The most long lasting of great American works, the structure destined "to convey some knowledge of us to remote posterity," said a New York writer long ago, was "not a shrine, not a fortress, not a palace, but a bridge." That was in the spring of 1883, 126 years past, when the completed Brooklyn Bridge opened to the most exuberant public celebration of the era, complete with the president of the United States, Chester A. Arthur, leading the grand parade on foot from New York to Brooklyn over the bridge high above the East River.
"The Great Bridge" was news everywhere. It was the moon shot of its time, a brave, surpassing technical triumph, and more. For it was besides a great work of art and a thrilling overture to the high-rise city in America. Its giant granite towers stood taller by far than anything on the New York skyline, taller indeed than any structure in all of North America then. Over the years it has been photographed more than anything ever built by Americans. It has been the inspiration for songs, poems, paintings, no end of personal reminiscences and thesetting for scenes in movies. It has remained New York's most famous, best-loved landmark.
Above all it has stood through good times and bad as a majestic symbol of affirmation, still there, still spanning the river for all to see and enjoy, to cross by automobile or bicycle, or stroll on a fine day over its one-of-a-kind boardwalk.
To my mind a walk over the Brooklyn Bridge is an American experience not to be missed, a Northeastern, big-city equivalent, if you will, of being on the rim of the Grand Canyon.
Americans of every kind, every race and color, worked on it. Its designer, the brilliant John A. Roebling, was an immigrant from Germany. His son Washington Roebling, its builder, had been a hero in the Civil War, the first man on Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg. Washington Roebling's wife, Emily Warren Roebling, who served as his unofficial assistant engineer and life support when he was incapacitated, ranks among the most remarkable American women of her time.
The granite of the towers came from Connecticut and Maine. The steel, from Pittsburgh. In the 14-year struggle to build the bridge, work in the caissons below the river, accidents of all kinds took the lives of more than a dozen men and left many more crippled for life.
In the years since, its importance has seldom ever been doubted or seriously challenged. The sanctity of its own space has been unviolated by and large. Until lately. Now, alas, plans are proceeding to build an 18-story luxury apartment building within a hundred feet of the bridge on the Brooklyn side. (A vote in the process is expected this week.) The building, as proposed by the Two Trees Management Co., would stand 184 feet high and just about ruin the view of the bridge from on shore, as well as the view from the bridge looking toward Brooklyn—in other words, the view for just about everyone except those living in the apartments. To permit such a project so close to the bridge would be a shameful, inexcusable mistake. There is no other way to say it.
Would we wish to see an 18-story building go up beside the Statue of Liberty, or next to Independence Hall in Philadelphia, or beside the Washington Monument? Of course not.
Would the city of Paris permit an 18-story building beside the Arc de Triomphe or Notre Dame? Unthinkable.
Citizens groups in Brooklyn have rallied in a spirited campaign to stop the project. To date, more than 12,000 signatures have been collected in protest. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has taken a strong public stand. "No new structure should be permitted to crowd or upstage the Brooklyn Bridge," says Richard Moe, the head of the trust. "This is a matter of importance not just to New York and Brooklyn, but for all who care about our national treasures."
In his initial proposal for the bridge, John Roebling wrote that it would forever testify to the character of the community that built it. And so it does. The question now is how we in our time will measure up as a community, we who have the responsibility for deciding. How many from around the country will join the protest? Is commercial gain to supercede our affection for the bridge, not to say our obligation as citizens to preserve and protect an enduring American masterpiece? Let us hope not.