If you are not a New Yorker, it may be hard to understand the feelings of the people who live here about the Brooklyn Bridge.
You can see all the movies you want with Frank Sinatra dancing on the walkway, you can look at a photograph, but, finally, the bridge is something that must be experienced first hand.
For one thing, the lights that illuminate the network of famous harpstring cables are altogether too delicate to be captured in a picture. And for another, you can only understand the bridge in the context of the town. The town, as you do not have to be a New Yorker to know, is dense and intense. It throws out little assaults daily that even a thick-skinned New Yorker cannot help but absorb.
But up on the Brooklyn Bridge, a structure of great romance and power, you gain perspective. You climb the walkway, you ascend 130 feet above the river. The air becomes cooler and the city is silenced. Looking at the skyline of Manhattan, it becomes a postcard. Its assault is diminished and you see what keeps you there: the city of dreams.
All this may explain why, although the centennial celebration is a good six months away, the city already has begun to go slightly nuts on the subject of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Someone is trying to get backers for a Brooklyn Bridge musical, and Andy Warhol has been commissioned to do a limited edition Brooklyn Bridge poster.
Devotees of the Brooklyn Bridge will be able to buy, momentarily, ties with the official Brooklyn Bridge logo, diamond pins, polo shirts, umbrellas, tie tacks, glasses, buttons, "fine" ceramics, "fine" glassware, "fine" pewter.
You will even -- and the organizers are particularly proud of this -- be able to buy an "actual" piece of the Brooklyn Bridge -- a tiny section of wood from a rotting -- and now replaced -- part of the walkway, or a bit of bridge cable, encased in polyurethane. The cable came on the market after snapping and tragically killing a tourist, some time back, although that is not the emphasis of the sales pitch.
"Ten dollars," Warren B. Coburn of the bridge commission was saying enthusiastically the other day. "Ten dollars and you get the Brooklyn Bridge, immortalized."
It would be nice if one could say the same of the tourist, it was observed. "He was forever immortalized," said Coburn. "The only person to be hurt by the Brooklyn Bridge."
That is not entirely correct.
When the Brooklyn Bridge opened on May 23, 1883, it was the tallest structure in North America. Its 278-foot towers helped make it "the eighth wonder of the world," but its height also made the populace apprehensive.
A week after the grand opening, with 20,000 people on the bridge, someone yelled that the bridge was falling. In the panic, a dozen people were killed.
This did not, however, destroy the popularity of the bridge, which was considered a remarkable achievement. Its lights were the first lights installed on any bridge, and while there were suspension bridges in the country, there had never been anything on this scale.
Constructing the bridge had taken the efforts of three family members: John Roebling, who died of an injury; his son Washington, who, during the lowering of the caissons, developed a case of the bends that partially crippled him, and his wife Emily, who acted as a liaison between her husband and the chief engineer. Emily carried out her husband's directions as he looked on, with a telescope, from an apartment in Brooklyn Heights.
No one understood the bends in those days. If a man became sick while working at a depth of 100 feet, it was thought the thing to do was bring him up quickly for a breath of fresh air. Such a rapid ascent is exactly what brings on the bends.
Construction took 13 years. When the bridge finally opened, there were 14 tons of fireworks, brass bands and the ringing of church bells. President Chester A. Arthur and New York Gov. Grover Cleveland were the first to make the crossing. Emily Roebling drove across in a carriage, carrying in a cage a rooster -- a bird one does not see on parade often these days, but which in those days meant victory, victory at last.
In late May, then, as much as it can, the city will recreate opening day.
Organizers will have military bands in period costume; they will have wagon-loads of celebration; there will be bands marching down Broadway; the mayor will be there; they are hoping for the president.
The paraphernalia that no American celebration can be without will be on sale: the shirts with the Brooklyn Bridge symbol, the sugar spoons topped with the two towers, the little bits of wood or rigging so that you can go home to Cleveland and tell a friend that, as in the old joke, you have bought a piece of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Though -- as any New Yorker will tell you -- to really own that property, you need only climb the walkway, look out at Manhattan, and beat your feet on the Brooklyn Bridge.