Tuesday, February 14, 2012

New Yorkers and Their Bridges

Brooklyn Bridge, 2012

Anyone who’s ever visited coastal Virginia knows that water’s a big part of our life here. This is not just because there are so many bodies of water, but also because you have to go over or under water to get just about anywhere.
The traditional solution to this challenge has been to build trestle-and-tunnel systems. Bridges have always been problematic because they’d have to be tall enough to allow the tallest Navy ships and commercial vessels to pass underneath at high tide. Turns out the Navy’s never had a prohibition on bridges around here. But it remains that there is only one other metropolitan place in the world that has as many underwater highway tunnels as our area.
To have a lot of tunnels doesn’t mean things don’t get congested. All it takes is flat tire or minor accident to block a tunnel for hours. Just the other afternoon westbound traffic headed to our busiest bridge-tunnel was stopped and backed up for the better part of twelve miles.
I think about this whenever I visit New York. It’s not like their traffic flows smoothly. But you have to admit that New York gives you some pretty majestic bridges to look at while you’re waiting in traffic. Most were the visions of just a few men—most notably the enterprising wire spinner John Roebling and the empire builder Robert Moses—who had the financial support or political power (or both) to build bridges on an immense scale. Roebling’s Brooklyn Bridge is an undeniable part of New York’s character. Moses connected boroughs with bridges that are, if nothing else, immense.
Compared to the bridges where I live, a number of the New York area bridges are downright artful. Driving across the Verrazano Bridge between Staten Island and Brooklyn can be like, and sometimes is, driving into a cloud. The marriage of stone and steel in the Brooklyn Bridge is awe-inspiring, and doubly so for having been designed to accommodate pedestrians as well as vehicles. The engineering that went into these bridges showed people all over the world how to build bridges on a big scale.
The picture below shows part of the approach to the Manhattan Bridge. Can you imagine anyone building such a classically influenced bridge these days?
Manhattan Bridge Approach, 2012
By the way, Leon Moisseiff, who designed the Manhattan Bridge, would also go on to design the famous “galloping Gertie” Tacoma Narrows Bridge that twisted and vibrated and eventually collapsed into Puget Sound just five months after it was built.  
Another of my favorite bridges in the George Washington Bridge, which spans the Hudson River between New Jersey and upper Manhattan. It’s a magnificent testament to the strength and majesty of steel engineering. A few years ago I learned an interesting thing about the George Washington Bridge; namely, that it was originally intended to be clad in stone. But the steel frame was so popular when the bridge opened that it was decided to leave the structure exposed. Again, imagine anyone making such a decision in our time.
No one around here, that’s for sure. But what would you expect of people who prefer to do their driving under water?

Manhattan Bridge Detail, 2012

1 comment:

  1. Really great photos of these structures. I'm always fascinated with the feats of civil engineering that surround us...