Brooklyn Bridge Essays

The Brooklyn Bridge Essay

The Brooklyn Bridge

In the winter of 1852, John Roebling and his 15 year-old son, Washington were riding a ferry boat across the East River from New York to Brooklyn. John Roebling was an engineer. His specialty was building bridges. As he looked across the East River, he could picture the bridge he wanted there. For years after that, John tried to convince people that his plan for a bridge across the East River was a good one. But most people thought it was nearly impossible to bridge the wide and powerful river. John knew it would be difficult. There were many problems to be solved. The bridge would have to be strong enough to withstand the swift currents and powerful winds of the East River. It could not get in the way of the hundreds of boats that traveled on the river every day. It had to be so high that the masts of tall sailing ships could easily pass under it. And it had to be long. The East River was nearly half a mile wide at that point. But John also knew about a type of bridge that could solve all the problems. It was called a suspension bridge.

Every suspension bridge is different, but they all work in the same way. The roadway doesn't rest on supports. Instead it hangs in the air, suspended from thick cables. Only two towers are needed to hold up the cables, and they can be placed far apart to keep the river open for boat traffic. Finally in 1867 The New York Bridge Company made John A. Roebling engineer. In just three months he produced all drawings, cross sections, location plans, preliminary surveys, estimated cost, took sounding, and wrote his proposal. In June of 1869 John finished the design for the bridge. He and Washington climbed out onto the end of a pier to determine the exact location of the Bridge. He was so intent on what he was doing that he ignored the whistle of an aproaching ferry. Washington shouted a warning but his father couldn't move fast enough. The boat slammed into the pier, John's injury became badly infected and he died of lock jaw, a month later.

John's sudden death was a shock to everyone. Now Washington and his father's dream was in danger, and he was the only one who could keep it alive. Although he was young and inexperienced, he decided he had to carry on the work his father had started. He accepted the job of Chief Engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge. Washington began immediately. He had to build foundations under the water to support the bridge towers. If he built them on the muddy river bottom, they could slip, and the bridge would be unstable. He had to build them on a solid surface. He had to dig down through the mud to reach bedrock. To do this he used enormous caissons. The caissons sat on the river bottom and protected the workers inside as they dug. In 1871, the Brooklyn caisson reached solid bedrock at 44 ½ feet below the river, and the caisson was filled with concrete. The first foundation was finished. On the New York side of the river, the caisson...

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To walk Brooklyn Bridge Park in Dumbo is to witness the city both past and present, as freshly landscaped lawns frame views to the Statue of Liberty and the titular bridge, while new retail and condos lodged in 19th-century architecture overlook the riverside park. Within this recently redeveloped edge of Brooklyn is St. Ann’s Warehouse, located in the 1860 Tobacco Warehouse. The performing art institution’s new app called “HEAR THEIR THERE HERE” (“HTTH”) is now available for iOS and Android, and invites visitors to listen to responses to the park, in the places where they were recorded. Tourists, locals ranting about Shake Shack, park designers, people who come to meditate, people who come to tan in the sun, all have their stories in this soundwalk navigated entirely by chance.

Like the park itself, which is a reimagining of the industrial waterfront, the audio project is a creative way for St. Ann’s Warehouse to engage with the complex environment as a central art presence. “St. Ann’s has moved from this cool speakeasy vibe where you were going to see Lou Reed and the Wooster Group down an alley, to this new crazy public space,” Geoff Sobelle, creator of “HTTH,” told Hyperallergic. “15 years ago, when I started going to St. Ann’s, Dumbo was a different thing. Now St. Ann’s is the art institution in the center of this very public thoroughfare. I was thinking about when I go to London and see the Tate Modern and I think, wow, there’s this beacon of art, and they have a radiant effect on that area. St. Ann’s could do the same, they’re every bit as cool.”

Sobelle, who collaborated on the project with app designer Jesse Garrison and sound designer Gareth Fry, is a theater artist. Although his work is frequently unconventional, the sonic experience is a new direction for him as well. He is often very present in his pieces, whether The Object Lesson, a one-man show staged amid a hoarder’s dream of cardboard boxes, or the upcoming HOME at BAM, where he will lead dancers and designers in building a house onstage. “In the beginning, it was meant to be just my voice and I was going to talk to you and guide you along on this journey,” Sobelle said. “When I got into this, I started talking to people, and there are a lot of New Yorkers with a lot to say, not only about New York, but about this space. I talked to many people in this journey, and one has this beautiful thing they say, which is ‘this park, like every park in New York City, is about contested space.’”

So instead of Sobelle’s voice, users hear geolocated samples from hundreds of people he interviewed over three months this spring and summer. All he asked these strangers (and some local figures, like Jane Walentas of Jane’s Carousel) was to begin at a moment of observation. Some stick to that, musing on who would buy these pricy condos bordering the park, or the meaning of the Statue of Liberty in an era of Trump’s travel bans. Others veer off into rambles on horse racing, a gum in Italy named “Brooklyn,” having Adam Yauch as a babysitter, or even reading a poem they’re working on. Encountering these narratives is dependent on where you walk, and their locations span the length of Brooklyn Bridge Park, from Pier 6 to the Manhattan Bridge. “The listener never experiences more than a couple of minutes at a time, but the whole point is that these slivers bump up against each other in an interesting way,” Sobelle explained.

On this recent Labor Day, I opened the “HTTH” app at the northern tip of the park, was suddenly catching comments on the rock climbing wall and the cacophony of standing under the Manhattan Bridge. “I guess people come here to get away from the city, but still be in it,” one woman murmured in my ear. As I approached a panoramic view of the Brooklyn Bridge, I heard a man crack that “It’s gotta be intense to be a bridge next to the Brooklyn Bridge. Are you singing back up in that band?” Others remarked on the number of photographs that must be taken here each day, or spoke authoritatively on its history (the app has a caveat that it “reflects the musings and opinions of everyday people, not factual accuracy”).

As I crossed beneath the Brooklyn Bridge and wandered into the denser greenery where ponds reflect the sun and trees shade paths, I caught speakers discussing the impact of global warming on cherry trees, and the surprising diversity of birds that visit the park. Being in this place, one person noted, “allows you to stop and listen, to look, to encounter, to rediscover the city you think you know so well.”

The sound design is immersive, so it’s hard to differentiate environmental noise from the app; I had to take off my headphones to tell if a train was currently rumbling overhead or if the noise was some audio from the past, and found myself looking over my shoulder for the physical presence of phantoms. Not all the experiences synced up so neatly (Sobelle said that the geolocation is only accurate to around a 10-foot radius), yet when they did, there was a sensation of time travel to the moment of recording. The sole visual in the app while it’s in use is a constellation-like artwork by Victoria Burge, and just by offhand comments on the weather or political events can you guess when a voice was captured.

“When they’re trying to be interesting, they’re less interesting, and when they’re just being themselves, it’s very revealing,” Sobelle stated. “You get some people with really deep thoughts, and you also get some people who are hilariously themselves, and you get some heartbreaking things, there are some people who are pretty disenfranchised and lost. I think what’s cool is it’s both about people as much as place”

When I saw Sobelle’s The Object Lesson at New York Theatre Workshop this February, I particularly enjoyed exploring the chaos of the set. Towers of cardboard and cast-off objects were everywhere, and the audience was allowed to open any of the boxes. Some had instructions to hand off a box to a stranger, creating unexpected interactions, others contained playful assemblies of objects, like one marked “balloons” that had an inflated balloon and a model hot air balloon. Similarly, there is a lot of serendipity and celebration of the everyday in the soundwalk. “I just really love that kind of work, it’s something really intimate, and it also feels expansive, because it gives the ability for an individual person to mine their own experience, which I think is a really phenomenal engine for art,” Sobelle said.

Somewhere between a documentary and a game of chance, “HTTH” is ultimately about creating a personal experience with a place using sound. And it’s a sonic journey that can never happen the same way twice. “There’s a very strange sense of presence,” Sobelle said. “You’re both in the here and now, but you’re hearing people’s presence from some time ago, and sometimes it feels 100% applicable, and sometimes it feels very wrong because you’re in a different temperature and moment.”

“HEAR THEIR THERE HERE” is available to download for iOS and Android.

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