The View From Brooklyn Bridge

“Flood-tide below me!” Walt Whitman exclaimed, in 1856, “I watch you face to face”. Whitman was riding the Brooklyn ferry, referring to the crowds that piled onto it during its constant journeys from and two Manhattan. Only a few decades later, this vital, centuries-old water link was obsolete; the Brooklyn Bridge, first to span the East River, had arrived, joining cities that would soon formally merge into what was then quaintly called Greater New York. It could hardly handle the masses crossing the river much better, though. As Manhattan and Brooklyn grew together, the bridge’s traffic steadily increased; after a century that brought subways and taxis and telecommuting (not to mention other bridges) many feet still pound its narrow wooden walkway, arching between boroughs.

The ensuing drama is a microcosm of the difficulties ailing a city where so many egos rub shoulders. Chief among the bridge’s intractable conflicts is the one between cyclists and pedestrians; the former accusing the latter of failing to respect their dedicated lane, the latter accusing the former of taking murderous aim as they fly down the bridge’s descents. The anecdotes are drawn, like knives in a street fight, whenever a fracas between one group and the other flares anywhere else in New York.

But there are also the silent standoffs between power-walking commuters and the tourists who stop every few feet to reach for the perfect snapshot (plus the vendors and the trinket-sellers who cater to each). And then there are the internecine squabbles — between recreational cyclists and would-be Tour de France entrants, between the graffiti jockeys and street artists who, while generally respectful of the bridge itself, will gladly descend upon whatever temporary covering is being used to restore or maintain it at any given time.

There have been recent attempts to occupy the vehicular portion of the bridge by protesters and calls for its pedestrianization (or at least proposals to prioritize its use for cyclists; the issue of its future is no less charged than those of its present). But for now, causing equal amounts of difficulty and interest, the friction on its tiny walkway remains. Only in the subway may the forced concentration and (mostly) silent tensions of New York life be better expressed; as Whitman wrote of his own alienation from the ferry crossing crowds, channeling the present, “the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose / And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence, are more to me.”

That’s not to say that he couldn’t also sense a connection with those who would find themselves in the same place “a hundred years hence” — and which explains why such diverse multitudes still choose the long, crowded slog over the river today: “The simple, compact, well-join’d scheme…the sunset, the pouring in of the flood-tide, the falling back to the sea of the ebb-tide,” the sublimity of the view.

This entry was written by Christopher Szabla , posted on Friday March 09 2012at 02:03 am , filed under United States and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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