David Stone
Up the Brooklyn Bridge
© Deborah Julian Fine Art Photography

A friend always kicked off her tours of New York City by taking visiting friends for a hike up the Brooklyn Bridge. You don’t have to go all the way up to appreciate the wonders of it. Once you’ve gone far enough to look down on some rooftops on the streets below, the views in every direction are more amazing than anything you’ve seen in pictures or prints. It's sort of startling when you find out how few New Yorkers have taken this heart of the city hike.

Walking up the bridge, going up the Brooklyn Bridge, is an event in itself and one too many visitors never get to experience. It isn’t commercial. But that’s a plus. Few things in New York are free to enjoy without the distracting chatter of something for sale.

Going Up The Brooklyn Bridge

When my friend Gabriella took her guests up to the center of the bridge, there was a purpose. An Italian citizen who’d worked in New York long enough to love the city in her own way, she believed that the middle span was the best place for anyone to capture the full power, grace and complicated presence of New York.

Up on the bridge, you look south toward the harbor that made the city one of the most powerful in the world. Before the Erie Canal made this its virtual terminus, New York City was third in U.S. population, behind both Boston and Philadelphia. Canal trading made it rich. And even more powerful.

If you walked out on the Brooklyn Bridge on the day it opened in 1883, you’d have seen piers all along the shores of Brooklyn and Manhattan. Separate cities then, they were tied together more effectively by bridge construction, eventually melding into one giant metropolis along with Queens, Staten Island and The Bronx.

From the crest of the bridge, the boroughs fall back toward their respective horizons.

The piers are gone now as shipping deteriorated in concert with the canal. Manufacturing that once dominated the near shore areas has gone too, and belt highways carry traffic away from the congested areas inland. A belt highway is tucked under Brooklyn Heights while on the Manhattan Side, the FDR speeds drivers between downtown and Harlem.

What strikes you as you look away from the harbor is how massive the buildings are, how packed together in enclaves for business. Less business, these days, as some older buildings downtown have been converted to residences after the offices that filled them were lured away by lower rents and easier access.

The Brooklyn side is more mixed, with the elegance of Brooklyn Heights chock-a-block with office towers, government buildings and hotels. Up the East River (or down, depending on the tide), the size and scale of structures diminishes as you look past the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges and Brooklyn yields to Queens. Back out across the harbor, you see Staten Island and New Jersey, not joined as they appear to be, ferries and ocean bound tankers.

The view is stop-in-your-tracks breathtaking in every direction, and as Gabriella knew, it’s a compact digest of all things New York. Add sports and Broadway, and you have the whole package.

Facts About The Brooklyn Bridge

Anyone can find out quickly that the Brooklyn Bridge is just under 6,000 feet across and carries about 125,000 vehicles a day. These facts tell you very little about it.

Designed by John Roebling, using skills he learned in bridge building during the American Civil War, the structure was not built with any intention of connecting auto traffic between the, then, super cities, Brooklyn and Manhattan. Cars were decades away.

People walked the bridge on a boardwalk above the horse-powered vehicles below, lifting them above the dangers as well as unpleasant biological hazards for which horses are famous. Except for the different noise and smells from cars and trucks below, you walk today much like our Nineteen Century ancestors did.

What was built up all around changed more than the bridge did. A walk up the bridge can be a history lesson.

The most obvious one is probably the least known. When the bridge was built, Manhattan and Brooklyn were competing cities, each vying for recognition as the greatest in the country. One-hundred and thirty years later, the balance is out of whack. After consolidation, municipal power was concentrated in Manhattan, and the you can see the results from the bridge.

Look east and Brooklyn blossoms, it’s commercial and government buildings in fair proportion to its residential neighborhoods. The borough is fast becoming the place to live, its streets not as crushed with traffic, its communities rich with people who actually seem to know each other.

Manhattan, for all its gifts and resources, looks like it could sink into the waters that surround it from the massive uplift of buildings stacked tight together as far as you can see.

An interesting fact few people know: on the day the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883, it was the tallest structure in New York City, replacing Trinity Church. It held the title for thirty years, until the Woolworth Building, just across City Hall Park, opened in 1913.

In the meantime, a subway had been built, cars had begun to replace horses and elevators had become feasible enough to combine with the others to create the vertical city you see today.

Taking Your Walk Up The Brooklyn Bridge

You can make your way onto the pedestrian walkway that runs up and down the center from either Brooklyn or Manhattan, but the Manhattan entrance is considerably easier. It’s also surrounded by historic structures you’ll want to see, and it’s easy to access by subway or bus.

So, pick a good weather day and treat yourself to a walk into the sky. The buildings appear smaller when you look at them from above or, with the tallest, a mid-level perspective. The energy of one of the world’s greatest urban centers vibrates in every direction.

The East River forces its waters back and forth with the flood of the Atlantic’s tides. The traffic simply roars at such a consistent level, it becomes a forgotten background. Everything is moving, going somewhere.

History reaches out with rehabilitated reminders, like the lively South Street Seaport, just below the bridge. New York’s Municipal Building, which almost seems to anchor one end of the bridge, shows an elegance recalling the respect for government we once had.

Further inland, the Empire State Building, even challenged by new skyscrapers, stands so solidly in the middle of Manhattan, it makes a statement about persevering through any and all crises and triumphs. In the west, you can see clear through the void left behind by the World Trade Center as it’s resilient successor refills the skyline.

You walk straight up between the cables, once triumphs of engineering prowess, that suspend the Brooklyn Bridge above the water. They sag and stretch in graceful, metallic webs. Every few steps, someone is pausing to take a picture. Tourists pose. New Yorkers are exposed by their indifference among the awestruck outsiders.

On one side, a few bicycle riders whiz by. Below, the trucks and cars and buses rumble, stopping and starting in a kind of grind you are happy to be lifted above.

If you stop at the top of the bridge, as my friend Gabriella always did, the city comes to you in all its vibrant complexity. You are absorbing and being absorbed by a great metropolis.

You might even be at the center of the universe.