Bridges over troubled water
Those who claim to know about such things often tell me that the Brooklyn Bridge is a cut above its Manhattan counterpart. I don't get it. I like both constructions, as it happens, but cannot see what it is about the Brooklyn span that makes it so obviously superior.
Both were mighty labours in the making, without which both Brooklyn and Queens could not have developed into the jam-packed suburbs they are today.
For years, Brooklyn (part of King's County) was a separate town, then a separate city. Neighbouring Queen's County was less well-defined, but equally in need of incorporation. Today, the two bridges that established the links are iconic images of New York, symbolising the better aspect of the robber barons and their pork barrel friends that forged the modern city.
From my bedroom window, I can see a more recent example of bridgebuilding on the grand scale: the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, linking south Brooklyn to Staten Island, with a spur on to New Jersey. The Narrows bridge is elegant, lacking the massivity of its nineteenth century forebears, and is now, I should think, the first sight of New York that greets passengers on the Queen Mary 2, even before the Statue of Liberty.
Further north, the next great bridge is that named after Teddy (not Franklin) Roosevelt, joining midtown Manhattan to Queen's by way of Roosevelt Island, a peculiar community, known only to its inhabitants, reached by cable car and a single Subway stop.
I have never been to Roosevelt Island and see no reason to go. Perhaps I am foolish in this. Perhaps there is a fantastic community of artists and writers and public intellectuals, island-based but far from insular, who like to listen to good music and drink too much while debating the political situation and the future of the world. But I doubt it.
My all-time favourite bridge (ignoring the traffic-clogged George Washington Bridge that brings commuters in from Jersey and the curious Triborough and Whitestone bridges linking Long Island to Connecticut via a sequence of interstate highways and tunnels) is the massive Tappan Zee Bridge, spanning the Hudson north of New York, on the approach to Sleepy Hollow. This is a bridge to set the pulses racing. I don't know how long it is, but the Hudson at this point is more like an inland sea, plied by ocean-going ships, one of which, more than 50 years ago, brought the writer Frank McCourt back to America after his 'exile' in Limerick.
The Hudson, ought to be better known than it is. It is a serious river, beside which the Lagan is a mere stream. To American Indians down the centuries before the white man came, it helped form national boundaries, but was also a vital highway and food resource.
For most of the 20th century, it was a sewer, or more accurately, a chemical soup. Factories, farmers and passing ships discharged whatever they liked into its waters, killing the fish and other wildlife and giving the surface a evil-smelling sheen. In recent years, however, it has been cleaned up, so that big fish, and tourists, have returned. Inevitably, as the Greenpeace Effect has worked its magic, so capitalist greed has followed in its wake, and rich weekenders, mainly from New York, are doing their best to fence in the riverbank and keep ordinary people from enjoying one of their city's great natural resources.
I hope they fail. Down at the mouth of the Hudson, close to my own Brooklyn Heights, the biggest projected change is in the status of Governor's Island, a 100-acre or so compound that has for years been the home of the US military in New York City. The island has some of the oldest and most graceful homes in America, having more in common with the Old South than the thrusting Northeast. But it is also covered with barracks and parade grounds, not to mention an aircraft landing strip. What will happen to it now that the military no longer has much of a use for it is anybody's guess, but don't expect affordable homes to be high on the agenda. From the Promenade, a broad walkway overlooking the estuary (and, incidentally, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway), I can stand and look across to Wall Street. Six years ago, the Promenade was where thousands of Brooklynites gathered to watch the destruction by terrorists of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre. One day, they hope to see the emergence of the Freedom Tower, stretching 1776 feet into the sky overlooking Wall Street. But they're not holding their breath.
And that only leaves Ellis Island, from which this column used to take its name. For a beacon of hope, it is a pretty dark and forbidding place – but not as grim as the present government of the country to which it once granted access. Next week we will take leave of the Hudson and examine the state of the nation as seen from the Potomac. Another sewer, I fear.