Manhattan Bridge 100th Anniversary Special

When was the last time you really looked at the Manhattan Bridge? Or underneath it? The flawed landmark, which turns 100 this Sunday, connects two of the city's most historic and dynamic neighborhoods. By Lisa Ritchie

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It has no song celebrating a groovy stroll across its length, nor has it inspired literary reflections (although it is a popular suicide spot in Steve Martin’s 1984 movie The Lonely Guy). The Manhattan Bridge may lack the lore of the Brooklyn and Queensboro, but viewed from a flattering angle, the sweeping steel suspension bridge is undeniably beautiful. The impressive stone archway on the Manhattan side, modeled on the 17th-century Porte St-Denis in Paris, was designed by New York Public Library architects Carrre and Hastings, while the Brooklyn approach once boasted allegorical statues representing the two boroughs designed by Lincoln Memorial sculptor Daniel Chester French (they now reside in the Brooklyn Museum).

Built to ease congestion on its older sibling to the south, it was “designed to knit the city tighter together through transit and transport links and make it more efficient,” says historian Jeffrey Kroessler, author of New York Year by Year: A Chronology of the Great Metropolis. “The city of New York built the bridge itself, without funds from Albany or Washington, and it was meant to facilitate the expansion of mass transit into Brooklyn.”

Yet over time, it turned out to be less practical than had been hoped: The designer, Leon Moisseiff, didn’t incorporate sufficient support, and placed the subway and streetcar lines on the outer edges of the roadway, putting too much strain on the deck.

“The Queensboro Bridge made Queens; the Williamsburg Bridge was called the 'Jews’ highway’ because it enabled the Jews from the Lower East Side to pour into Williamsburg,” explains Kroessler. “But what is the Manhattan Bridge known for? Being so badly designed that it twisted out of shape due to decades of subway use, and the fact that the outer roadway was closed for years.”

Now, as the bridge enters its centennial year and the final stages of a massive reconstruction project begun in the early ’80s, take some time to admire its graceful span and rediscover the neighborhoods on both sides.

Centennial highlights

Saturday 3


FREE Walking tour with Adrienne Onofri Meet at the southwest corner of Bowery and Canal St. 2--4pm. The author of Walking Brooklyn guides you over the bridge, through Dumbo and Vinegar Hill.

Sunday 4


FREE Centennial ceremonial parade 9--11am. Only VIPs can access the bridge during the festivities, but onlookers can see the FDNY Fireboat multicolor salute on the river, hear the New York Chinese School marching band and, if you arrive early, glimpse the vintage cars.

FREE Fireworks display East River Park Amphitheater, north of Manhattan Bridge. Enter at Cherry and Jackson Sts. 7pm. The pyrotechnics are accompanied by the Manhattan School of Music Brass Quintet.

Monday 5


FREE “Miss Manhattan, Miss Brooklyn and Their Creator, Daniel Chester French” NYU-Poly, 5 MetroTech Ctr, main floor, Downtown Brooklyn. 6:30pm. Artist Brian Tolle (Irish Hunger Memorial) and the Met’s Karen Lemmey discuss the bridge’s original decorations.

October 8


“Art Along the Way: Masstransiscope with Artist Bill Brand” Transit Museum, Boerum Pl at Schermerhorn St, Downtown Brooklyn. 6pm. $5. This two-hour event comprises a talk about and a ride-by viewing of the extraordinary work in the unused Myrtle Avenue subway station, which appears animated when seen from a moving train.

October 10


FREE Transportation Alternatives bike tour Meet at Allen Street Mall, corner of Allen and Grand Sts. 10am. TA’s senior policy adviser, Noah Budnick, reveals the newest bike paths on this 90-minute tour, which crosses the bridge, skirts the Navy Yard and culminates at Brooklyn Bridge Park.

October 11


FREE Manhattan Bridge walk Meet at the southwest corner of Broadway and Canal St . 10am. Photographers and bridge aficionados Bernie Ente and David Frieder lead this two-hour tour, in conjunction with Open House New York.

FREE “Losing the Bridge” Meet at Confucius Plaza, 33 Bowery at Bayard St. Noon. Former commissioner of the NYC Department of Transportation “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz shares his inside knowledge on a 90-minute walk, in conjunction with Open House New York.

For full listings and to register for events, go to nycbridges100.org.

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Chinatown

1909: The elegant Eldridge Street Synagogue (12 Eldridge St between Canal and Division Sts; 212-219-0302, eldridgestreet.org) is now surrounded by dumpling shops and herb stores, but in the early 20th century, you’d find delis and mikvot.“It was the first grand synagogue on the Lower East Side, in contrast to the crowded streets and tenement apartments and the factories in which many immigrants worked,” says Amy Stein Milford, the Museum at Eldridge Street’s deputy director.

As Jews left the area, the 1887 structure fell into disrepair, but a recently completed $20 million face-lift has restored its splendor. Tours of the main sanctuary, with its hand-stenciled walls and resplendent stained-glass rose window, are offered Sunday through Thursday; downstairs, touch-screen displays highlight the synagogue’s architecture, aspects of worship and local history—including other area landmarks, such as the former headquarters of The Jewish Daily Forward (175 East Broadway at Canal St), which is now condos.

Although smaller than it is today, Chinatown, in the early 1900s, was well established, concentrated on Doyers and Pell Streets and Mott Street south of Canal. The Museum of Chinese in America (215 Centre St between Grand and Howard Sts; 212-619-4785, mocanyc.org) has just reopened in a former machine shop redesigned by Maya Lin. In spaces loosely inspired by a traditional Chinese house, the core exhibit traces the development of Chinese communities on these shores from the 1850s to the present through objects, images and video. In the early 20th century, Chinatowns were seen as exotic, even decadent, enclaves; a 1905 newspaper article from The Chinese Western Daily on display warns residents: “No Chinese tour guides are allowed to show Westerners women with bound feet...opium dens and whorehouses.”

2009: Run by four partners, three of them artists, Canada (55 Chrystie St between Canal and Hester Sts, 212-925-4631) set up shop years before the New Museum’s arrival ignited the Bowery gallery boom. Until October 11, you can immerse yourself in seven artists’ contrasting visions in the group show “Spaced Out/On Time.” Browse under the bridge itself in the East Broadway Mall, where small stores sell an eclectic selection of goods, from dried squid shavings and salty-sweet “lovers’ prunes” to medicinal herbs. The Lower East Side boutique phenomenon is drifting south; Elizabeth Beer and Brian Janusiak co-own a pair of his ’n’ hers shops, No. 8b (38 Orchard St at Hester St, 212-925-5599) and Project No. 8 (138 Division St between Ludlow and Orchard Sts), respectively. In addition to stocking wares by elusive international and New York designers, the store has its own label, Various Projects, which offers such forward-looking garb as men’s nanotechnology button-down shirts—choose from built-in body-conditioning aloe or antiodor carbon properties ($180 each). Cheap eats abound on Eldridge Street, including Prosperity Dumpling (46 Eldridge St between Canal and Hester Sts), where a plate of pork or veggie versions costs a couple of bucks. Super Taste Restaurant (26 Eldridge St between Canal and Division Sts, 212-625-1198) serves hand-pulled la mian (a Chinese relative of ramen) at around a five-spot for a bowl. Or go for dim sum at the Golden Bridge Restaurant (50 Canal St between Bayard and Canal Sts, 212-227-8831), which commands a view of the bridge.

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Dumbo

1909: This neighborhood was already a major industrial center before the Manhattan Bridge made it even more convenient to transport goods across the river. All kinds of manufacturers, including Brillo and Benjamin Moore, were based here, leaving behind an impressive collection of factory buildings and warehouses; the most famous of these, the Eskimo Pie Building (100 Bridge St at York St), with its embellished facade, was actually built for the Thomson Meter Company in 1908--9. Stop by the Brooklyn Bridge Park to gaze at the spectacular panorama of a chunk of Manhattan framed by two magnificent spans.

Those who lust after multimillion-dollar loft apartments with river views may be surprised to learn that the waterfront was not always a desirable address. “It was where people who had no choice lived,” says Jeffrey Kroessler. One such neighborhood was Vinegar Hill, between Bridge Street and the Navy Yard, which earned the moniker “Hell’s Half Acre.” Only fragments of the enclave, mainly inhabited by Irish dockworkers in the 1800s, remain (parts of it were designated a historic district in the late 1990s). “It kind of became a red-light district because with sailors and dockworkers, you get rowdy establishments,” says Adrienne Onofri, author of Walking Brooklyn. “There were bars and brothels throughout the 19th century and the early part of the 20th.”

Today it’s considerably quieter. Although inhabited, the isolated strips of early-19th-century row houses and defunct storefronts on Bridge, Hudson and Plymouth Streets, and a stretch of Front, have a ghost-town quality, heightened by their juxtaposition with a Con Edison generating station. On a hidden corner near the Navy Yard is the Federal-style Commandant’s House (Evans St at Little St). Peer through the gate to glimpse the privately owned mansion, which, Onofri quips, “looks like something in the Hamptons.”

2009: Check out local creative talent this Thursday night, when about 25 galleries stay open late—some hosting special events—for the First Thursday Gallery Walk (facebook.com/dumboculture411). You can pick up a map at 111 Front Street (between Adams and Washington Sts), which houses many of these galleries. Stop by Smack Mellon (92 Plymouth St between Main and Washington Sts, 718-834-8761) for live music and a beer tasting from Kelso of Brooklyn; an installation by Ellen Driscoll and photographs by Fernando Souto are on display through November 2. Also serving as a gallery and performance space, The powerHouse Arena (37 Main St at Water St, 718-666-3049) is the cavernous retail arm of powerHouse Books, which produces sumptuous coffee-table tomes on such diverse subjects as rock stars, celebrity dogs and the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Halcyon (57 Pearl St at Water St, 718-260-9299), one of the city’s few surviving DJ-oriented music boutiques, just celebrated a decade in business.

Want to dodge guidebook-toting tourists? Instead of Grimaldi’s, head to Ignazio’s (4 Water St between Dock and Old Fulton Sts, 718-522-2100) for thin-crust and Sicilian pies. Chocolate king Jacques Torres (66 Water St between Dock and Main Sts, 718-875-1269) recently opened an adjacent ice cream parlor, and Vinegar Hill gained its first eatery: Cozy, tavern-like Vinegar Hill House (72 Hudson St between Front and Water Sts, 718-522-1018) won a TONY Eat Out Award this year for its comfort-food menu, which changes weekly.

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