The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

Archive for February 5th, 2018

hitherto denied

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Happy 115th birthday, Grand Street Bridge.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

At a cost of $174,937, the newly constructed Grand Street Bridge – spanning the fantastic Newtown Creek – officially opened on this day in 1903 (although it had already been unofficially open to traffic since December of 1902). The Grand Street Bridge connects Maspeth in Queens with East Williamsburg/Bushwick in Brooklyn, and when it was built they had horse driven traffic in mind, as well as electric streetcars or trolleys. The City of Greater New York, with its familiar five boroughs and Manhattancentric political orientation was only a few years old at this point in time. Grand Street was part of a spate of bridge building that occurred in the years following municipal consolidation, both major and minor, which allowed the newly created Borough Presidents a chance to… ahem… share the wealth with their supporters.

The 1903 model, pictured above, is the third Grand Street Bridge. There were 1875 and 1890 models as well, but the historic record describes them as being shabbily constructed and “dilapidated.” The 1903 model has stood the test of time, although it did receive a bit of work and a fresh coat of paint during a rehabilitation project back in 1973.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Grand Street is the demarcation line between the so called “East Branch” tributary and the main stem of Newtown Creek. The intersection with another tributary, English Kills, is nearby. That’s part of the East Branch, pictured above. As a note, when Grand Street crosses northwards into Queens, it becomes Grand Avenue.

My understanding is that the 1890 model Grand Street Bridge was operated by hand cranking winches. It’s also my understanding that the presence of a nearby wharfage in this area (called White’s Dock) narrowed the navigational channel significantly, and that it was pressure from various Brooklyn based merchants and manufacturing associations which drove the Federal War Department into condemning that iteration of the bridge – and Whites Dock- setting the stage for the construction of the current model and the shaping of the modern bulkheads surrounding it.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

End to end, Grand Street Bridge is nearly two hundred and twenty seven feet and one half inch in length. Horizontally it’s meant to be just over thirty two feet wide, with two lanes of vehicle traffic squeezing into a very tight nineteen feet and eight inch area. There are two sidewalks which are meant to be just under six feet wide, according to the NYC DOT, but that number sort of conflicts with my perception of them. Those tight lanes of traffic mean that anything bigger than a passenger car has to wait for traffic coming from the other side to cross over the bridge before they can do the same. This creates backups on both sides of the thing.

I think the sidewalks measurement must include the box girders visible in the shot above, which is actually from below.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Grand Street Bridge is a swing bridge, which means that the whole structure sits on a mechanical palette and can rearticulate itself ninety degrees to allow maritime traffic to pass to and fro. It’s a crying shame that there aren’t any customers in the East Branch who would require the presence of barge and tug, since the City is obligated to maintain the machinery here in functional order by the orders of the United States Coast Guard.

The DOT spends a bunch of money every year doing so, and the City has been petitioning the USCG to “delist” the East Branch for navigability, and to allow them to replace the 1903 Grand Street Bridge with something more appropriate for modern traffic needs – a static and far wider truss bridge – since at least 2002. The USCG remains adamant in its position, however, that all of Newtown Creek is a “SMIA” or Significant Maritime Infrastructure Area and all of its bridges must be maintained and be “moveable” on the waterway.

This brings up the questionable status of the MTA’s rail swing bridge “DB Cabin” on the Dutch Kills tributary of Newtown Creek, but that’s another story.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The last time I checked the numbers, Grand Street Bridge carried just under ten thousand vehicle trips a day. That was in 2011, it should be mentioned, and supposedly only 7% of that traffic was defined by DOT as being “trucks.” As always, you need to learn how to speak “government” when reading things like that. They mean heavy tonnage trucks – garbage, semis, tankers – not box trucks, pickups, or delivery vans which everybody else would call “trucks.” A significant causality of traffic congestion in both Maspeth and East Williamsburg/Bushwick, the Grand Street Bridge is structurally far too narrow for modern day needs.

Modern needs include accomodating the traffic generated by the MTA’s gargantuan Grand Ave Bus Depot & Central Maintenance Facility, which is found on the Maspeth side of the bridge. The entire bus company unit serving Brooklyn crosses this bridge at least once a week for cleaning, inspection, and maintenance.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

One such as myself always has his ear to the ground, or is probing away at the elected or appointed lords of the local vicinity in hope of gleaning some knowledge of their secretive plans for us all. The general impression gathered is that were there money available right now to replace the Grand Street Bridge with a newer model, construction would begin forthwith.

I’ll be sorry to see the old girl go when they find the cash, as the Grand Street Bridge is one of my favorite bridges found along the lugubrious Newtown Creek. At any rate, Happy Birthday, old lady.


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