Crossing to Brooklyn: How the Williamsburg Bridge Changed New York City

PODCAST The story of the Williamsburg Bridge — poorly received when it was built but vital to the health of New York City

Sure, the Brooklyn Bridge gets all the praise, but the city’s second bridge of the East River has an exceptional story of its own.

In this episode, we’ll answer some interesting questions, including:

— Why is the bridge named for a 19th century industrial neighborhood in Brooklyn and why is it not, for instance, called the Manhattan Bridge (a name not in use yet in 1903) or the East River Bridge (which was its original name)?

— Why did everybody think the bridge looked so unusually ugly and how did the city belatedly try and solve the problem?

— Why did one population in the Lower East Side find the bridge more important than others?

— And why was the bridge is such terrible shape in the 20th century? Did it really almost collapse into the river?

PLUS: How the fate of the two neighborhoods linked by the Williamsburg Bridge would change radically in the 115 years since the bridge was opened

LISTEN HERE:

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A map of the City of Williamsburgh and Town of Bushwick including Green Point, 1852

NYPL

 

In 1902, the bridge was finally near completion, but many were worried about the bridge’s functional plainness.

Library of Congress/Cleaned up image courtesy Shorpy

 

New York Public Library

A 1903 fire on the bridge created a scary scene over the East River, but the cables and wires proved durable.

 

From the Brooklyn Daily Eagle souvenir section celebrating the opening of the bridge:

 

Bertrand Brown/MCNY

An illustration from the 1915 book New York: The Wonder City

Flickr commons

Seen from South Eighth and Berry Streets in Brooklyn, 1935.

Berenice Abbott/NYPL

The old spelling of the name continually popped up in various places as late as the early 20th century. This passenger tickets dates to between 1903 and 1915.

MCNY

Williamsburg Bridge Plaza — and the handsome equestrian statue of George Washington — festooned with banners at the start of World War I.

MCNY

The approach to the Williamsburg Bridge from the Manhattan side. Delancey Street had to be widened to accommodate the influx of transportation options flooding onto the bridge.

 

The bridge is central to the growth of New York’s immigrant (and particularly Jewish) communities. While its construction did displace thousands of people, the bridge would actually facilitate better living conditions for Lower East Side immigrant groups by encouraging migration to less populated Brooklyn neighborhoods.  The New York Herald even called it the “Jews Highway” as those of Eastern European and Russian Jewish heritage transplanted to Williamsburg.

The ritual of tashlikh  תשליך‎ has often been performed on the bridge.

Library of Congress

From the film The Naked City

FURTHER LISTENING

These past episodes were mentioned in this week’s podcast. After finishing the Williamsburg Bridge show, go back and give these a listen: