Now I Could Sell Anyone The Brooklyn Bridge

I learned so much about the Brooklyn Bridge on Wednesday that I could probably hock it at the corner market for a pretty penny.  From Robert Zagaroli, Richard Haw, the Rudolph Burckhardt film Under The Bridge, and Ken Burns’s documentary about it, I absorbed the good and the bad, the highlights and the lows, the selling points and the dirty secrets to keep from the customers.  Fortunately for the bridge, and for all of us I suppose, the bridge already belongs to us all, so there’s no selling it.  New York has embraced the span more and more with every year.  The backstory, told best by Haw in his British accent and everyone loves an accent (or at least everyone should), is one of strife and unhappiness, crippling work, unsatisfied workers, and death.  Still, what has become of the Brooklyn Bridge is fascinating.  It is an icon of colossal size.  It brings with it personal stories, cultural history, and its own narrative from all different perspectives. 

One cannot truly learn about the bridge and grasp its significance, however, without taking that stroll across it.

I wonder if the Roeblings knew what they were building.  It’s not a bridge.  It’s a living, vibrant piece of New York, of America, and of the world.

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The Barge Man And The Pigeon Boy

June 22, 2010 could possibly be the longest day in the history of days.  Several lectures and a bus tour of the Brooklyn Navy Yard was not enough.  No, no.  

Lunch at Bubby’s and a quick visit to the Brooklyn Bridge Park’s DUMBO section was also not enough.  No, no.  

American Stevedoring, Inc. was calling.  Complete with its sign in and show your ID to the guard and be chaperoned by a worker–one for every five visitors–the trip to the Mary Whalen triggered some vertigo but also offered some great insider views to the still-significant shipping cargo industry on the water. 


Then the sweet seduction of Red Hook swept over the group.  We had to stay.  We had to visit Fairway.  We had to go to the Waterfront Museum, featured in A Hole In A Fence.  We had to watch some juggling. We had to watch On The Waterfront while sitting on a barge on the waterfront.  Ah, Red Hook, you sing the song of the sirens with your very paltry offering of public transportation.

Quite honestly, Red Hook is a pretty funky town and it has a sense of seduction because of its off-the-beaten-pathness.  The barge master, David Sharps, leads an interesting life, having juggled and worked and lived on barges for most of his adulthood.  He also juggled for us, not just balls, but also vases.  He rang bells, too, but for that, you had to be there. 

The culmination of the evening was watching the Brando film on this barge.  The perk–the now-grown-man who played the then-pigeon-boy called up on the phone to chat with us.  The guy’s name is Thomas Handley, and in the movie he plays Tommy, but Richard Handley, of CityTech, our ever-exuberant chipper leader, refers to him as the pigeon boy in the film.  (The two Handleys are of no relation).  The talk was fascinating in that Tom Handley worked on the waterfront after being in the movie and was able to offer us his take on the film versus real life.

And then?  We watched the film.  Rain poured down outside, one of those New York City summer rainfalls that are torrential, the kind that takes out umbrellas.  And we sat and watched the film on the big screen.  The sun going down outside.  The lights of the bridges coming up.  Half falling asleep but still watching, experiencing the waterfront as it was and as it is all at once.

Capt. Christina

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Brooklyn Navy Yard By Bus

The Navy Yard in Brooklyn today stands as a private community of bustling artists and manufacturers near Vinegar Hill.  The once castle-like gates at Sands Street have been truncated and now announce the Brooklyn impound.  Many buildings could host scenes from horror films, standing overgrown with vines and weeds in chipping, crumbling dilapidation.  The hospital and nurses’ quarters hide in shadows.  Yet, artists thrive in the paymaster building, and the Perry building boasts the best LEEDS rating.  The yard uses solar and wind-powered lampposts.

Unfortunately, the city has allowed the once beautiful buildings of Admiral’s Row to succumb to jungle-like conditions right down the block.

Nurse's Quarters

Sustainable Lamppost

Tug in dry dock

Refurbished, Recycled, Reused

Closed to the public, the yard today is not busy with shipbuilding.  Yes, the dry docks still exist and are in working order.  However, it has also become the site for artistry and industry of a different sorts.

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What To Do In Greenpoint, Part II

Look at one building from the land….

and by sea (or, in this case, creek–Newtown Creek):

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What To Do In Greenpoint, Part I

Look at buildings…

Astral Apartments

Something About The Bible Faded Away

A Church Under The Sun

Always Look Behind You, and Up

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Taxiing Along Newtown Creek

Thanks to Dan Campo and Peter Spellane, I now know everything I need to know about Newtown Creek.  In fact, I am an expert, having also sailed on down and back with a narrated tour under the sun, the cool breeze wafting all around me. 

Yes, I am a liar.  Dan Campo and Peter Spellane know lots about the creek.  I took in whatever I could and then after about two hours under the boiling sun, switching sides on the top deck to find the not-very-refreshing breeze, I could remember even less of what I’d just learned.  Still, I got in some great shots.

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The use of the waterfront here has changed over time because of the laws of humans and the laws of nature.  The lure of the waterfront is romanticized in American history, and develops a story of its own involving growth, decline, and revitalization.  The waterfront sees a lot of industry because of its access for easy shipping, and it changes because of the currents, the tides, the natural ebb and flow of the water against its shore.

Those of us who live near the ocean or a large bay or sound often use the waterfront as a place for recreation.  In Campo’s lecture, he reminded us that recreation is really re-creation.  Yes, when each time we visit the water, we recreate space and ourselves.  Some of the descriptors for this common activity and for the waterfront narrative itself: accidental, insurgent, subversive, and momentary.  For a piece of time, we stumble to the shore, figure out what it is we want to do with ourselves, and then stumble home.

Industry creates and recreates as well.  Spellane explained that simply, the desire for pretty clothing drove industry in Newtown Creek.  The chemical based industries of the 19th century along the creek included fertilization, glass making, soap making, gun power, petroleum refining, and sugar making.  These aren’t related to pretty clothing, but dye making is, as well as sulfuric acid (oil of vitriol!), which helps most other reactions happen.  The Astral Oil Refinery used the sulfuric acid made by the Nichols chemical company across the creek.

Now for some really cool scientific words:

1. recrystallization: the process by which sugar is refined

2. oil of vitriol–as mentioned above, it’s sulfuric acid

3. The Whiskey Trust–okay, not scientific, more econmic, but very cool to say

4. cracking: breaking down big molecules into smaller molecules

In traveling along the waterway, the abundance of information about the inhabitants–human and industry–came to life.  Whatever isn’t there, I reimagined, transporting myself across time. 

And then I melted into the top deck of our New York Water Taxi until our final stop to disembark under the Brooklyn Bridge.  That sight?  Never. Gets. Old.

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Ice Cream Is Good

After a longish tour of Newtown Creek on a NYC Water Taxi, under the Brooklyn Bridge, under the Manhattan Bridge, under several other bridges, past refineries, oil, sugar, workers in hard hats, manufacturing plants, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and some other really cool stuff that only the creek could offer, we settled in for some ice cream while we walked in the new Brooklyn Bridge Park.

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And it was good.

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