Inside the NYTimes: A Message Written in Stone and Steel

From an Inside the Times story by James Barron headlined “A Message Written in Stone and Steel”:

“Everything Ready for the Opening of the Bridge,” The New York Times declared in a headline on May 24, 1883 — 140 years ago today.

The Times did not have to say which bridge. The Brooklyn Bridge, which had taken 14 years to build, stood alone, the first of the city’s many suspension bridges, a tribute to imagination and inventiveness.

In many ways, it still stands alone. It is the one bridge many New Yorkers walk every day. It is the one bridge on tourists’ must-see lists. It is the one bridge that was the subject of the historian David McCullough’s best-selling book in the 1970s and the filmmaker Ken Burns’s first documentary in the 1980s. For this anniversary, Burns’s cameras were rolling as he walked the bridge with Michael Kimmelman, The Times’s architecture critic, for a short film for Burns’s website, UNUM. And I spoke with Michael about the bridge and its place in the city — and in our lives.

Something I read the other day said that in the 1880s, New York was inching toward its new role as a world-class city. The bridge certainly helped it become that, symbolically as well as literally, didn’t it?

A hundred percent. The bridge was, not just for New York but for America in general, the great symbol of 19th-century progress and optimism. It was of an era that we now forget was an extraordinary time of change and connection. You had the transcontinental railroad. You had the transoceanic cable. You had the Suez Canal. All of these were being built around the same time. We were shrinking the world.

In New York itself, the bridge tied together two separate cities, Brooklyn and New York, in anticipation of what became the one great city. It was the bridge that offered another, simpler, faster way to get from Brooklyn to New York, when the only way previously was by boat, and that was often difficult in the winter and obviously in bad weather.

But the bridge did something else. It created a public street, a great public square in midair, this enormous road that literally connected the two. They suddenly became one. That’s a big reason the bridge remains our great civic symbol of hope and of possibility.

And, also, the Brooklyn Bridge was bigger than anything else at that time.

This bridge was of a scale that had been unimaginable in America. It was like what the Gothic cathedrals were in the 13th century, something so unbelievably huge and seemingly impossible that there was something otherworldly about it.

You have to imagine that people going onto the bridge were at a height that no human had been at in this part of the world. They were suddenly on a mountain that had been built in the middle of the river, looking down on birds flying beneath them. It was something so great that it redefined the city’s ambitions for the next century.

There was a moment in that film with a shot from the ’70s or ’80s, probably, where the twin towers were perfectly framed above and behind. The scene was everything New York represented — the old New York, represented by the bridge, and the skyscrapers that have risen above it.

When you describe it against the backdrop of the twin towers, the twin towers were also about reaching for the sky. Now when skyscrapers go up, they’re always met with an enormous amount of hostility about how the city is growing too big and too out of human scale. There’s none of that sense of awe and wonder.

When the bridge opened, there was a celebration unlike New York had ever had before. It represented New York’s dream and the 19th century’s dream, really.

Now we lack that — I don’t know if you’d call it optimism, but that sense of a future.

The interesting thing about that particular juxtaposition, though, between the twin towers and the Brooklyn Bridge is that the bridge was this incredible combination of state-of-the-art engineering and these Gothic towers that speak to something traditional, spiritual and artistic.

It was engineering and art.

Yes, absolutely. That was the Roeblings’ intention from the very beginning, to create something that was more than just a work of engineering that would stand up. It was something that would stand the test of time as a work of art. That’s what you still see. You still see the Brooklyn Bridge as eternal and awesome.

It has a presence unlike anything in New York City, which is why it’s mobbed every day with people who go there like they go to Notre Dame or Chartres or Westminster. It seems like you’re in touch with something much larger than yourself. It doesn’t feel like just a piece of infrastructure.

But maybe the most essential aspect of it is that it’s an open space for everyone.

From the moment it opened, anyone could walk on that bridge.

It was not restricted by class or race. It was felt, I think, to be a project for the people, genuinely for the people.

And it lasted. It endured.

Yes. I mean, we’ve rebuilt La Guardia Airport, which was quite a feat. To do it while the airport was open was amazing, and it’s definitely better. But the Brooklyn Bridge is going to still be something that is remembered a thousand years from now. I don’t think the renovation of La Guardia is going to be remembered a thousand years from now.

That is nothing against La Guardia’s renovation. But it’s hard to think of the last time we in New York or in America, really, did something that had quite such a large ambition or seemed so transformative or huge as the bridge.

So the bridge immediately became a part of the city and, for generation after generation ever since, has figured in the city’s sense itself and its sense of whatever problems had to be reckoned with.

When Burns made the film 40 years ago, New York was run-down, and the bridge was a reminder of what the city had once been.

There was about the bridge then a kind of faith in a city that was struggling.

The city is extremely different now, with extremely different problems. It’s an unaffordable place. We’re facing issues around climate. We have a huge homelessness problem.

But there’s still something reassuring about the bridge — about our ability as a city to strive for and achieve great, impossible things.

It’s really remarkable that 140 years later, it continues to have this role in our lives as a reminder of what we are capable of — and maybe is also a prod. I like to think of it that way. In a city where we often feel overwhelmed or battered, the bridge is a place to go to consider what New York is at heart, which is a place of dreams and aspirations.

I took my younger son the other day. He was a little skeptical — it was a Sunday morning, like why are we getting up early to do this. But I could see, when we got to the middle of the bridge where the view opens up, that even a hardened New Yorker like him was like, “Wow, it’s so cool.”

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