A Soaring Vision Made Real

STARR, ROGER

A Soaring Vision Made Real The Great Bridge By David McCullough Simon & Schuster. 636 pp. $10.95. Reviewed by Roger Starr Executive Director, Citizens' Housing and Planning Council of New York,...

...He has, in addition, so expanded the subject that I am ready to demand further examination of questions he could only point up, lacking the space to probe them in detail: the effect of the bridge on land values, its significance to Brooklyn-Manhattan political tensions, and the importance of a physical monument in achieving the psychic coalescence of a commonwealth...
...The supreme importance of the Brooklyn Bridge to the Greater City of New Yorkan entity that came into existence 15 years after the spanning of the East Riverrówas the vicarious pride that its residents were able to take in its construction...
...I don't think so...
...Or was he accident-prone, dogged the rest of his life by a series of mishaps similar to the one that came so close to dooming the bridge...
...It does appear, however, that Roebling's philosophic convictions about the harmony of nature supported his engineering calculations, enabling him to radiate confidence about a proposal that no one else, unaided, would have dared to put forward...
...Now that technological achievement has begun to lose its glitter, it is not clear to me how an appropriate new symbol of vicarious satisfaction will be found...
...The sound of the human voice became almost intolerable to him, a state of mind one can understand from Mc-Cullough's recounting of the financial and political difficulties and skulduggery that almost aborted the enterprise when it was half done...
...Reviewed by Roger Starr Executive Director, Citizens' Housing and Planning Council of New York, Inc...
...Such romantic speculations are invited by the narrative McCullough has set before us...
...In an industrialized society, where kingship and religion have lost most of their potency, what could be more suitable for this purpose than a mighty engineering work, erected only after the safe traverse of familiar mythic dangers experienced in darkness and uncertainty...
...Indeed, whatever became of the "workman named McDonald" who...
...the risks, the defeats, and the final victory caused pain to some while bringing triumph to all...
...In the beginning, it was sponsored by a profit-making corporation...
...There was nothing more to say on this subject, I thought...
...Or, overcome by remorse, did he turn to the bottle and end his days in a Bowery gutter...
...One of the least profound but most pervasive local bits of evidence I can cite is the growing separatism of the geographical communities of the city today...
...The grafters were displaced from the Board of Directors of the Bridge Company by reformers whose initial accomplishment was to change the name they inherited from Directors to Trustees...
...as the years passed, government became more deeply involved and the element of private profit retired to darker corners...
...Did he live to a ripe old age in rustic comfort...
...The Brooklyn Bridge was one such soaring vision, made real by daring engineering, by simple workmen grubbing away deep under the river, in peril of their lives...
...Luckily, some of the less savory members of the board came to his rescue, and the bridge survived...
...But I was wrong: There was a great deal more, most of which David McCullough has now said...
...We hear his name, we know the consequences of the fire, but McDonald himself disappeared forever into its murky smoke...
...The myriad fascinations excited by the story of the Brooklyn Bridge and its continuing usefulness, 103 years after the work started and 89 years after its completion, suggest that a society of Brooklyn Bridge devotees might well be founded in New York...
...There seems to have been something of a psychic component in the Colonel's illness, at least after the early physical horrors abated...
...Although construction of the bridge was obviously a public work of the utmost importance, American society in 1869 had not yet developed civic institutions capable of carrying out a project of this magnitude...
...author, "The Living End: The City and Its Critics" Having read David Steinman's The Builders of the Bridge (1945) in the unlikeliest of places, the Main Reading Room of the New York Public Library, where I unwisely gulped it down in one sitting, like ice water after tennis, I was astonished to hear of the publication of a new, longer book about the Brooklyn Bridge...
...What an unforgettable gallery they makeranging from John A. Roe-bling, to his daughter-in-law Emily Warren Roebling, to Boss Tweed, to Henry Murphy and Seth Low?rendered far more clearly here than in any previous account...
...As the industrial era gives way to the service age, will citizens be able to feel the same pride in, say, the development of a truly just and effective income maintenance program that New Yorkers derived from the building of the Brooklyn Bridge...
...As if in a romantic opera, the heroic engineer, tended by his equally brave wife, watched the bridge slowly rise into view through a telescope from the window of his house on Columbia Heights...
...It was a communal project carried on by real people with whom everyone in the city could identify...
...In the long run, the trustees caused more trouble than had the grafters...
...Some of the protagonists appear to have felt they could earn as much in graft on the capital outlays as they might have been able to make from tolls on the completed structure...
...It could dedicate itself to investigating and publishing studies of the unknown history of this engineering feat...
...The book manages to make credible the impact of German philosophic thought on the character of John A. Roebling, the engineer who conceived the possibility of a suspension bridge spanning the East River...
...searching for his dinner pail with a candle, set fire to the wooden caisson around the base for the tower at the Brooklyn end of the span while it was 42 feet below the bottom of the East River...
...His removal would have been an almost certain disaster for the bridge and a kind of high water mark for willful ingratitude and self-righteous blindness...
...We might hypothesize that because social life is full of friction and frustrations, people can abide comfortably only when they are able to overlook their immediate discomforts and derive satisfaction from some grander vision...
...Convinced that their public responsibility required the entire undertaking to be beyond suspicion, they tried to relieve Colonel Roebling of his post as chief engineer on the grounds that the public would be suspicious about his confinement to his home...
...For example, what happened to the people and businesses that were displaced by its colossal approaches...
...McCullough does not suggest that the form of the bridge itself was somehow the embodiment of a Hegelian idea...
...The principal players he describes are characterized by the kind of high drama and clear-cut motivation that no modem playwright would dare imagine...
...It is noteworthy, too, that the illness struck just as the Colonel was making the most crucial engineering decision that faced him: whether to allow the New York tower to rest on a base of sand rather than continue the excavation down to bedrock...
...If New York had not been unified during the era of the Great Bridge, I doubt it would ever have been put together...
...Roebling died of tetanus before construction actually began and his son...
...McCullough retells with new insight and new detail the familiar story of the Colonel's disability, caused largely by excessive exposure to high air pressures in the caisson for the tower on the New York side...
...Colonel Washington Roebling, took charge of the project...
...What were the subsequent achievements of the men who built it...
...McCullough does not pause to draw a moral, but most likely we could find other worthwhile enterprises in municipal history that owe their success to the efforts of the corrupt, and some of potentially great benefit that were killed by the moral rectitude of those who wished to remain above suspicion...

Vol. 55 • December 1972 • No. 24


 
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