Object #7: The Brooklyn Bridge

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Untitled (Brooklyn Bridge)

The seventh object on our list violates the central rule of our contest that it “must be able to fit in a museum”—but just this once we’ll make an exception. Richard Haw, a professor at CUNY and author of the book, Art of the Brooklyn Bridge: A Visual History, told us that the bridge is a particularly good selection for this project. “It helps illuminate different parts of the history of the New York: political, economic, demographic, social, transport, technological, literary and artistic.” (continue reading)

After fourteen long years of construction, with some notable corruption along the way, the Brooklyn Bridge was finally completed in 1883. At the time it was the largest suspension bridge in the world and one of the tallest structures in North America. It was called the “8th Wonder of the World” and was celebrated in a way New York State hadn’t seen since the opening of the Erie Canal sixty years earlier: fourteen tons of flares and fireworks were set off from the middle of the span and its towers.

The city as we know it today might not even exist had it not been for the bridge. In his book, The Great Bridge, David McCollough writes that although Brooklyn was the nation’s third largest city—and a major industrial hub—at the time of the bridge’s completion “A good many New Yorkers…regarded [it] as a backwater.” Those attitudes started to change. “Once the bridge went up, there was serious discussion of consolidating the boroughs.” Haw said “The Brooklyn Bridge starts the process by which the city becomes joined, not just physically, but politically.” New York City was incorporated in 1898.

The bridge remains a critical economic link between the two boroughs, with over 125,000 daily crossings, but it is also one of the most iconic structures in the city. Nearly every movie or television show that's set in New York City features the bridge at some point. The bridge can even be used to tell the history of art over the last 150 years. Haw said “Hudson Valley painters, impressionists, pop artists, abstract painters. Everyone has painted the bridge.” The bridge’s stone construction, its elevated walkway and its diagonal cables all contribute to the unique feel of the structure. They were also signature features of bridge architect John A. Roebling’s work. “It’s designed to be appealing to the eyes,” Haw said “Most bridges are just designed to work well.”

And then there's the experience of being on the bridge. “There is a moment when you walk towards the towers and you’re encased in this cable structure,” Haw said “it’s a profound aesthetic experience.” In his early writings about the bridge, Roebling envisioned the elevated walkway as being a new Broadway, where people can go for a walk and get clean air and a counterbalance the congestion of the city. Take a stroll across the bridge on any afternoon and you'll find a mix of New Yorkers and tourists doing just that.

See Edison Studio’s 1899 film of a trolley crossing the Brooklyn Bridge: