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Archive for July 9th, 2011

mottled blossoms

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– photo by Mitch Waxman

Continuing the “Grand walk” whose beginnings on the Lower East side of Manhattan at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral were discussed in two prior postings… And as a note, the external shots of the Williamsburg Bridge were photographed on a separate occasion from the afore described narcoleptic perambulation and are included for the sake of “establishing shots”.

I quite obviously didn’t find myself bodily whirling around the Bridge, in the manner of a superhero.

from wikipedia

This bridge and the Manhattan Bridge are the only suspension bridges in New York City that still carry both automobile and rail traffic. In addition to this two-track rail line, connecting the New York City Subway’s BMT Nassau Street Line and BMT Jamaica Line, there were once two sets of trolley tracks.

The Brooklyn landing is between Grand Street and Broadway, which both had ferries at the time. The five ferry routes operated from these landings withered and went out of business by 1908.

The bridge has been under reconstruction since the 1980s, largely to repair damage caused by decades of deferred maintenance. The bridge was completely shut down to motor vehicle traffic and subway trains on April 12, 1988 after inspectors discovered severe corrosion in a floor beam. The cast iron stairway on the Manhattan side, and the steep ramp from Driggs Avenue on the Williamsburg side to the footwalks, were replaced to allow handicapped access in the 1990s.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Oh- would that I had born capable of such superhuman feats- stronger, more robust of mind and spirit, and not incarnated as the least of men. Were it not my lot to disappoint, discourage, and disabuse myself of opportunities to please others. When I stare in the mirror, an assassin of joy gazes back. I’m all ‘effed up.

Unfortunately, when “one of my states” comes upon me, any notion or pretense I might have of manhood goes out the window and a screeching ape like coward inhabits my mind. Full conviction is evinced that were I magically transported back to the New York City which saw this bridge go up in 1903, I would be consumed by its inmates within minutes.


The Williamsburg Bridge has served New York for over 100 years, but in 1988, age, weather, traffic volume increases and deferred maintenance finally caught up with the Bridge and it had to be temporarily closed. At that time, a technical advisory committee formed to decide the fate of the Williamsburg Bridge proposed three options:

  • Permanently close the bridge, which would shift traffic through local communities to one of the other already congested East River crossings.
  • Build a new bridge, which require locating bridge approaches, possibly through the acquisition of stores and residences. Plus, the existing bridge would still require repairs while the new bridge was being built.
  • Repair the existing bridge

Of those three options, the one with the least impact on drivers and local communities was the third. And in 1988, the decision was made to repair the Williamsburg Bridge while keeping it open. The Williamsburg Bridge Reconstruction Project is one of the most ambitious projects undertaken by the New York City Department of Transportation-Division of Bridges.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The tales of the “Fin de siècle” “Lower East Side” and it’s counterpart communities in Brooklyn, as transmitted by doting grandparents who sought to conceal the darker side of things from their fat American born families, are lost to time.

The New York City of the late 19th and early 20th century was peopled by a specie of predators according to published anecdote and municipal statistic alike, a population hardened and formed by harsh experience and ill fortune. They didn’t emigrate to the United States, they escaped to America.

Routine physical hardship, sickness, and unfairness were their lot upon arriving, and the gentle mannerisms so common to the 21st century were a luxury few could afford.

from Handbook of cost data for contractors and engineers By Halbert Powers Gillette, 1910, courtesy google books

The work here described consisted of sinking two large caissons. 63 x 79 ft. In size on the Brooklyn side of the Williamsburg Bridge to bed rock. In one case 86 ft. and in the other 110 ft below mean high water, filling same with concrete and building masonry piers upon this foundation inside of coffer dams up to elevation plus 23 ft. above M. H. W. All work was done by contract during the years 1897 to 1899.

The caissons were constructed of yellow pine timber at the site of the work, launched, floated Into place and sunk to the river bottom, which was about 55 ft. below M. H. W., by filling them with concrete.

Compressed air was then turned on, and the caissons were sunk to bed rock. The material encountered, consisting of river mud, sand, clay and rock, was excavated either by means of Moran patent material locks or by wet blow out; finally the working chamber was filled with concrete. While the caissons were being sunk, the coffer dams, which were attached to the caissons, were added in order to keep their tops above water, and inside of these coffer dams the masonry piers were built. During the sinking process the masonry was built only In sufficient quantity to give the weight necessary for sinking the caissons. After the caissons were sealed and the air taken off. the shafting and piping were removed, the spaces occupied by them filled with concrete, and the pier carried up to Its final elevation. The coffer dams were then removed.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The working people, whether they came from Sicilian village or the Jewish Shtetl, understood that America was a choice they made which would have to be lived with. There was no going back, at a time when the new political and economic theory called Capitalism could be best described as “predatory”.

The mills and factories were hellish, but reliably put bills to rest and provided a meager but steady series of meals for their families. The poorest of the poor were in Manhattan, a smoky warren of tenements and factories entirely ringed by the busiest waterfront on Earth. When and if savings were available, the aspiration of every tenement family was to move away and go live in the country- which was Brooklyn or Queens back then.

from Architecture: Volumes 7-8 – Page 104, 1903, courtesy google books

The Mayor appointed a Board of expert Bridge Engineers to examine the new plans, and their approval, together with that of the Municipal Art Commission, having been obtained, the city has accomplished something of which tew municipalities can boast.

Considering the Williamsburg Bridge first, its comparison with the old Brooklvn Bridge suffices to show how7 inartistic and reallv uglv it is, and how graceful and beautiful the older bridge appears. It is interesting to note that professional opinion has severely criticised the appearance of the Williamsburg Bridge, and that the city was willing to, and did, appropriate money to beautify this bridge.

Now, this sort of architectural padding or embellishment is the popular idea of an architect’s function in beautifying an engineering structure. “The bridge is built, happens to be ugly, employ an architect, and add some fancy features.” Or, the engineer makes the design, hands it to the architect to add a lantern or two, makes it fancy, and the artistic conscience of the interested community is at rest. The Williamsburg Bridge can never be made to look well, no matter how much it is padded; its angular lines may possiblv be softened, but that is about all that can be done.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Remember, the America which so many members of the body politic wistfully pine for was a divided society.

What has always struck your humble narrator comically, however, is that the division was not so simple as we believe in our comfortable and streamlined modernity. Efforts of mid 20th century educators, social reformers, and political factions defined the notion of an America divide that was simply “black or white”.

The reality was that it was the Protestant gentry (of strict Anglo Saxon, or Germanic descent with a pre Civil War arrival date) and everybody else. Even the French were seen as sub human, and you can just forget about what was said about the Irish, Italians, and Jews. In my readings, Eugenics comes up a lot, and those Protestant mission houses in the “Five Points” and “Jewtown” weren’t exactly benign entities- rather they were colonialist appendages of the upper class hoping to create better servants from the lesser breeds.

from Mayor Low’s administration in New York By City Club of New York, 1903, courtesy google books

The general plan of the bridge was adjopted by the East River bridge commission on August 19th, 1896, and filed in the department of public works of each of the two cities. In May, 1897, an amended plan was adopted and filed. The first actual work on the bridge was begun on the Manhattan tower foundation on October 28th, 1896.

The tower foundations on both sides of the river rest on solid rock. The north pier on the Manhattan side sinks to a depth of 56 feet below high water and the south pier 66 feet below high water. On the Brooklyn side the north pier extends to a maximum depth of about 101 feet below high water and the south pier to a maximum depth of about 90 feet below high water. The Manhattan anchorage rests on 3,500 piles driven through clay to a bed of sand overlying the rock. The Brooklyn anchorage rests on natural sand.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

What is interesting to me (and as a son of Brooklyn- beautiful) is the way in which the imperious bourgeois (called the Knickerbocracy at the time) ending up being supplanted in power and position by these lesser breeds.

A combination of luck, hard work, and business acumen resulted in vast fortunes agglutinating amongst the immigrant hordes. The reactionary “establishment” responded with tightened immigration laws, progressive movements whose goal was “slum clearance”, and in the case of the Five Points itself- physical eradication of the neighborhood. The Public Schools were not established out of municipal altruism, rather they were a reaction to the Roman Catholic church offering free education (what would someday be the Parochial Schools) to all who wished to attend, regardless of affiliation.

Contemporary opinion rendered this as a “Papish attempt to inculcate, infiltrate, and infect the Republic with the poisons of Europe”.

also from from Mayor Low’s administration in New York By City Club of New York, 1903, courtesy google books

Transportation on the Williamsburg bridge, especially the movement of trolley cars, will not have to contend with some of the obstacles that now conspire to impede traffic on the Brooklyn bridge. The roadways for vehicles on the Williamsburg bridge will be entirely separated from the railway tracks, both trolley and elevated. This will allow the trolley cars ample space, unobstructed by vehicular traffic. The terminals will also have adequate facilities for the trolley and elevated tracks and passengers, thus avoiding the congestion now witnessed at the Brooklyn bridge terminals.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

By the period which saw the East River bridges rise, the Dutch were largely gone save for a few hold outs from ancient times. The vast majority of their population was either bred out into English lines, or had gone into the west and north. New York was firmly in the hands of the Irish empowered Tammany Hall, and the landlords of the City had realized that they could earn more by illegally subdividing existing housing stock into smaller units called “tenements”.

Manhattan was dangerously overcrowded, and everybody agreed that someone should do something about it.

from The Williamsburg Bridge: an account of the ceremonies attending the formal opening of the structure, December the nineteenth, MDCCCCIII : together with an illustrated historical and descriptive sketch of the enterprise, courtesy google books

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Brooklyn Bridge, first of the East River bridges, had proven to be a great generator of wealth on both sides of the river despite it’s outlandish cost and efforts. Modern documents emanating from municipal sources and persoanlly witnessed have referred to the modern day “Williamsburg Bridge Financial Corridor”, an attempt to explain the rejuvenation of the neighborhood from the Bowery to East River along Delancey Street as a direct consequence of the new affluence that current day Williamsburg has come to represent due to its darling status for the Real Estate industry.

In a sense, it was the original “Brooklyn Bridge Financial Corridor” which ultimately put an end to the slums of lower Manhattan, and allowed it’s occupants a chance to escape into Brooklyn. Queens came later, of course.

also from The Williamsburg Bridge: an account of the ceremonies attending the formal opening of the structure, December the nineteenth, MDCCCCIII : together with an illustrated historical and descriptive sketch of the enterprise, courtesy google books

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Prior to the Williamsburg Bridge, there were two scheduled ferries one might utilize to transit from Manhattan to Williamsburg.

One was Robert Fulton’s “Grand Street Ferry”, which crossed between the Brooklyn and Manhattan roads of the same name, and a Houston street ferry made the trip albeit less frequently and with a smaller capacity of passengers. Additionally, hundreds of smaller vessels made the trip carrying some passengers, but mainly shuttling manufactured cargo or agricultural product between the coasts. An unpredictable eddy of currents and inclement weather often stranded passengers on one or the other sides of the river, sometimes for a day or more.

also from The Williamsburg Bridge: an account of the ceremonies attending the formal opening of the structure, December the nineteenth, MDCCCCIII : together with an illustrated historical and descriptive sketch of the enterprise, courtesy google books

– photo by Mitch Waxman

After the 2nd East River Bridge was completed, Brooklyn’s population began to grow exponentially. Always the junior member of the two great cities on the harbor, it nevertheless absorbed millions while Manhattan began to transform- transmogrify in fact- into the Shining City we know today. Blocks of tenements were cleared away, deep pilings sunk, and the office towers began to rise and scrape the sky. The 3rd and 4th bridges were already underway and discussion of crossing the Narrows was beginning.

Bridge Commissioner Lindenthal commented on the age he lived in as being unique, knowing that the resources to conceptualize and build projects of this size only come along once or twice in the history of any city, and described himself as living in “The Age of Iron”.

also from The Williamsburg Bridge: an account of the ceremonies attending the formal opening of the structure, December the nineteenth, MDCCCCIII : together with an illustrated historical and descriptive sketch of the enterprise, courtesy google books

– photo by Mitch Waxman

As mentioned at the beginning of this post, your humble narrator is composed of lesser stuff than most and certainly does not exhibit any of the qualities of iron besides corrosion. While examining the contents of my camera card, which bore hundreds of shots I did not remember taking, my hands began to shake as I saw this familiar scene…

…I had entered the truest place, and the ultimate reality…

…that pole of consciousness and latent possibility which all other locations are mere reflections of…

…the one place where “do or die” actually means something…

from wikipedia

Williamsburg is a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, bordering Greenpoint to the north, Bedford-Stuyvesant to the south, Bushwick to the east and the East River to the west. The neighborhood is part of Brooklyn Community Board 1. The neighborhood is served by the NYPD’s 90th Precinct. In the City Council the western and southern part of the neighborhood is represented by the 33rd District; and the eastern part of the neighborhood is represented by the 34th District.

Many ethnic groups have enclaves within Williamsburg, including Hasidic Jews, Italians, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans. It is also an influential hub for indie rock, hipster culture, and the local art community, all of which are associated with one of its main thoroughfares, Bedford Avenue. The neighborhood is being redefined by a growing population and the rapid development of housing and retail space.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

…I had come to Infinite Brooklyn…

also from wikipedia

In 1638 the Dutch West India Company first purchased the area’s land from the local Native Americans. In 1661, the company chartered the Town of Boswijck, including land that would later become Williamsburg. After the English takeover of New Netherland in 1664, the town’s name was anglicized to Bushwick. During colonial times, villagers called the area “Bushwick Shore.” This name lasted for about 140 years. Bushwick Shore was cut off from the other villages in Bushwick by Bushwick Creek to the north and by Cripplebush, a region of thick, boggy shrub land which extended from Wallabout Creek to Newtown Creek, to the south and east. Bushwick residents called Bushwick Shore “the Strand.” Farmers and gardeners from the other Bushwick villages sent their goods to Bushwick Shore to be ferried across the East River to New York City for sale via a market at present day Grand Street. Bushwick Shore’s favorable location close to New York City led to the creation of several farming developments. In 1802, real estate speculator Richard M. Woodhull acquired 13 acres (53,000 m²) near what would become Metropolitan Avenue, then North 2nd Street. He had Colonel Jonathan Williams, a U.S. Engineer, survey the property, and named it Williamsburgh (with an h at the end) in his honor. Originally a 13-acre (53,000 m2) development within Bushwick Shore, Williamsburg rapidly expanded during the first half of the nineteenth century and eventually seceded from Bushwick and formed its own independent city.

Written by Mitch Waxman

July 9, 2011 at 3:16 am

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