100 Years of the Queensboro Bridge
Your guide to the best of both sides: LIC art spaces, East Side shops, and Centennial events and exhibits.
Thu May 28 2009
Bridging past and present
New York City has many bridges, yet the Brooklyn and Verrazano-Narrows seem to get all the love. The hardworking Queensboro Bridge, however, holds a spot in many New Yorkers’ hearts. Awarded national landmark status in 1973, it has played a vital role in the development of the metropolis.
Completed in March 1909, what was then the longest cantilevered bridge in the world welcomed traffic, but the official, week-long opening celebrations were held in June, including fireworks, a street fair and the crowning of the Queen of the Queensboro Bridge—a 19-year-old Italian girl from Long Island City. “More than any single factor, the opening of the Queensboro Bridge transformed Queens from a suburban, rural, sparsely populated borough,” says historian Jeffrey Kroessler, author of New York Year by Year: A Chronology of the Great Metropolis. “There were only 153,000 people there in 1900. Within 20 years of the opening of the bridge there were over a million.”
Originally accommodating rail tracks on its upper deck and a tram line on the lower level, the structure is supported by four 350-foot towers (two of which rest on Roosevelt Island), topped with decorative spires. It is sometimes referred to as the working man’s bridge, and there’s an almost utilitarian integration into its environment: A supermarket, parking lot, even a small ballfield—the Queensboro Oval—nestle under its capacious vaults. Then there is the ceaseless traffic—more than 190,000 cars cross it daily. “The bridge wasn’t really designed for automobiles because it was built from 1901 to 1909, and the private automobile was just coming on line at that point,” says Kroessler. “It was designed in the horse-and-buggy era, to carry elevated railroad lines, mass transit and pedestrians.” (The bridge has undergone extensive alteration in its lifetime, and repairs continue.)
Of course, there is still a pedestrian walkway on the north side of the lower deck, and no other bridge offers such an impressive panorama of the Manhattan skyline—evoking the city’s intangible energy and sense of possibility. As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby: “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time in its wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.” Queens-bred Paul Simon also eulogized the structure in 1966 with “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy),” inspired by an early-morning crossing.
As the bridge celebrates its centennial, rediscover it with a stroll across its 7,449-foot length. Far from its roots as a rural-industrial backwater, Long Island City is a growing cultural hub, and there are some great shops radiating from 59th Street on the Manhattan side. Although the spot by the bridge where Woody Allen and Diane Keaton watch dawn break in the 1979 film Manhattan has changed over time, there’s a tiny public stretch of Riverview Terrace wedged between Sutton Square’s posh townhouses. Take a seat and admire the Queensboro’s majestic sweep.
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