For eons, the iconic Brooklyn Bridge has symbolized New York City in much the same way as the Statue of Liberty. Construction on the Brooklyn Bridge began in 1869 and it officially opened to the public on May 24, 1883. It has special meaning to me because my dad was born and bred in Brooklyn and is a true New Yorker through and through. He regaled us with tales of growing up in Brownsville, a Brooklyn neighborhood that has been rough since the 1960s. He and his pal Bernie started the Osborn Street Camera Club, played stickball in the streets, cooked potatoes in the dirt at the local playground, and frequented the local candy shop called Jake’s.
I always wanted to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and finally did with my daughter on September 3, 2018, which was Labor Day, so it was quite crowded. Right before we walked across, we rode on the delightfully charming Jane’s Carousel, which made me feel like a kid again. It was just after Noon and boiling hot – I was so glad when we reached the Manhattan side. The pedestrian walkway across the bridge is 1.1 miles (1.6 kilometers). I didn’t much care for the crowds, bicycles, or the sound of a few loose wooden planks under my feet. Still, I’m glad I did it because the views were magnificent and almost surreal. As I was walking, I remembered the searing images of people fleeing across the bridge on 9/11. Of course, they were going in the opposite direction.
Brooklyn Bridge Mishaps
John A. Roebling started designing what would become the Brooklyn Bridge in 1867. On June 28, 1869, he was surveying the area for the bridge when a ghastly accident occurred. While standing on the edge of the dock at Fulton’s Ferry, his foot was crushed by an incoming ferry. He refused medical treatment and died of tetanus on July 22, 1869.
Roebling was not the only casualty of the bridge. During construction, about 27 workers died and many suffered from decompression sickness (caisson disease), including his son Washington who took over as chief engineer. Caisson disease occurs when gas bubbles form in the body due to rapid transition from a high-pressure environment to a lower one, as in underwater diving (the bends). Other mishaps included:
- A compressed-air blast wrecked a pneumatic caisson
- A severe fire smoldered for weeks in another caisson
- A cable broke off from its anchorage on the Manhattan side and crashed into the river
- A shady steel-wire contractor committed fraud that necessitated replacing tons of cable
The Brooklyn Bridge in Popular Culture
A search on IMDB turned up 99 results for titles and 98,074 results for plots! One of the most intriguing is a 1949 Looney Tunes entitled Bowery Bugs. This cartoon is loosely based on a real-life story. While standing at the base of the bridge, Bugs Bunny tells an old man the tale of Steve Brodie, a down-on-his luck Irish gambler who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge in 1886 and survived. Brodie decides to procure a rabbit’s foot for good luck. Brodie meets Bugs, who convinces him a rabbit’s foot is not a good luck charm. Unfortunately, every suggestion Bugs makes leads to more bad luck for Brodie. Bugs dons so many disguises to fool Brodie, the Irishman finally gets fed up and jumps off the Brooklyn Bridge. At the end of the 7-minute cartoon, the old man agrees to buy the Brooklyn Bridge from Bugs!
In the mediocre 1998 film Godzilla (one of many), the beast attacks Manhattan after his nest is destroyed at Madison Square Garden. He is chased to the Brooklyn Bridge, eventually becoming entangled in the bridge’s cables. After multiple repeated direct hits from F-18 military jet missiles, Godzilla collapses onto the bridge’s deck, dying of his wounds.
In Doctor Who The Angels Take Manhattan (Season 7, Episode 5), Dr. Who takes Amy and Rory to NYC where they encounter the weeping angels. There’s a late afternoon scene with Amy (Karen Gillan) and Dr. Who (Matt Smith) by the East River near the Brooklyn Bridge.
In the 1947 film, It Happened in Brooklyn, Frank Sinatra plays a newly discharged soldier named Danny who misses home after a four-year stint in the army. While walking and standing on the bridge he sings its praises, but soon discovers life is not so grand in Brooklyn.
One of my dad’s favorites, the charming musical film On the Town (1949) stars Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin as three sailors on 24-hour leave from their ship. They meet three gals played by Betty Garrett, Ann Miller, and Vera Ellen. One of the stops on their whirlwind sightseeing tour is the Brooklyn Bridge, but a lot of the movie was actually filmed on set in Los Angeles.
An Artistic Muse
The bridge has served as an artistic muse since it opened. Some of the more well known photographers and artists who documented it include Alfred Eisenstadt, Berenice Abbott, Eugene de Salignac, Georgia O’Keefe, Joseph Stella, George Grosz, and Albert Gleizes. Stella, Grosz, and Gleizes were so enamored of the Brooklyn Bridge, they created multiple works.
Brooklyn Chewing Gum
Believe it or not, chewing gum with the Brooklyn Bridge graphic is made in Lainate, a town near Milan, Italy. It has been around since the 1950s and was the first chewing gum produced in Italy. So why the graphic? Naming it after the bridge was a creative idea to capture the allure of America. The gum was also called “la gomma del ponte” (the gum of the bridge), and it became wildly successful, especially among young consumers. Perfetti van Melle, the parent company, boasts many other global and regional brands including Mentos, Airheads, and Chupa Chups.
10 Intriguing Facts
- Emily Warren Roebling, wife of Washington and daughter-in-law of the late bridge designer John was the first to walk over the bridge. She assumed most of the chief engineer duties because her husband was too ill from caisson disease. A feminist and greatly accomplished woman, Roebling went on to obtain a law degree from NYU.
- Six days after the official opening, when a woman’s heel got caught in a plank and she fell down, a nearby woman screamed, causing people to think the bridge was collapsing. A stampede ensued and 12 people lost their lives and many suffered injuries.
- On May 17, 1884, P. T. Barnum, his famous elephant Jumbo, a parade of 21 other elephants and assorted animals walked over the Brooklyn Bridge, proving its stability.
- With a total length of 5,989 feet, the Brooklyn Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world until the Williamsburg Bridge was completed in 1903 at 7,308 feet. The main span of the Brooklyn Bridge versus that of the Williamsburg Bridge is extremely close – 1,595.5 feet versus 1,600 feet.
- The bridge cost $15.5 million in 1883 dollars ($393,964,000 in today’s dollars) to build.
- In 2016, about 10,000 pedestrians and 3,500 bikers used the pathway daily on an average weekday.
- Fifty-foot tall vaults beneath the bridge’s anchorages were rented out to the public for storage until World War 1. Due to the cool temperature inside the vaults, companies rented them out to store wine and liquor.
- In June 1993, Thierry Devaux illegally performed eight acrobatic bungee jumps above the East River in the early morning close to the Brooklyn-side pier.
- The practice known as love locks is officially illegal in NYC and on the bridge, as evidenced by the above sign I photographed on my walk. This token of everlasting love involves a couple inscribing a date and their initials onto a lock, attaching it to the bridge, and throwing the key into the water.
- American Modernist poet Hart Crane wrote his book of poetry, The Bridge, using the Brooklyn Bridge as the poem’s central symbol and poetic starting point. Crane briefly rented an apartment overlooking the bridge that Washington Roebling once lived in.
Photo sources: Brooklyn Museum, Guggenheim Museum, Carlo Mazzucato Twitter, CBS News, Christies, IMDB, Library of Congress, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Pinterest, Wikipedia