The Walker Evans photo above, entitled Brooklyn Bridge, New York, 1929, is part of the Picturing America series of posters we have been displaying at the Library. The series uses forty significant art images to illustrate and illuminate the diverse American story. Two of those forty images are of the Brooklyn Bridge (the second one being a painting by Joseph Stella). I found myself wondering what makes this bridge so iconic.
One out of every five people in the United States can trace their roots back to Brooklyn. My mother grew up there. I was born there. My youngest brother was not born there. By then, we had moved to the suburbs. I think of Brooklyn as a place a lot of people start from. Of course, there are plenty of families who stay for generations. Brooklyn gives you great access to New York City on Manhattan Island. Perhaps the bridge has become a monumental symbol of that New York connection. There are two other bridges between Brooklyn and New York City: the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges, but they do not seem as memorable for some reason. Having recently taken the complete Circle tour around Manhattan Island, I saw so many bridges it made my head spin; the only one I easily recognized by name was the Brooklyn Bridge.
When the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883, it was the largest suspension bridge in the world. When rumors that the bridge might collapse caused a stampede one week after it opened, P. T. Barnum proved otherwise by arranging for a parade of 22 elephants across the bridge. Actually it is a very strong bridge, with wide pedestrian lanes which multitudes of people love to use as strolling grounds, in addition to lanes for vehicular traffic.
As the Picturing America materials point out, by 1929 the bridge had lost some of its glory and become commonplace. Walker Evans took his photos of the bridge using a simple camera he carried in his pocket. His vantage point for the shot eliminated any sight of buildings, boats, or the East River. Instead we are given the pleasing geometry of its piers and arches. I wouldn't have thought of this, but its pattern of steel cables could be said to point towards some "untried, futuristic technology". To me, this photo of the bridge has both calmness and strength. Perhaps I associate the medieval arches with cathedrals.
A short time ago, we traveled to the Rockport/Fulton area of Texas on the Gulf coast for our wedding anniversary. One of the touristy things we enjoyed doing was visiting the Fulton Mansion State Historic site. And how is this related to the Brooklyn Bridge? The docent who gave us a tour of this well-fortified Victorian villa told us that George Fulton had worked on the Brooklyn Bridge in some capacity as an engineer. We admired the engineering of his house, built like a fortress with very thick walls; indeed the home has withstood all the hurricanes that have come in since 1874.
Ken Burns made his first major documentary film about the Brooklyn Bridge. Hollywood comes to the bridge quite often; most recently in Sex and the City (2008), when Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) and Steve (David Eigenberg) undergo marital therapy. They are separated. They agree to meet in the middle of the bridge at a certain time if they can both decide to put their past behind them and start over. Much suspense as Miranda walks onto the bridge looking for Steve. There he is! The movie theater I attended shortly after the movie opened was elbow-to-elbow with female fans. We all sighed a collective sigh of romantic relief and passed the tissues around. I'll never forget that scene on the bridge.
Marianne Moore's poem Granite and Steel lauds the bridge as a "romantic passageway"; "a climactic ornament, a double rainbow." In Getting Hitched, poet Stephen Beal proclaims "I would like to marry the bridge, ....I would like to have that spiritual force always in my life." His joy and exuberance for the bridge makes for a very fine poem, and makes me want to walk across the bridge myself one day. May it be so.