“Bridge building is more efficient than any other form of architecture as it is accessible to everyone. Bridges are accessible to people who are not interested in art.”
– Architect Santiago Caltrava, 2001
New York City’s social calendar is choked full of exclusive events; expensive and members-only bars, invite-only art openings and prohibitively expensive Broadway shows and restaurants. But New York City also offers pay-what-you-wish museum nights, free amateur shows, discount theatrical performances and Thursday evening gallery openings in Chelsea where everyone is welcome. It is also home to many bridges – 2,027 in total – many of which are toll-free. Although it is notorious for expensive tourist traps, any tourist can savor the best views of the city free of charge on many of the city’s bridges. High rent prices make many areas inaccessible to the majority to live in, but these bridges stand as symbols of New York’s attempts at accessibility and openness, in contrast to its few, but highly publicized, closed doors.
The concept of a bridge is an important idea, with technological advances like the telephones and Internet helping to force links between communities. Actual bridges are incredibly important in New York City as they are a connector of people, making all boroughs more accessible to each other. New York’s superb transit system, particularly the subway, often makes it easy to forget that New York is a series of islands. I generally take the L train from Brooklyn into Manhattan, which stays underground for the duration of the journey so it feels as though you could be anywhere. I regularly have friends visiting New York marvel at this, asking, “Are we going under water right now?” I’d nod, forgetting that this is actually quite marvelous. Taking the J train across the Williamsburg Bridge is a picturesque that New York isn’t simply one land mass. Unlike cities like London or Paris, subways fares remain the same price no matter the distance of your journey. I believe this is a good, egalitarian measure considering that generally the lower your income is, the further you live from Manhattan’s centre. But I recently decided to try the completely free option of walking home to Brooklyn over the Williamsburg Bridge on a mild, sunny evening.
The Williamsburg Bridge stretching from Delancy Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Williamsburg in Brooklyn is a bridge particularly accessible to everyone no matter what your age, race, income level or preferred mode of transport is – car, subway, bicycle or simply walking.
As I zigzagged across various streets through the traffic on Delancy Street, trying to work out my path, a traffic warden assured me that I could walk across bridge and pointed me in the right direction. Once I landed on the island between two lanes of traffic, I was able to admire the impressive gold lettering proclaiming the Williamburg Bridge title. It would make a perfect photograph if you had a wide enough lens. Tourist photo opportunities, while not impossible, are not the priority on the Williamsburg Bridge, especially compared to the Brooklyn Bridge that deliberately removed sections of the bridge’s structure to expose more of the surrounding areas for more picturesque, gate-free photographs. There is faster, more directional pace because most people use the bridge to commute to and from work.
Every bridge is a response to a problem. Williamsburg Bridge is a design solution that has fulfilled its original mission to relieve traffic congestion on the Brooklyn Bridge by aiding all modes of transport including cars, the J train, bicycles and pedestrians, and serves as an important link between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Bridges are such a ubiquitous feature of the built environment that you often don’t acknowledge their presence, similar to how you rarely notice the ground you walk on unless it’s suddenly very uneven. But many regular commuters feel a connection to this inanimate object beneath their feet because it aids them in their lives on such a regular basis.
Perhaps because the bridge is such functional commuter bridge, a wider range people – tourists, artists and writers – of forget to appreciate it for its beauty because of its functional nature. The Williamsburg bridge doesn’t really command attention. It suffers from comparisons to its neighbor, the Brooklyn Bridge since it isn’t a famous from ‘Welcome to Brooklyn’ postcards, didn’t inspire musing from Henry Miller and no famous songs have been written about it, as Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel did with the 59th Street Queensboro Bridge. Even when Edward Hooper, a man renowned for celebrating the under-appreciated, painted ‘A view from the Williamsburg Bridge’ he ignored almost all the bridge’s structure except for a small section peaking out along the bottom of the painting.
At the time of its construction in 1903, the Williamsburg Bridge was hugely innovative. Modern materials permitted longer bridges to be made from lighter materials. The Williamsburg Bridge was one of the very first examples of a major bridge with towers made of steel. This is an exciting structural and engineering innovation but perhaps this damaged its reputation by removing some of its perceived grandeur and long term historical connotations since stone is so associated with important, historic buildings.
With a span of 1,600 feet, the Williamsburg Bridge is slightly longer than Brooklyn Bridge. It is also a lot nosier for pedestrians and cyclists because of the close proximity to the J train and the cars below. But as you continue up the rather steep incline, you gradually get further from the traffic. The wind blows hard and all the noise gives you the feeling of being exposed and in a little more danger, even if that danger is purely imagined. The rumbling of the J train and the sound of cars horns may not the ideal spot for everyone to do some soul searching and creative thinking, but I’m sure it is still inspiring to many.
The Williamsburg Bridge is like the Brooklyn Bridge’s younger, rebellious sister with graffiti tattoos decorating her red-pink skin, including tags, elaborate cartoons and even conspiracy theories (“Google income tax truth”) An element of beauty comes from a bridge’s conformity to its environment and the Williamsburg Bridge’s aesthetic fits in well with memories of a grungier Lower East Side full of dive bars and artist’s apartments and Williamburg’s tattoo parlors, graffiti and contemporary art galleries. New York is highly accepting city and embraces contrasts and differences. The Williamsburg Bridge is not the Brooklyn Bridge, but it doesn’t need to be. Everyone is perfectly happy to have this gritty counterpart.
Despite her louder, grungier or more intimidating nature, the bridge still welcomes everyone, no matter your age, race or preferred mode of transport. Along my travels I passed children and parents, cyclists ranging from 20 to 50, Hasidic Jews, hipsters, Mexican families, teenagers on skateboards and elderly and young couples out for a romantic stroll. Pedestrians and cyclists begin together on the same steep incline path – the best free treadmill in New York City, and the skateboarders in the opposite direction seem to enjoy the downward slope. Just as you reach the water, pedestrians and cyclists separate to either side of the bridge. In a move to improve accessibility, the cast iron stairway on the Manhattan side, and the steep ramp from Driggs Avenue on the Williamsburg side were replaced to allow handicapped access in the 1990s.
Like any self-respecting, grungy, tattooed hipster, the Williamsburg Bridge knows how to throw a good party. A celebration was held on June 22, 2003 to mark the 100th anniversary of the bridge and the area surrounding Continental Army Plaza was filled with musical performers, exhibitions on the bridge’s history and various food vendors. Even a truck-sized birthday cake was specially made for the event by Domino Sugar, which had a factory on the East River waterfront near the bridge. The opening party was equally infamous with majestic fireworks celebrating the opening. The party pictures live on; you can still see beautiful etchings of the firework display or watch the grainy footage of the opening of the Williamsburg Bridge on youtube with hoards of men in bowler hats parading across the bridge.
I sometimes equate my experience living New York to one giant house party. Yes, it’s overly crowded, noisy, messy and people may even steal a beer or two, but you put up with it because everyone and everything is here and that’s what makes it so much fun. The Williamsburg Bridge is the giant Bushwick warehouse party equivalent, and everyone is invited!