converge, the water to the shore, the bridge to the sky. Buttresses, arches, and other architectural ornaments embellish the towers central to the bridge. Tight cables stretch intricately like a web, each bearing their designated weight. In 1978 when corrosion and cracking became evident on the eyebars of the bridge the train traffic immediately halted. I realize this bridge was designed to have an active core as I watch the trains creak through. The core of the Manhattan Bridge appears hollow and desolate without the cars and trains together zipping back and forth along her length.
Alain de Botton references Baudelaire in The Art of Travel while musing about arrival, departure, and the journey between. Baudelaire observes the ship to be “a vast, immense, complicated but agile creature, an animal full of spirit, suffering and heaving all the sighs and ambitions of humanity”. A characterization easily shared by the Manhattan Bridge. Her legacy interlaces innovation with failure and her presence endures for all as the city around her continuously evolves.