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Fifth Avenue - Trade Pursues Fashion
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( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Wherever a crowd gathers, whether about a fight or a fire, a rescue or an accident, there you will find the blue-coated policeman. He is usually at the focal point of interest, wherever and whatever that may be. He has to uphold and preserve the majesty of the law; and, incidentally, he has to make the crowd "move on " or "stand back." This he usually succeeds in doing without force or display of any kind. Of course, if word is passed along the line to "clear the square," at an open-air meeting of the Reds, for instance, he and his companions do it very expeditiously and conclusively. His force is a persuasive one. And the mob, whether guilty or innocent of any misdemeanor, knows enough to keep out of the way of his locust stick. It is a very hard club. The end of it thrust into a running back is quite as effective as the length of it laid on a stubborn head.
And what crowds to cope with there are in New York! The city seems always alive with people. On New Year's nights the sidewalks overflow into the streets, and the great thoroughfares like Broadway turn into torrents of shouting, horn-blowing, confetti-throwing people. On Easter Day or Labor Day or the Fourth of July there is a similar emptying of the houses into the streets. People are always willing to go out "to see something," and when out they are easily drawn into and help swell a crowd. Everyone knows how they gather from all points of the compass in a public square to hear some agitator or politician speaking from a cart tail, or how they flock to "the game" at the Polo Grounds, thirty thousand or more, and spend half a day perched contentedly on benches, banks, bridges, and distant housetops.
The largest gatherings are seen only at political or military parades or at some important public function. The Dewey Celebration and its like, the processions preceding national elections, even the fire and police parades, bring out vast numbers of spectators. The people of the East and West Sides come flocking through the side streets to Fifth Avenue, where they occupy the stoops, climb railings, windows, trees, lamp-posts, to get a sight of what is moving. The processions themselves are often enormous aggregations of individuals. In December, 1905, there was a Jewish parade (a protest against the massacres of Jews in Russia) that is said to have contained 125,000 people. It took the better part of the day in passing a given point. Such crowds are hardly to be imagined. And when seen, the wonder is where the people come from, and. how they are housed and fed.
If one is whimsically inclined, he may even wonder as to who made all the thousands of Derby hats that are every-where in sight. Seen from a window or a balcony of a sky-scraper the whole avenue looks paved with black hats.
But even on days and nights devoid of holiday significance the streets are full of people. There are certain places that are always congested. These are the main-traveled thoroughfares, the principal avenues, the larger cross-streets, the railway stations, the subway and ferry entrances, above all, the bridge entrances. The number of people that daily pass between Manhattan and Long Island by the bridges is something extraordinary. There are nearly 5000 trolley cars a day moving on the Brooklyn Bridge alone, and they are generally "full up" with passengers. A moderate estimate gives 200,000 people a day passing over this bridge, and in 1907 it ran for a single day as high as 423,000 people. The Williamsburgh Bridge, formally opened last year, though used since 1903, accommodates over 200,000 a day; while the Queensboro, opened this year (1909), with a capacity of several hundred thousand, and the Manhattan, now being finished, with an estimated capacity of over half a million a day, give an idea of the city's present needs. A million people a day moving across the East River bridges is perhaps a maximum estimate, but not an extravagant one. No wonder the bridges were built of colossal proportions.
Our foreign friends who smile at our love of "bigness" as exemplified in bridges and buildings, fail to take into consideration the actual demand, the necessity of the hour. They know nothing about bridge "jams," and a million people a day moving across a wide and swift river has little meaning for them. As for bridges themselves they know the common types such as London Bridge and the Pont Neuf. These being sufficiently large and serviceable in their places, the conclusion is perhaps reached that they would be equally serviceable anywhere else on the globe. The measuring of the world by a local yardstick is a very common failing of humanity, and one that accounts for many mistakes. Neither the Pont Neuf nor London Bridge would reach halfway across the East River. By comparison with what is needed in New York, and what now exists, they are merely enlarged culverts. They could hardly accommodate the Brooklyn crowd that goes on foot, to say nothing of the teams, trolleys, and electric cars. The East River bridges are none too large, yet they are the largest in the world. No other city has one bridge of this scale, where New York has four and will soon have more.
This being merely a fact and not a boast, why should we not state it whenever necessary? Of course, we do talk unnecessarily and unceasingly about our "big" things, even when they have no quality and mean nothing but a row of figures; yet there are things of magnitude and worth in the United States that cannot be understood unless we deal in figures. For instance, the Canyon of the Colorado is a slash in the earth over a mile deep, thirteen miles in width, several hundred miles in length; and the slash is filled with the most beautiful air and color ever seen anywhere in the world. Why should we not tell the tale with those figures and with the superlative adjective? How could it be told differently? Just so with the stupendous volume of Niagara, the great body of the fresh-water lakes, the vast prairies, the huge trees, the giant forests. The very "bigness" of these things is perhaps their telling quality. It gives them distinction, grandeur, even sublimity. To talk about them with a mock-modest air, as though giant redwoods grew on every hillside, and Niagaras roared in every river, and Colorado canyons were after all very common affairs, would be absurd. They are world wonders, and why should we not say as much without either pride or humility ?
It is precisely so with the four bridges across the East River. Their "bigness" is not only a necessity, but it is also their commanding feature. Mere bulk, length, weight, and height give them grandeur. No one who goes across them, or sees them from the river, or studies them from some Manhattan sky-scraper, can fail to be impressed by them. Yet even then, with the mind expanded and grown colossal by contemplation, the true measure of them is perhaps not appreciated.
The earliest one, the Brooklyn Bridge, was opened for traffic in 1883, and since then upwards of fifty million people a year have continuously passed over it in cars alone. It is one of the most famous of the suspension bridges, with stone towers 272 feet in height, a central span of 1595 feet, and a lift above the water of 135 feet. Its total length is 5989 feet, something over a mile. It has promenades for foot-passengers, two roadways for vehicles, and two railway tracks for electric cars.
Enormous as this bridge was when first built, and spectacular as it still appears, it is outdone in size by the Williamsburgh Bridge, sometimes called "Bridge No. 2." This is another suspension affair, but of quite a different appearance from the first bridge. It has steel towers 325 feet in height, a central span of 1600 feet, and a total length of 7200 feet. Since its opening it has carried immense crowds. When the cars for it are in running order they will transport 200,000 people a day and in emergencies 125,000 people an hour. In its 118 feet of width it has four surface railway tracks, two elevated tracks, two carriage ways, two promenades, and two bicycle paths.
Yet this bridge is once more surpassed in size by the Queensboro or Blackwell's Island Bridge. It is a cantilever of peculiar design and is regarded as an experiment by some and as an unsafe structure by others. It has four trolley tracks, two elevated railway tracks, besides footpaths and carriage ways, and its capacity is 125,000 passengers an hour. It crosses the East River between Fifty-Ninth Street and Long Island City in three spans, resting on Blackwell's Island after the first one, and making a short span across the island itself. There are six rather fine masonry piers, two on the island and two on each river bank. The total reach of the bridge is 7636 feet. The distinction of being the largest cantilever in the world (the Forth Bridge has a Ionger single span) is perhaps needed to sustain an interest, for it certainly is not beautiful. It seems cumbrous and unnecessarily heavy.
In sheer weight, however, as in carrying capacity, this Queensboro cantilever is exceeded by "Bridge No. 3," or the Manhattan Bridge, now nearly completed. It is between the Brooklyn and the Williamsburgh bridges, and like them is suspended on enormous ropes of steel. Each rope consists of 9472 wires, 3/16 of an inch in diameter, woven into thirty-seven strands, with an outside diameter of 21 1/4 inches. These cables are swung from steel towers standing upon granite and concrete foundations that go down to bed-rock 100 feet below the mean surface of the water. The towers are 345 feet in height, the steel in each of them weighs some 6250 tons, and each carries a load of 32,000 tons. The anchorage on either shore to which the ends of the cables are made fast is another mass of granite and concrete, weighing something like 232,000 tons. It is calculated to resist a pull of, say, 30,000 tons. From the main cables, carried by smaller suspender cables, is the superstructure, which in weight of nickel-steel, including the towers, amounts to 42,000 tons. In the main span over the river there is 10,000 tons, and in each shore span 5000 tons.
These figures suggest a bridge of not only great weight, but of huge size. It is planned to be the strongest and possibly the longest bridge in the world. And this not because New York, wants to have the "biggest" structure in all creation, paying ten or more millions for that pretentious distinction, but because it needs a bridge that will carry from 300,000 to 500,000 people a day, and carry most of them during the "rush" hours.' It is built to stand great strain and to accommodate any crowd, however large. To that end there are to be four tracks for elevated and subway cars, accommodating trains of eight and ten cars each, four more tracks for trolleys and surface cars on a second floor, besides a roadway thirty-five feet wide and two twelve-foot sidewalks for pedestrians. The main span of the bridge is not so long as those of the Brooklyn and Williamsburgh bridges, being 1470 feet to their 1600; but the approach from the Manhattan side is 1940 feet and from the Brooklyn side 4230 feet. This makes a total length of 9090 feet, nearly two miles.
The maximum carrying capacity is given as 350,000 people an hour 175,000 each way.
That figure, taken in connection with its width of 120 feet (35 feet wider than the Brooklyn Bridge), gives perhaps some idea of this stupendous structure of steel swung across the East River as easily and as lightly as a spider's web across a doorway.
For, notwithstanding its weight and mass, this bridge does not look heavy. Apparently it has no rigidity about it. It looks as though it might ride out a storm by bending before it or swaying with it. Its grace and its feeling of elasticity come from its fine bending lines. The city planned for the beauty of the structure as well as for its usefulness. 1r. Hastings, the architect, has personally had its decoration on his hands and con-science for a long time. No doubt this has meant much in matters of detail. The main beauty of the bridge, however, lies in its lines the graceful droop of its cables over its upright towers.
The Brooklyn Bridge also has this grace of line and delicate tracery against the sky. The towers are well-proportioned masses of masonry, but when built they were denounced by many for their pike-staff plainness. They were thought "ugly" because not ornamented with mouldings, or divided up by stringcourses of protruding stone. In fact, the whole bridge was considered something of a monstrosity, and spoken of at that time very much as our sky-scrapers are scoffed at to-day. But, fortunately, the bridge has existed long enough to win over many of those who thought it monstrous; and the newer generation has come to regard it as one of the city's most beautiful features. It has grown gray in service, having been used twenty-five years; and is now spoken of as "the old Bridge." Perhaps some of its attractiveness has come with age, and then, perhaps again, it was just as beautiful the day it was completed, and we have merely grown up to it.
We shall fit ourselves quickly to the Manhattan Bridge, in fact, we have done so already; but shall we ever come to think the Williamsburgh Bridge so graceful as the two lower ones on the river? Its cables fall in curves, but they seem not free, flowing lines. There is no illusion of swaying movement about it, no delicate tracery against the sky. Instead there is the feeling of uncompromising rigidity. The steel towers look not unlike oil derricks; and the superstructure suggests cast-iron rather than finely spun smooth-wrought steel. Possibly the angular lattice work of cross-braces has something to do with this stiffness. Wherever the fault may lie the bridge can hardly be considered a great artistic effort. It is just a useful bridge, no more.
And what can one say in good report of the Queensboro Bridge? It is a ponderous affair of vertical eye-bars and girders that look like enormous fence palings linked together, and the marvel is how it manages to maintain itself in air. One wonders if it is not likely at any time to shut up like a jumping-jack, or fall down like a house built of matches. The feeling of a self-sustaining structure, such as the other bridges possess, is absent; and one grows perhaps unduly critical over the choice of such a pat-tern with the successful models of the others so close at hand. When it is properly painted, it may appear to better advantage; and yet it is difficult to see how the disagreeable cross-lines of its superstructure can ever be smoothed away or painted out.
The aesthetic quality of these huge bridges, it would seem, must derive almost wholly from their form. How could ornamental sculpture be used upon them, for in-stance? The approaches to the Pont Alexandre have carved pedestals and groups of figures that are commanding and appropriate, because the bridge is not of a size to dwarf them; but such or similar work would appear lost at the approaches to any of the East River bridges. One has merely to stand at the entrance to the Queensboro Bridge and look up at it to realize that sculptural ornamentation in connection with it would be only so much labor in vain. It would not be seen for the bigness of the bridge itself. If made of a size to scale with the bridge it would probably be grandiose, like the Statue of Liberty on Bedloe's Island, or monstrous, like the huge marbles of the Italian Decadence. Besides, you cannot make an ugly mantel-piece look handsome by placing statuettes and bronzes upon it. The mantel (and the bridge) requires correct proportions.
And what could one do with decorative patterns upon such bridges? Make the pattern of a size corresponding to the structure itself, and like the sculpture, it becomes bizarre; make it small, and, again, it is ineffective. A fine moulding, a sculptured band, a classic design in steel or stone, what could you see of it at the distance of a mile ? And a mile or more away is the proper distance to look at one of these bridges. From underneath you can grasp nothing but the immense mass of the structure; on the bridge itself you can see little but lifting towers, drooping cables, climbing girders. You must get far enough away on another bridge or on a sky-scraper to see the whole bridge at a glance, to get the ensemble. With such necessary distance in between you and the object of vision, what becomes of sculptured groups or decorative patterns? They fade out, blur out, and are wholly wanting in carrying power.
One comes back to insist that good form is absolutely needful in these colossal bridges if beauty is to be a part of them. It is a matter, too, of outline beauty, of the traced form against the sky. It is in just this respect that the two lower bridges on the river are so satisfactory, and the two upper ones are so faulty. It is the sweep of the long bending lines from tower to tower, so grateful to the eye, that pleases us in the one; it is the sharp interruption of angle lines, so irritating to the eye, that displeases us in the other. And yet it is possible that the good form of the first two might be enhanced, and the harsh form of the second two disguised, or at least minimized, by still another feature. I mean color.
From time out of mind, humanity seems to have associated a bridge with a road, and put down the one as being as dirty and as dusty as the other. Perhaps that is why bridges (especially if of iron or steel) have always been painted a black, or gray, or drab, or dust color. But why should this tradition continue with structures that are high in air, above the dust and dirt, over wide wind-swept rivers? The painting of a battleship a mouldy slate color in preparation for war, we can understand is a necessary disguise; but what a delightful change when the war is over and the ship returns to her peace garment of white with buff funnels! One wonders if a similar change could not be wrought in the huge East River bridges by painting them in less dismal colors. Variegated hues would probably not prove satisfactory, and not even patriotism could countenance an "arrangement" in red, white, and blue; but a single color, like buff or rose or mauve, might add to the picturesque, and possibly the architectural, appearance of the structures.
In one respect, at least, the bridges are quite right as they stand. They are in proper scale with the new city. Their ,approaches now reach down into streets where stand buildings of four and five stories, looking singularly mean and small by comparison; but the small buildings are coming down one by one, and will eventually be replaced by newer and higher ones which the size of the bridges anticipates. The Brooklyn Bridge in the lower city, brought into close contact with the down-town sky-scrapers, demonstrates the rightness of its proportions. The Singer, the Terminal, the Metropolitan Life, the Flatiron, the Times buildings, all belong in scale with the East River structures. The new bridge planned to span the Hudson is to be of the same colossal character.
To feel the justness and the appropriateness of these huge river-spans one should go up to the Harlem, at the north of the city, and look at the dozen or more of small bridges for streets and railways that are placed there. They seem to belong to another city, an earlier age, and are grade-crossings, so to speak little bridges twenty or forty feet above the water, with neither form, weight, nor color to distinguish them or dignify them. They are only waiting to be pulled down, to be superseded by loftier and wider structures. The pattern of the Harlem bridge of the future was already in place on the river in 1889, in the Washington Bridge with its fine arches spanning 510 feet each, its 135 feet of height, and its 2400 feet of length. It fits the Harlem River as the Manhattan Bridge the East River, and is a beautiful structure in every way.
Even High Bridge rather anticipated the sky-scraper. It carries the Croton aqueduct across the Harlem at One Hundred and Seventy-Fifth Street, is 116 feet above the river, and has thirteen arches resting on solid granite piers. In connection with the smooth water, the winding driveway near by, and the river banks covered with foliage, this bridge with its repeated arches makes a very effective picture. It seems to remind one of something out of Turner's sketches, or of bridges we have seen on the Rhine or the Seine. The whole view of bridge and river and shore is a sharp contrast to the East River spans, with the agitated tide-water under them, and the tugs and ferries forever in motion,another one of those contrasts so frequently met with in New York. No modern city quite equals it in glaring inconsistencies; but let us say also that no city quite reaches up to it in varied phases of beauty.