I Believe in Isaac

A Town Without a Bridge

Posted in Uncategorized by isaacmcphee on October 28, 2010

Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan tower

The city of New York has accomplished many things since 1883.

She has succeeded in expanding upward; from red and yellow brick to hardened concrete; from wrought iron and wooden timbers to steel alloys and tempered glass.  Horse drawn coaches have been replaced by vast networks of subway tunnels and internal combustion engines.  The dense haze of coal fires and animal waste have been abolished.  The most corrupt of the Tammany politicians have been disposed of.  The worst of the tenements have been razed to the ground; the communities gentrified; jobs created.

New York has many successes to her credit and, as I see it, one rather notable failure. 

I walked yesterday across the Brooklyn Bridge, beginning at the New York anchorage and terminating at the massive gothic tower on the Brooklyn side; the same course I have walked countless times before and under many different circumstances.  I stood awash in the cool breeze of the East river, looking back and forth from Brooklyn to Manhattan, one town having grown outward and the other upward, but rather than consider the massive cities pressing in on either side of me, I found myself rather laboriously pondering the bridge itself. 

I stood just beneath the first of the two great arches, looking up onto the faces of granite blocks and the thick wire ropes by which it all hangs; I pressed my fingers into the smooth mortar between the stones, noting to myself that even now, one hundred twenty seven years later, the materials don’t seem to have aged at all.  I stood and looked at the bridge, then back to the city; and here I recognized at once the great failure of New York. 

She has failed to make the bridge seem small. 

No matter how tall her buildings might reach; no matter how modern and efficient her transportation; no matter how wealthy her citizens; New York City in all its glory and success will never succeed in making the Brooklyn Bridge appear diminutive.  It may be, as many have stated, the greatest city in the world – the epicenter of today’s civilization – but nothing within it looms larger than the Great Bridge. 

Though the towers themselves stand all of three hundred feet from the surface of the East River and are towered over by countless skyscrapers on either side of the river, there remains something of a breathtaking thing to be discovered when standing beneath either of these hulking pillars of granite, looking up at the finely-spun web of steel, drawn from the massive wire rope machines of Haigh Steelworks of Brooklyn and John A. Roebling’s Sons Steel Wire of Trenton.  One feels looking up at the stone façade of the gothic arches – the last and greatest major bridge to be so constructed (the newer, even larger models, such as the Manhattan, Williamsburg and George Washington, would be constructed of a purely steel skeleton; functionality having trumped aesthetics) – an awe far greater even than standing beneath the Empire State building or the Statue of Liberty.  One may feel closer, standing upon the bridge, to the literary and cultural genius of the nineteenth century than even in the great reading rooms of the New York Public Library. 

Bridges, and especially the Brooklyn Bridge, embody nothing less than man’s greatest potential upon the Earth – they are as profound and direct a statement as one is likely to find of the Providential endowment of human ability.  It is not only that we have succeeded in conquering boundaries laid down by the progression of the natural world; that two bodies of land, once cleaved by the slow recession of glaciers, should be so satisfactorily joined yet again by the work of our hands – though this is an impressive thought on its own. It is not only that we should put up so solid a fight against those natural laws which seem to demand that such a thing never be attempted.   

It is not the natural laws that we subvert by building bridges, but the human laws that we validate.  It is that this bridge – and every such monument ever constructed – exists as a reflection of what mankind ought to be.  Two bodies being so thoroughly united by a common thread of wood and steel allows us a glimpse into what was intended by the creator. 

Man was never intended to be tribal, and yet his heart has led him in this direction from the first.  He has played host to such divisions and migrations; he has severed his own arms, legs, hands and feet and strewn them across the landscape with ill-abandon.  Man has established himself as a many-headed beast across the globe; the great human-hydra.  That he should now hold up as his greatest achievement the construction of something so symbolic as artificial land between two points is something to be celebrated with far more sincerity than even the most resounding military victory. 

To build a bridge is to be civilized.  It is the culmination of the influence of every great city upon which western civilization has been founded.  Jerusalem gave us our moral and religious convictions – so brazenly brought to bear in our endeavor to connect disparate communities and forge human bonds.  Athens gave us our philosophy – and the Brooklyn Bridge seems as much a philosophical statement as an architectural one.  Rome gave us our politics – the common bond under which all great building projects are instigated.  London gave us our literature and still survives as our most direct cultural ancestor.

Standing upon the promenade of the Brooklyn Bridge teaches us also that man was not intended to be separated from himself; that the great sacrifices made at the altar of individuality, to the false god of cultural pluralism ought to be cast back to the same hell from which they arose.  To stand upon the Great Bridge is to stand face to face with an ethical dilemma.  It’s importance is as moral as it is architectural.  It would be a disgrace to the bridge to stand upon its promenade and to fail to love one’s neighbor.  It should be impossible for a man to stand upon that great span (the longest in the world when it was built and for many years thereafter) and harbor contemptuous or sinful thoughts against another.  That a man could contemplate an act of hatred or violence is ever contemptible; that he should do it while leaning against those steel railings, peering out over the open water of the harbor is far more loathsome. 

Some, whose eyes have not been opened to the world around them, cannot see any of this.  Certainly, it is possible for a man to do these things, and certainly men surely have, but it is not normal to do so.  It is a perversion of everything that that is represented by the very nature of human achievement.  Any man who should walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, climb to the peak of a pyramid, stand upon the apex of any grand building defining any culture throughout history, ought naturally be stricken by some unexplainable feeling of brotherhood; the knowledge that some measure of falsehood exists within the condition of man, but that the construction of great buildings allows a hint of truth to seep in.  The burning of the world’s ancient libraries were acts of great falsehood, leaving the world choking for even the faintest breath of truth; the toppling of the Colossus of Rhodes, the Hanging Gardens, the Lighthouse of Alexandra.   

The Great Bridge tells a story of humanity ignored in popular histories.  It conveys a story that has always existed, but has never been seen, for it has ever lurked just beneath the surface, peeking through in momentary flashes of artistic, scientific, or literary brilliance.  Bridges have made the world a smaller place; they have erased barriers, both natural and arbitrary.  Bridges have been erected for every reason and in every economic condition.  Some have been proven worthy of their cost and some have been dismal failures, but every one of them stands as a litmus test of where we are; a testament to where we are going.

The Great Bridge may be placed side by side with any of New York’s storied buildings, no matter how tall or ornate, and it will nevertheless outshine them all.  Its shadow, in all its simplicity, will cover over them and leave them appearing utterly unremarkable.

I grew up in a small town with a number of bridges – every single one of them remarkable in its own peculiar way.  I would love one day to live in a small town yet again, separated from the struggles of the city and the brokenness of her people.  I would love the freedom to appreciate nature unadorned by architectural achievement; to live where humanity continues to distinguish itself, but it does so amidst the startling beauty of creation. 

And yet, I don’t believe that I could ever bring myself to live in a town without a bridge.

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