The iconic Brooklyn Bridge and Brooklyn Heights in New York City is another interesting area for walking. We took a Free Tours By Foot tour of the area, which we found less impressive and less informative than the same company’s New York City Downtour tour. Still, the area is worth exploring, so here we go.
Biggest and Tallest Buildings
Our tour began in City Hall park where our guide began his ongoing mission of pointing out all of the NYC buildings (and in one case a successor to one) that at one time, held the title of tallest building (either in the world, the hemisphere or of a specific category). These included the successor to the 1899 Park Road Building, the 1908 Singer Building, the 1909 Metropolitan Tower the 1913 Woolworth Building, and the interesting 1928 back-and forth battle between 40 Wall Street and Chrysler Buildings (by adding additional stories and ultimately, Chrysler’s initially incognito spire).
We learned how the Empire State Building was built in an incredible one year, one month and 14 days. It held the tallest building title until the 1970 and 1971 completion of the Twin Towers. Unfortunately, the Empire State Building opened at the beginning of the Great Depression. Given the number of corporate bankruptcies and amount of excess office space, the building was almost impossible to rent. Then came its big break. The 1933 release of the hit movie King Kong suddenly made the Empire State a celebrity. The owners discovered that people would pay (five cents at that time) to take an elevator to the observation deck. That ploy apparently allowed the building to operate at break-even through the 14 years it took to get to full occupancy.
Then, of course, came the Twin Towers, the new World Trade Center, which thanks to its extra-long spire (which brought it to its symbolic 1776-foot height) and the Asian construction boom, is ONLY the seventh tallest building in the world—although it is the tallest in the Western Hemisphere. And then there’s the gangly, scrawny (not to speak of pretty ugly) new kid on the block: 432 Park Avenue, which is now the second tallest building in the city and the tallest residential building in the world.
Eventually we reached the Brooklyn Bridge and spent about an hour crossing via the pedestrian and bicycle path that runs atop the roadway and links Manhattan and Queens. It spans the East River, which is not actually a river, but a narrow bay that is salt water. the incredible view from the bridge alone is worth the walk across it.
A network of ferries previously brought commuters and shoppers back and forth between Manhattan (the largest city in the world at that time) and Queens (the third largest city in the world at that time). By the 1880s, the cities decided they needed a more reliable and permanent link and Brooklyn agreed to pay for a bridge to link them. Skeptics doubted didn’t that such a long span could even be built. Still, John Roebling proposed a design was chosen in a competition. Roebling just happened to own the only steel company that was strong enough to support his design. But before construction could even begin, Roebling, who was surveying potential sites for the bridge’s towers, crushed his leg crushed while attempting to cross between two ships. The amputation resultant in an infection that soon killed him. His son, Washington, took over the project. He was soon paralyzed in a construction accident. While he was still able to supervise construction via binoculars, management responsibilities fell to his wife, Emily. Although she had no engineering or construction training, Emily spent the 14 years during which the bridge was being built, not only managing the project, but also gaining a graduate-level education in engineering.
The bridge was strong enough to support more than 10 times todays loads. It began with the digging and building support caissons which were anchored deep into the bedrock. To do so, divers worked at depths that were well below those that were considered safe. This contributed to the toll of 27 men who died during the construction process. The bridge’s cross-hatched design of the small-diameter steel cables allow it to slightly sway in the wind, rather than crack.
The incredibly popular bridge was completed in 1898 but still suffered a few setbacks. In one incident, a pedestrian yelled that the bridge was collapsing. Although the bridge was as secure as ever, the incident created a panic in which dozens of people were crushed and some actually died. Despite the bridge’s safety, usage plummeted. Enter master showman P.T. Barnum. He reassured people of the bridge’s safety by marching a dozen of his elephants (whose total weight was well below that the bridge normally carried) across the bridge.
Brooklyn Heights is just south of the bridge. Created in the 1820s, and growing rapidly by mid-century, Brooklyn Heights is now largely a well-to-do commuter suburb to Manhattan. Real estate prices and rents are almost as high as some prime Manhattan neighborhoods, although the units often have more space.
Our walk through Brooklyn Heights included a number of landmarks, including the:
- Brooklyn Post Office whose the bell tower did double duty as the Brooklyn City gallows in the late 19th century;
- Henry Ward Beecher Monument, a minister who actively promoted immigration. His church served as something of a Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad and his sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote the influential, anti-slavery book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”;
- Brooklyn Borough Hall was the Brooklyn City Hall before Brooklyn was combined with the rest of New York City;
- The headquarters of the Brooklyn Dodgers where Branch Rickey took the unprecedented step of signing Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers. He showed the public that blacks and whites could indeed work and play together;
- Bank Row, on which a number of the city’s banks, including the beautifully preserved Chase branch, continue to operate;
- Brooklyn Historical Society, which, understandably, houses the largest collection of Brooklyn memorabilia;
- First Unitarian Church, which is built atop the British bunker in which a British battalion spent a foggy night during the Battle of Brooklyn/Long Island, the first major battle of the Revolution. It was waiting for the next morning to deal a fatal blow to the Yankee army, which it believed it had trapped. But, while the Brits slept, General Washington executed a stealthy maneuver to evacuate his troops across the East River and ultimately to the safety of Weehawken New Jersey;
- Behr Mansion was built in 1891 by the founder of the Behr paint company. It was sold and converted into the Palm Hotel in 1921, before becoming an upscale brothel, a monastery and currently, an apartment house;
- Brooklyn Women’s Exchange was created by women to enable them to sell their own arts and crafts;
- Pierpont Place was named by a wealthy builder who built a number of homes, including his own mansion (which was subsequently demolished and the land used as a playground).
The tour ended with a stroll along the lovely Brooklyn Heights Promenade, and 1,800 foot-long walkway over the East River and with incredible views of lower Manhattan skyline.
Although the Brooklyn Bridge tour focused primarily on the role the Roebling family played in designing and building the bridge, one other major character came up periodically through the tour. This was Robert Moses, a career civil servant who, at one time, held 14 key appointed positions through the middle of the 20th century including those that made him responsible for the city’s highways, public transportation, public housing and parks. This, combined with his multi-decade reign, made him one of the primary architects not just of New York, but of many major American cities.
Moses’ name first came up on the entry ramp for the Brooklyn Bridge, as the man responsible for the roughly 35,000, low-income, Alphabet City public housing complex alone, not to speak of many other public housing projects throughout the city. Then there were the roughly 600 miles of road and more than 100 public parks that he created. These include the Brooklyn Heights Promenade on which we finished the tour, and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway over which the promenade was built. But, while Moses was responsible for much of the city’s current infrastructure, he is often more maligned than he is admired. The primary reason: He had a very specific vision for the city and for the most part, the unfettered power to bring that vision to fruition. The problem was that his vision was of a city consisting primarily of high-rises, parks and a network of highways, bridges and tunnels to connect them. His vision did not include the type of walking city than New York has become.
After the tour ended, we continued exploring part of Borum Hill’s main commercial area, through downtown Brooklyn and then through the hip neighborhood of DUMBO (for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass). While the section of DUMBO that is actually beneath the Manhattan Bridge Overpass suffers from the deafening noise of the almost continual rumbling of subway cars running over the bridge (we suspect hearing loss is prevalent from those who live and work there), the neighborhood actually extents between the overpasses of the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges. The center of the neighborhood, and that near the Brooklyn Bridge are not only much more quiet, they are also, at least for us, much more interesting.