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In New York, a Span of Lesser Origin Is Finally Getting Its Due

Williamsburg Bridge lacks the Brooklyn's cachet, but a party will mark its centennial.

June 22, 2003|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — When the Brooklyn Bridge was approaching its 100th birthday in 1983, a committee of dignitaries spent years planning the celebration, then threw a party to remember, with fireworks seen for miles.

That bridge remains such a beloved landmark that even its 120th birthday last month became an occasion for festivities, capped by a laser light show. "It's the bridge to the world," Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz said.

Today's birthday party for one of the Brooklyn Bridge's neighbors up the East River, the Williamsburg Bridge, aka "The Willy B," has more humble origins.

"I live under the Williamsburg Bridge, and the bridge has been under reconstruction for a long time. It's been very noisy and dirty and me and all my neighbors have been complaining," said Kay Turner, the director of folk arts for the Brooklyn Arts Council. "And one day I said, 'You've got to stop cursing the bridge and start celebrating it.' "

Turner believes the fateful day was April 19, 2001, when she headed from her apartment past one of the repair projects on the bridge -- before repairs began it had fallen into such sorry, rusting condition that there was talk in 1988 of tearing it down.

"I was walking on my way to work, and this worker backed a forklift up on the overpass and he jiggled this big bucket of muddy stuff and just a little splotch flew down on me and this Dominican woman, and she said, 'Horrible!' " Turner recalled.

"That was the moment, after the mud spill. I decided we needed to celebrate the Willy B," she said, "because the Willy B is one of our wonderfully unsung bridges."

Actually, Turner did research first, as a good Ph.D. would, and discovered that the bridge that connects Manhattan's Lower East Side with Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood was approaching the same landmark birthday, a centennial, that prompted the elaborate ceremonies at the Brooklyn Bridge.

But even at New York's Department of Transportation, "no one was aware of it," Turner said, noting that "you know, they work on 800 bridges here in the city and it's hard to keep track of who is having a birthday."

Or if anyone had realized the Williamsburg Bridge was nearing 100, nobody had thought the occasion worth a public party. But Turner did, and so did her colleagues at the arts council. While the Brooklyn Bridge might belong to the world, "the Willy B. belongs to New Yorkers," she said. "It's the workingman's bridge, the immigrants' bridge."

Why not "celebrate a bridge that could stand for all the working bridges?" she asked.

So today they will, with a huge cake on the back of a flatbed truck and a procession from the Manhattan side to the Brooklyn side led by New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and descendants of at least one of the architects who created the bridge between 1896 and Dec. 19, 1903, when it opened to traffic, which then was horse-drawn carriages, bicycles and pedestrians.

OK, so the party is not exactly on the real birthday.

"Since you can't do too much here in December, we're doing it in June," said Ella Weiss, the president of the arts council.

She also told why the group decided not to include the "big splashy fireworks or big-name stars" that often are hallmarks of these events.

"The Williamsburg Bridge, I believe, has always played second fiddle ... I think it would have been inappropriate for the bridge," Weiss said. "Times are different. The economics are different, and the Williamsburg Bridge is a different kind of icon."

Although it won't get fireworks, it will be honored with oral histories, a stickball clinic and a seminar for children by the American Society of Civil Engineers on how you build a bridge, in this case a very large one.

With its 1,600-foot main span, the Williamsburg Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world when it opened, besting the Brooklyn Bridge by 4 1/2 feet. Inspired by the work of French architect Alex Gustave Eiffel, it featured 35-story steel towers that resemble, at least somewhat, the base of Eiffel's tower in Paris. The bridge was designed by Leffert L. Buck and Henry Hornbostel.

But it was doomed to suffer in comparison with the Brooklyn Bridge, which as the southernmost of the four major spans over the East River was the first seen by boaters approaching Lower Manhattan, its neo-Gothic stone towers evoking images of the sailing vessels that once made the waters the equivalent of today's highways. The socioeconomics were weighted toward the Brooklyn Bridge, as well, as it connected a more elite area of Brooklyn with the Wall Street financial district.

Built largely to relieve traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge provided a route that enabled many less-affluent Jewish immigrants to resettle from the Lower East Side to Brooklyn, whose Williamsburg neighborhood remains a center of the Hasidic community. Later, other immigrant groups, including Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, began settling in its densely packed apartment buildings.

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