I began walking Brooklyn Bridge soon after I moved into my apartment on Sidney Place in Brooklyn Heights. It was my own private Brooklyn tour; little did I know what the future held.
The bridge wasn’t a long walk from my apartment, just a few blocks, I’d walk down Sidney Place, past the three and four story brick and brownstone homes that lined the street. Their floor to ceiling windows allowed me visual entry into the residences, some were quite nice, but I remember one that had wallpaper the looked like bookcases. Over to State Street, then left. Past the oddly shaped yellowish brick building with it’s large bay window, askew to the street. I dreamed of living there, Right on Henry Street to Grace Court Alley, a cul-de-sac lined with two story carriage houses; no cars in sight. If it was a nice day, I’d stroll along Columbia Terrace, where I knew that Norman Mailer lived, and a little further down Truman Capote, who was probably working on “In Cold Blood” at the time. The house where Washington and Emily Roebling lived as they supervised the construction of Brooklyn Bridge had been torn down many years earlier. Below Columbia Terrace was the Esplanade, with sweeping panoramic views of lower Manhattan.
I would hit Court street and then pass through War Memorial Park and then left down Cadman Plaza East. This lead to a steep stairway under an overpass that led up on to the bridge. It’s not an easy stairway, probably 100 steps, you have to earn your experience. When emerging from the stairwell you stood next to a highly traveled roadway, three lanes that feed traffic across the bridge and into Manhattan. cars whizzed by. As I started to walk towards Manhattan the path gently began to elevate above the whine of the traffic.
My favorite time to walk the bridge was early evening, I didn’t care what the weather was like, I was undaunted! I remember one time walking across the bridge in a heavy fog, the spires of the city hidden, the gothic towers of the bridge half obscured. I expected that when i reached the other side that I would be be back in the 1800’s the bridge a new wonder. The immortal words of Walt Whitman’s, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry came into my head …
“It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried,
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the thick-stemm’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d.”
As I walked through the deep mist Whitman’s words enveloped me. I felt what he felt, breathed the air he had breathed, a sense of timelessness, the souls of the people who had trod this path before me, both the living and dead that had come upon this walkway in the air, this Broadway in the sky. A feeling of exhilaration, a deep connection to all the humanity on the other side of the river, yet a sense of solitude.
When John Roebling designed the bridge, one of his goals was to provide an escape, “….that in a crowded commercial city, such a promenade will be of incalculable value.” He saw the walkway as respite from the travails and pressures of living in a dense urban environment. As I walked, I thought about him, about this man with visionary ideas, and an iron will to see them become reality. A man who did not live to see his bridge built, who died young because of his stubbornness.
This walkway was my route to transcendence, some people meditated, others prayed, the Brooklyn Bridge was my path to a higher understanding. My feet beat a steady cadence on the wooden planks, and at a certain pace the gaps seemed to disappear and I felt suspended over the East River. I strode towards my city, still shrouded in the fog, and as I passed under the Manhattan arch, unfurling before me were the towers of the World Trade Center, The Woolworth Building, and Municipal Building. I felt renewed, reinvigorated. I hoped there was an after-life, that somewhere in this vast unknowable cosmos John Roebling, engineer, visionary, philosopher was looking down at his creation and understanding that he had achieved exactly what he had set out to do.