Monday, July 12, 2010

Bridge Walking

"Walks. The body advances, while the mind flutters around it like a bird."
~ Jules Renard

The Queensboro Bridge is a fine place for a walk on a Sunday morning, when cars are fewer and fresh air has a fighting chance against exhaust fumes.

The sidewalk leading to the Queens-side approach is paved with cobblestones. Virtually all of the surrounding streets were this way at one time. Even twenty years ago, cobblestones and a network of train and trolley tracks made local travel bumpy. We also have trolley tracks to thank for what is now the bridge's pedestrian and bike path.

When the Queensboro Bridge was first built, pedestrians, trains and cars shared the upper roadway. On the north and south sides of the bridge's lower roadway, trolleys ferried people back and forth from Manhattan. When the auto-mad Robert Moses removed the trolleys in the 1950s, one lane of the lower roadway was set aside for pedestrians and cyclists. For many years, it was the south lane, which offers a glorious view of midtown and lower Manhattan and the lower river bridges (Manhattan and Brooklyn). Today pedestrians and cyclists use the north trolley lane, which provides its own pleasures.

The Queensboro is a multispan cantilever bridge designed by Gustav Lindenthal, Leffert Buck and Henry Hornbostel. It opened for business in 1909, and the photo above was taken one year later.  While the east and west spans total only 2,166 feet, a walk on the bridge is more than twice that — 7,449 feet — due to the long approach on the Queens side.

As you look north along that approach, you see the fortress-like tops of the Queensbridge Houses, the largest public housing project in North America.

At one time this was a good place to live, later a truly terrible place; it is still not nearly as safe as it should be. Seeing the houses through "bars" feels a little too appropriate. I'm sure it's how many residents feel about the place they call home.

When you're finally out over the water, the view to the north along the East River is bridge after bridge, like nesting dolls. First in view is the squat, movable bridge from Long Island City to Roosevelt Island, which can be raised to permit tall-masted ships to pass. Beyond that are the Robert F. Kennedy bridge (formerly known as the Triboro) and the Hell Gate railroad bridge. Not visible but not far beyond is the Whitestone Bridge that connects the Bronx and Queens.

The water below looks peaceful, but that's deceptive. The Hell Gate Bridge got its name from the turbulent waters it crosses, and that turbulence continues downstream. A few years ago a company called Verdant Power had a plan to generate clean energy by installing hundreds of underwater turbines in the East River, but the powerful currents sheared off even the strongest turbine blades.

When I reached the Manhattan side, I stopped by the Starbucks at 60th Street and First Avenue and was once again reminded that, thanks to "public space" tax abatements for real estate developers, one can now find a seat in the least likely places.

Places like this are daily demonstrations of Kinsella's Law ("If we build it...). This particular bank of benches runs for a full block, from Starbucks to Bed Bath & Beyond, and even on a Sunday morning many seats were filled. Some people come for the coffee or the coffee maker and stay for a rest. Some are homeless men who sleep under the bridge archway at night and spend part of their day here. The benches are also a destination for New Yorkers with walkers; it's not unusual to find half a dozen or more frail folks congregating to rest and chat at the far end of the block. This particular morning about a dozen extremely fit gray-haired folks, plus one young guy in dreadlocks, were organizing a bike ride; they had serious equipment and serious spandex — and they all looked good.

On the return trip, I stopped for this shot of the top of the tallest bridge tower, which rises 324 feet above Roosevelt Island. Once upon a time, my husband worked on these bridges and the tippy top was his favorite hangout.

There's a treat for those whose timing is just right on the way back to Queens. Near the end of the Queens approach, the N subway line swoops from below the river to the elevated tracks that take it to Astoria. A train was on its way there when I passed by this morning.

It's much more fun when the train is coming toward you and, for just a moment or two, some eye-brain mix-up makes the bridge feel like a roller coaster.

"Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake."
~ Wallace Stevens

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