What the Brooklyn Bridge Still Says About Us




“Let’s walk across at sunset,” my friend suggests. I imagine the views of Manhattan, red staining the clouds and glowing on the steel cables. “Trachtenberg!” I blurt, grad school’s American studies reading list bubbling up from the depths. Brooklyn Bridge: Fact and Symbol was an iconography exploring history, metaphor, and art, making that bridge part of my inner landscape. But in truth, I have never set foot on the Brooklyn Bridge until now—though I once sat for an hour in a car below the pedestrian promenade, listening to the driver curse.

Alan Trachtenberg began his classic with the words, “Brooklyn Bridge belongs first to the eye.” But when we reach City Hall and make our way to the footpath, all I see is a gauntlet of vendors hawking T-shirts, posters, melon balls, Cokes, and selfies with a boa constrictor. Rock music blares, and one guy’s stadium-yell message—“One dollar cold water!”— loops from a boombox so he can save his voice.

We pass beneath the Gothic arches and walk toward the center of the bridge, pressed close to women in saris, families speaking Chinese, old guys with yarmulkes over their bald spots. An idiotic teenage boy scrambles up on the ledge, his balance precarious, the river an easy destination. A young woman steps onto the bridge in a long gown, its lavender-sparkled train looped over one arm. Sweaty and determined, she forges toward the middle of the bridge, where a photographer waits to take her picture. We arrive in time to see her posing, and I want to tell her that her purple bra strap is showing but surely the photographer will either fix it or crop it out? How many liberties one takes with a stranger—that question plagues me. The people hawking cheap but high-priced crap do not mind taking liberties. I invent a new collective noun for them: a dismay of vendors.

The dismay thins in the long center stretch. Here we can lean on the railing, watch seagulls stitching the sky, miss the twin towers, check out Brooklyn’s now-hot Dumbo district. Here, I can mourn the commodification of this masterpiece of art and engineering.

Why do I see this as a change? The Brooklyn Bridge is, and has always been, us: teeming, diverse, sociable, aspirational, and entrepreneurial, which is a nice word for scrounging. On Opening Day, May 24, 1883, the Hon. Abram S. Hewitt, lawyer, legislator, industrialist, philanthropist, and future NYC mayor, extolled the transformation the new bridge symbolized: “In the place of stillness and solitude, the footsteps of these millions of human beings; instead of the smooth waters ‘unvexed by any keel,’ highways of commerce ablaze with the flags of all nations; and where once was the green monotony of forested hills, the piled and towering splendors of a vast metropolis, the countless homes of industry, the echoing marts of trade, the gorgeous palaces of luxury.”

He saw this as progress. A lot of people still do. New Americans from all over the world walk this bridge with hopes of their own; who am I to begrudge them whatever possibilities capitalism still offers? It has vexed the waters, chewed up the “monotony” of forestland, used its highways of commerce to further divide the classes. But by craving heroics and superlatives, capitalism urges forth wonders.

When completed, the Brooklyn Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world, and it was taller than any structure in North America. It had taken fourteen years to build. The light bulb was not yet invented when construction began, and materials were brought by horse and carriage. At least twenty workers sacrificed their lives to the bridge, and its mastermind and chief engineer, John Roebling, contracted tetanus after his foot was hit by a boat at the Fulton Ferry landing. (Stubborn, he tried to cure himself by drinking water but died of lockjaw four days later.)

John Roebling’s son, Washington Roebling, took over, but the bridge brought him down, too. Or rather, the pressure of all that slimy, dark water rushing in. “Caisson disease,” aka “the bends,” left him weak, his vision faulty, his spirit reclusive. His wife, Emily Roebling, became his eyes, hands, and voice on site, and he taught her how to understand stress analysis, compare the strength of materials, and calculate catenary curves. She also learned to navigate political waters, defending her husband’s position as chief engineer when he was attacked as unfit for the job. It was Emily Roebling who first crossed the bridge, riding in a carriage with a rooster in her lap as a symbol of victory. Then the official opening ceremonies began, their speeches honoring her husband and his father.

John Roebling’s stroke of genius had been to twist iron strands together, making nearly invincible cables. This was a time, points out the Brooklyn Bridge documentary by Ken Burns, when “one out of every four bridges was collapsing.” Using only four steel cables to hold a suspension bridge sounded precarious—until you realized that those cables weighed almost seven million pounds apiece. Each cable twisted and wrapped nineteen strands together, and each of those strands entwined 286 wires, each wire weighing 1,200 pounds.

The Brooklyn Bridge’s network of interlaced cables became “a diagram of the physical forces of the bridge,” Trachtenberg wrote. All those diagonals, slashing between river and sky, refusing to bow to either one. The bridge took people higher than they had ever been in their lives.


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On the walk back across the bridge, I am carrying a rare, large, and regrettably heavy book, picked up as a favor at a Brooklyn bookstore that refused to ship it to my friend. Schlepping baggage feels right, surrounded by immigrants who once threw their entire lives into a suitcase. Shifting the book from arm to arm, I plod like the twenty-one elephants that crossed the bridge on its first one-year anniversary, courtesy of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. This country has always been a circus.

Below us are compartments that were built into the bridge as granite-walled storage spaces. First, they were rented to wine distributors because they kept wine at the perfect temperature. During the Cold War, they were used to store food, medicine, and water. What are they used for now, I wonder? Are they big enough for the wealthy to crawl inside when the planet burns? Is that a snarky and neurotic question? Fear is contagious. On the sixth day after the Bridge opened, a woman tripped. Twenty thousand people fled, sure that her stumble meant the bridge was collapsing. The stampede killed twelve.

Now, about four thousand people walk across the bridge every day. “The path is too narrow for the number of people on the walkway,” tourists are warned. This is true of capitalism in general.

Capitalism also favors constant restless growth, scaling up, gigantism. Rereading Trachtenberg’s account of the nation’s first decades, I am startled to find a question I have asked only lately: “Could the republican principle, hitherto most successful in small nations, survive on so large a scale? Perhaps the very size of the continent would be the nation’s undoing.” In a footnote, Trachtenberg explains that “this idea stemmed from the political theory of Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, and Montesquieu. It insisted that a democracy had ‘natural limits,’ determined by the distance between the central government and the most remote citizens.”

With brilliant engineering—first of bridges, railroads, and highways, then of computers and wireless networks—the U.S. closed that physical distance. This sunny, wide-open, self-made nation almost proved Plato wrong. But other distances—economic and ideological—separate us now, and I am not sure what wire we could twist to span them. Cynical, I hate the ways we have defined progress, how cavalier it has made us with workers’ lives, how soulsick competition and consumerism have left us. But it is still possible to change the formula, find new ways to aspire, new forms of innovation and connection, and beauty to treasure. All these eager faces looking past the kitsch to marvel at the bridge—they are proof. We still know what it means to dream.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.