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Spinning Wire and Spanning Worlds: Building the Brooklyn Bridge

Sometimes great achievements arise from petty annoyances. Writer Peter J. Tomasi and artist Sara DuVall begin their fast-paced and deeply moving graphic novel, The Bridge (Abrams ComicArts), in 1852, on a ferryboat in the partially frozen East River. One of the passengers, John A. Roebling, is irritated because the vessel hasn’t moved in exactly “three hours, twenty-eight minutes, and sixteen seconds,” as he puts it in a note to the vessel’s captain, who has been using the immobility to catch a very long nap. When Roebling, a civil engineer, receives the captain’s reply — “Stick a piece of river ice in your ear and cool off” — he and his young son, Washington, cobble together some scrap metal in the ferry’s hold to fashion a crude icebreaker. As the passengers cheer, Washington comments that all of the other ferries are still stranded. His father, a German immigrant and a ramrod of rectitude, gazes into the chill distance and says, “It will no longer suit the spirit of the present age to pronounce an undertaking impracticable, Washington. Remember that.”

They had been stranded on the ferry because there was as yet no other way to get across the East River — the vast reach seeming, more than a century and a half ago, literally unbridgeable. Author Tomasi grew up in Washington Heights, near enough to the George Washington Bridge that its revolving beacon cast “a soothing nightlight that put me to sleep each and every evening.” This proximity fostered a fascination with the bridges that connected Manhattan with the rest of the world; as a teenager, Tomasi walked across them all, and researched “who, what, where, when, and why these beautiful works came into being.” He and DuVall convey the “how” as well, employing lively dialogue and dynamic illustrations to engagingly explain the basics of industrial processes, including spinning wire from iron plates (use a very hot furnace), the proper way to sink a massive caisson — a hollow box made of wood and iron — into the riverbed (build granite towers atop it), and even how the sewage created by workers pulling long shifts in a caisson is removed (use compressed air to shoot it up a pipe and into the river).

Washington Roebling learns his trade.

The “who” in this true story of the conception, design, and construction of the Brooklyn Bridge includes the senior Roebling, an expert in manufacturing wire rope that he used to build early, relatively short suspension bridges; young Washington and his wife, Emily; and a supporting cast of historical figures — Civil War generals, mayors of Brooklyn and New York, governors, presidents, and, ultimately, the Italian stonecutters, Irish sandhogs, and other workers killed during the fourteen-year project, too many of whose names have been lost to history.

The story follows the teenage Washington, known to the family as Wash, as he is one night unceremoniously rousted from sleep by his father, who loads him into a carriage. As the horses clip-clop away from their comfortable family home in Trenton, New Jersey, the elder Roebling explains to his puzzled son, “Unfortunately, none of us can foresee what will bring us to our knees. Your contentment must be shattered if you are to flourish in good times and bad, boy.” He drops Wash off at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in upstate New York, where the bewildered youth spends the next four years studying geometry, mineralogy, civil mechanics, structural engineering, and other grueling courses.

Washington Roebling keeps an eye on his dream.

When he returns home, Wash takes his place as an assistant manager at the family firm, the John A. Roebling’s Sons Company. But he soon tires of his father’s humorless diligence and bolts, joining the Union forces in the Civil War. After serving with distinction and bravery — he spotted Rebels advancing on Gettysburg from an observation balloon, and later built rope bridges under heavy fire — Washington returns to civilian life, goes back to working at the mill, and marries the charming and steadfast Emily, sister of one of his fellow officers. During this time the elder Roebling makes a proposal to the cities of Brooklyn and New York to design and build an East River Bridge, while Wash is more than a little dissatisfied that his father has not promoted him to full manager. DuVall’s artwork is as precise and forceful as the characters she portrays: The young veteran’s barely contained anger is conveyed by two spare lines at the brow and a couple of squiggles to indicate a throbbing vein at the temple.

In 1869, Roebling senior dies after a freak accident (ironically, when a Brooklyn ferry hit the dock he was standing on and crushed his foot; he died several weeks later of tetanus). Prepared by his father’s stern protocols as well as by his own service in the war, Washington takes on the unprecedented engineering project. The bridge’s financial trustees are wary of hiring someone in his early thirties to oversee a gargantuan enterprise that includes two 90,000-ton towers and 14,000 miles of steel wire in the suspension system, but Washington persuades them by pointing to the plans that he and his father had drawn up, stating, “The only person who knows this bridge better than I do is dead.” He gets the job, but the next fourteen years take a heavy toll on him, his wife, his crew of assistants, and the small army of workers who toil in otherworldly conditions far beneath the surface of the East River.

Red lead and granite: Building the towers.

In a recurring gag, Tomasi captures the fatalistic humor of men in dangerous jobs (with a nod to the movie Airplane). As they climb into one of the sunken, pressurized caissons, an assistant named Farrington remarks, “Guess this is a bad time to let you know I’m claustrophobic.” On the next page, as the lights go temporarily dim, Farrington adds, “Guess this is a bad time to let you know I’m afraid of the dark.” Then, as they hear the water rushing past on the other side of the caisson walls, he informs the assembled crew, “Guess this is a bad time to let you know I can’t swim.” Some eighty pages later, when he is selected to be the first to traverse the bridge’s preliminary wire span, he stays true to character: “Guess this is a bad time to let you know I’m afraid of heights.”

But Farrington and the other men involved in the construction show Roebling the loyalty soldiers give to respected officers, calling him “Colonel” in reference to his Civil War rank. Roebling in turn offers good wages and — when men start suffering from nose bleeds, vomiting, fever, and fainting — orders that a doctor be present on site every day. The sickness turns out to be a form of the bends brought on by the high atmospheric pressures inside the sunken caissons. The doctor, struggling to make the caisson crews understand the grave importance of depressurizing in an airlock when they finish their shifts, tires of flip remarks from the skeptical laborers and shakes a soda bottle hard, saying, “The seltzer in this bottle is your blood. If you do not stay in the airlock a few minutes after leaving the caisson, then — ” He lets the fizzy seltzer spray over the audience. “Class dismissed.”

A new age dawns: Surprised by a woman in the workplace.

In one scene, the caisson crew discovers the bones of Redcoats while digging toward bedrock. “The British are coming! The British are coming!” one jokes. Another answers, “Not anymore, they ain’t,” while a third grumbles, “Feed their stinky Limey bones to the dogs, who cares?” The workers’ reactions make real the idea that the history of the Revolutionary War was still raw, as of course are their memories of the just-ended Civil War. A couple of the workers who served on different sides nearly come to blows.

When a caisson that is not yet fully weighted lifts with the tide, the pressurized air holding the water at bay, DuVall depicts the startled workers pointing at fish on the other side as if they had suddenly found themselves at an aquarium. After the wooden box slams back down, some of the workers decide that their nerves can no longer handle the hazardous labor. As they leave, Washington assures them, “Keep your heads up. There’s no shame here.”

Emily Roebling, hands-on manager.

But eventually Washington himself begins to show the effects of working literally under high pressure. When he is no longer able to tolerate loud noises or perform extended physical labor, he resorts to surveying the project’s progress through a telescope from his Brooklyn Heights residence, relaying instructions to the work crews in notes delivered by Emily. Although not formally trained as an engineer, she is nearly as steeped in the family business as her husband, and becomes the de-facto on-site manager.

As the years pass, the towers rise and the caissons sink, and Washington’s company bids on the next phase of the project, stringing the massive steel cables. But they are undercut by another wire manufacturer, one with financial ties to a bridge trustee. Corners are purposely cut to skim more profit, and when the subpar materials are discovered it’s too late to remove the faulty steel from the suspension system. The bridge, however, was designed to be six times stronger than its maximum load, and the inferior materials (which remain part of the structure to this day) still left a safety factor of five. When Washington exposes the crooked trustee, the man huffs out of the meeting, sneering, “You will be hearing from my attorney.” The experienced engineer replies, “I doubt it.”

In scene after scene, Tomasi and DuVall limn human intimacies, giving the familiar history of their tale a lively and surprisingly touching resonance that goes beyond the sweeping visual appeal of the neo-gothic support towers and elegant webwork of the cables. The Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883, after fourteen years of construction and at a cost of $15 million (approximately $350 million today). Both figures were roughly twice their original estimates, and between twenty and thirty men died working on the bridge. (By contrast, the new Kosciuszko Bridge, between Brooklyn and Queens, which is a bit longer, cost $555 million and no workers died during construction.) In 1884, some people still doubted whether the one-mile-long Brooklyn Bridge — which includes a main suspension span of 1,595 feet, the world-record holder for twenty years — could truly be safe. Ever on the lookout for a galvanizing publicity stunt, P.T. Barnum marched twenty-one elephants from Manhattan to circus grounds in Brooklyn, thus putting New Yorkers at ease.

Such is the Brooklyn Bridge’s romantic gravitational pull that when future East Village counterculture icon Tuli Kupferberg attempted suicide from the Manhattan Bridge, in 1945, he found himself reimagined ten years later in Allen Ginsberg’s Howl as the man “who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and walked away unknown and forgotten into the ghostly daze of Chinatown soup alleyways & fire trucks, not even one free beer.…”

The 1883 celebration for the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge. So many fireworks were used that the glow could be seen as far away as inland New Jersey.

Author Tomasi ends the book’s preface with a quote from Montgomery Schuyler, an essayist and architecture critic, who showed astonishing prescience in a May 1883 issue of Harper’s Weekly when he wrote, “It so happens that the work which is likely to be our most durable monument, and to convey some knowledge of us to the most remote posterity, is a work of bare utility; not a shrine, not a fortress, not a palace, but a bridge.”

It seems, 135 years later, that Schuyler was on the money — after all, nothing’s been sold more times than the Brooklyn Bridge. But it’s still here, free as the breeze.

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Best Thing to Happen to New York City This Year

On the breezy morning of July 22, 2014, there was something a little odd about the American flags that fly from the twin towers of the Brooklyn Bridge: They were gone, replaced with bleached-out white ones. The incident whipped police and politicians into a frenzy. Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams went so far as to call it a “terrorist act,” offering a $5,000 reward out of his own pocket for information leading to the capture of the flag-swappers. Which made it all the better when two German artists, Mischa Leinkauf and Matthias Wermke, revealed three weeks later that they were behind the stunt, which they told the New York Times they’d intended as a salute to “the beauty of public space” and the memory of the bridge’s designer, engineer John Roebling, a German émigré who died on July 22, 1869. (They pair returned the American flags soon after, properly folded.) The cops still seem steamed, vowing to work with Interpol to bring the two men back to New York to face criminal charges, but seen in a different light, the entire incident is delightful. Who among us doesn’t enjoy a steaming froth of righteous indignation every now and then? More to the point, it proved New York can still be a wild place, susceptible to daring stunts and true mystery. Not only has it been the best thing to happen here this year — it just may be the best game of Capture the Flag, ever.

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PADDLE TO PARADISE

Aloha, and welcome to the Hawaiian Airlines Liberty Challenge, one of New York’s most offbeat sporting events. The outrigger canoe, descended from a Polynesian seafaring tradition, has evolved from transportation into a racing and endurance activity. The canoes are around five feet long and designed for speed, distance, and surfing (in this venue, tides and currents). Priding themselves on “bravery, teamwork, and respect for Polynesian traditions,” the paddlers liken the experience of circumnavigating the island to putting high performance racing cars in the streets of Manhattan. The course begins at Pier 26 and wraps around Battery Park to the Brooklyn Bridge and back to Governors Island. There are several great vantage points for spectators. Pier 26 is hopping all day with the women’s race first, followed by the men’s, and then the co-ed. There is a Hawaiian festival for land-loving spectators all day, including a family tent and an authentic luau in the evening.

Sat., June 21, 7:30, 11 a.m. & 2:30 p.m., 2014

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Juliana’s Life of Pie

Patsy Grimaldi has no interest in the theater of pizza making, the stunts that draw in the crowds. Stroll down Old Fulton Street, by the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, and you won’t catch the cooks of his newly opened pizzeria, Juliana’s, throwing the dough toward the ceiling, turning it on their fists in the air, or stretching it into shape. “I don’t like to see my guys abuse the dough,” Grimaldi says on the phone. His cooks work quietly by the oven in the back, coaxing out flat disks on the counter with soft pressure from their fingers. “They got to be gentle,” he says. “They got to get it even all the way around.”

At 81, Grimaldi is tall with combed silver hair and a tanned, deeply wrinkled face. He moves with a younger man’s energy, weaving around tables, wearing black sneakers and a leather bomber, stepping to the tune of “Mack the Knife.” Grimaldi came up in the 1940s, making pizza beside his uncle Patsy Lancieri, who had been trained at the original Lombardi’s, New York City’s first Neapolitan pie shop. He still believes in putting the sauce on last, after the cheese has been set down, an old-timer move. “That way the mozzarell don’t dry out or burn,” he says, leaving off the last syllable. The tomato sauce protects the cheese like sunblock. It is sweet, pale, and creamy, even after a blast in the 800-degree oven. Grimaldi’s wife of 42 years, Carol, comes in six days a week, sometimes making the fresh mozzarella herself.

To those who make a living baking, an oven is more than a big, hot box. It’s a complex tool with personality and infuriating quirks that eats coal, in this case, and breathes out merciless heat. Learning to make consistently beautiful pies is about harnessing an oven’s power. “It can take a long time,” says Grimaldi, and he knows. He managed this oven when he opened a parlor in this exact spot back in 1990, but later sold the Grimaldi name to Frank Ciolli. Ciolli expanded the Grimaldi’s single parlor into a national chain and still runs a Grimaldi’s location on the block (he shuffled it over to the corner space in 2011). Although Ciolli filed a suit to prevent Patsy Grimaldi from reopening here, the court ruled in Patsy’s favor. Juliana’s is an unlikely, mid-retirement comeback to the New York pizza scene.

The pies are milky white on top, the cheese in thick, Rubenesque proportion, smudged with a clean, bright red sauce and a few wilted basil leaves. The bottoms are brown as if the char were painted on in watercolors, and each bite carries the flavor of the oven without being scarred by it—the crust has a thin shell of crispness, but it’s soft and chewy inside.

All of Juliana’s pies are remarkably straightforward, gently flavored. Even the specials, which sound as if they’d be loaded with toppings, show a bit of restraint. The Number 4 ($21) gets a bare crumble of sweet sausage and a few tiny leaves of broccoli rabe, clinging to some memory of garlic. The whole thing is padded with more of that mozzarella. There are a few salads on the tables at Juliana’s, and maybe here and there an order of fried calamari ($8), but most people have come for the pizza, served hot, raised on metal pedestals.

What’s a parlor without a couple of slouchy teenagers, straws in their soda, looping fingers under the table. And a table of grave men in shining leather jackets, happily carving their slices with forks and knives. As the evening winds down, Grimaldi walks around with an unlit cigar in his hands, and a man with a huge belly pulls a chair over to the jukebox to get the music going again. (Sinatra, obviously. Always Sinatra.)

There are families with young children here, too, and a couple that met up straight from work, now deciding whether to wrap the extra slices for lunch or polish them off. And, of course, there’s a kid twirling strings of melted cheese on her fingers, marveling at the elasticity of hot mozzarella, annoying the hell out of her siblings. Juliana’s delights are simple.

 

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JUST KIDS

Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, long before Whole Foods and chef Daniel Boulud infiltrated the Bowery, the strip that stretches from the East Village to the Brooklyn Bridge was an artist refugee camp. Come Closer: Art Around the Bowery, 1969–1989 pays tribute to the artists that lived and worked in the gritty and neglected area during those years. The exhibition will include original artwork, ephemera, and performance documentation by more than 15 artists, including Keith Haring, Arleen Schloss, John Holmstrom, Eve Sonneman, Billy Sullivan, Martin Wong, and, of course, two of the Ramones (Dee Dee and Joey).

Mondays-Sundays, 10 a.m. Starts: Nov. 6. Continues through Jan. 6, 2012

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Glengarry Glen Ross

The cast of the David Mamet play about salesmanship may not try to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge, but this sterling collection of thesps and hucksters will have audiences clamoring for tickets to the revival of this 1984 drama. Daniel Sullivan’s show features a deal-of-the-decade cast: Al Pacino, Bobby Cannavale, Jeremy Shamos, et al.

Tuesdays, 7 p.m.; Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Starts: Oct. 16. Continues through Jan. 20, 2012

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MOONRISE BROOKLYN

Last year, Bill Murray shocked the audience of the Poets House annual Poetry Walk Across the Brooklyn Bridge by showing up with two black eyes. But it wasn’t so bad: He’d just flown in from the set of Moonrise Kingdom, and the black eyes were a part of the makeup. For this year’s 25th anniversary celebration of Poets House, Murray will be reading once again (looking more presentable, we presume). Enjoy a walk across the bridge with stops along the way for New York–themed readings of works by poetry greats, such as Walt Whitman, Marianne Moore, Langston Hughes, and Hart Crane. Other readers include Marie Howe, Thomas Lux, Sharon Olds, Tracy K. Smith, and Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Galway Kinnell, who always does a rousing rendition of Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” Kinnell is also being honored this year with the Elizabeth Kray Award for his service to the field of poetry.

Mon., June 11, 6:30 p.m., 2012

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Noémie Lafrance Would Like to Push You Around

At Descent—the first piece of Noémie Lafrance’s to get everyone’s attention, in 2002—the audience gathered at the top of the spiral staircase in the Clock Tower Building on Leonard Street and peered down. Two flights below, a woman flung her torso over the banister. A flight below her, another woman, also with hair loose and arms drowning in the empty dark, did the same, as did another below her, and another and another, for 12 flights in a kaleidoscopic delirium of suicide that would have made Busby Berkeley proud.

Lafrance must have recognized her cinematic flair because, after Descent, the Quebecois Brooklynite began distilling her live performances—of dancers dripping in beeswax under the Brooklyn Bridge in Melt or slaloming the slopes of a Gehry roof in Rapture—into mesmerizing celluloid shorts. Meanwhile, though, the live shows that inspired the films lost focus. Her latest performance piece, The White Box Project, takes place in a white box with open sky (a/k/a a courtyard) behind the Black & White Gallery in Williamsburg. Lafrance continues to conceive choreography principally as a matter of framing, but this time, it lacks evocative power. And when she is not angling her real-life settings into surreal fantasies, you cannot help noticing how dull the movement is, how slack the timing, how naïve the anchoring ideas.

The well-advertised premise of The White Box Project is simple: to turn the viewers into the art. In the walled open-air rectangle, 20 dancers executed one simple move after another, and we got out of their way. Roughly speaking—very roughly—we were mirroring them.

Two dancers inched forward on their behinds, legs splayed out before them. Two did crab walks. Mostly they traveled in herds. They rampaged across the courtyard repeatedly. They congregated in the center to step smart and snap their fingers like the cool cats of West Side Story. They followed the leader along the space’s perimeter and shrieked for no apparent reason. They obeyed instructions to stand, sit, turn, and pretend to smoke a cigarette (this last from the group’s designated smart aleck—every underthought performance seems to have one). I noticed they were enjoying themselves.

However rudimentary the dancers’ patterns, ours were simpler still. We had arrived to see a show because that is what Lafrance does. So it didn’t matter that the dancers were dressed like civilians or had been mingling with us moments earlier—as soon as the action began, we knew our place: on the margins. The mob acted; we reacted. When they plowed through the space, we scattered like grain. When they converged on the wall we were leaning against, we shuffled to the center. They did their routine, and we did ours.

In the course of things, I found myself wondering about what didn’t happen: being turned into a work of art. How would that feel? Then—silly me—I remembered it would feel like dancing. Movement can act on a dancer like memory on the narrator of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. When Marcel dips his petite madeleine into his mother’s tea, “a delicious pleasure” overtakes him, “acting the way love acts, by filling me with a precious essence: or rather this essence was not merely inside me, it was me.” When a dancer fully absorbs a dance, the dance returns the favor. It distills her down to its essence. She relinquishes ego for something at once more ephemeral and more necessary. I would have liked to have experienced that. But White Box would have had to contain some choreography.

The White Box Project is typical of participatory shows in its diluting the art for the sake of us. (I’d prefer it ignore us for the sake of being good, but anyway.) White Box does, however, abound in the opposite of dancing: us, again, stumbling out of the way of traffic. Lafrance might have worked this half of the polarity. When Marcel descends into his “delicious pleasure,” he writes, “I had ceased to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal.” A bolder choreographer might have subjected us, the dancers’ negative, to those wretched feelings. The hip, beautiful people could have invited us to join in, then disinvited us, again and again. As art’s refuse, we could have grown miserable—had an experience!

As it is, The White Box Project leaves us benignly to our own devices, where we only grow weary.

 

The White Box Project continues this Saturday, September 24, at 4:30, 5:30, and 6:30 p.m., and on Sunday at 6:30 and 7:30 p.m. with a  free screening of select Lafrance films at 8 p.m. on Saturday

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SHAKE IT

The actual term “belly dance”—which many professional dancers are trying to expunge from descriptions of their art form—is traced to the Victorian era, when someone translated the French danse du ventre. Of course, the real Middle Eastern dance is much older, dating back at least 2,000 years to ancient Arab tribal religions as—you guessed it—a fertility dance. Whatever the sexual implications that come to mind, belly dancing is a great way to exercise, isolating major muscle groups and working them together or in opposition to other parts of the body. At Waterfront Workouts: Belly Dance, the terrific dance teachers of the Dodge YMCA conduct the weekly class in one of our finest new parks under the Brooklyn Bridge. You will have fun, and if it’s your first time, you will be sore the next day in all the right spots. Good for beginners as well as those more experienced in the art of raqs sharqi—the Arabic term for the Eastern dance.

Fri., July 8, 7 p.m., 2011

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The Sky Socialist

Dir. Ken Jacobs (1964-68).
Ken Jacobs’s most elusive and mysterious film—now showing at 140 minutes—is at once an allegory of movie-making, a demonstration of 8mm versatility, and a celebration of a now vanished neighborhood beneath the Brooklyn Bridge.

Sat., May 14, 2:30 p.m., 2011