Selling the Brooklyn Bridge

By the time these words see print, the magazines featuring the Brooklyn Bridge on the cover will have disappeared from the newsstands, and those May 25 newspapers with column after column of Centennial Day celebration will have been efficiently recycled.

Perhaps here and there, down a mid-Manhattan alley, a scrap of old newspaper still blows with a fragment of description of the two-and-a-half hour parade. Or maybe a torn report on the sound-and-light show wraps itself around a hydrant in Brooklyn, with a few words ripped from the speech by New York Mayor Ed Koch, comparing the Brooklyn Bridge to a cathedral.

But mostly the whoop-de-do of May 24 has disappeared without a trace, like the sound of all those tugboats tooting in the East River.

For one day this ''Eighth Wonder of the World'' seemed to be the only topic on everybody's mind - so central that nobody could think of anything else for years to come. Historians declared the Brooklyn Bridge to be the ''most perfect symbol of America'' ever. Moralists deplored that it showed us, in 1983, how ''the standards of craft have eroded'' - or was it character?

For one day almost anybody with a Brooklyn accent could command a microphone and a camera to tell the rest of the world about Flatbush pride.

For one day everybody knew that the bridge is 5,989 feet long, and that it took 14 years to build, and that each cable, strung in place by workmen paid $2. 25 a day, can hold 24,621,780 pounds.

And then the day after there was a short item, buried in the middle of the paper, announcing that the 100th birthday celebration had accumulated 105 tons of litter and cost $125,000 in overtime for police, and that was the end of the statistics.

The $16 million price tag for the bridge was replaced in the headlines by the House approved for the Pershing.

In his poem ''To Brooklyn Bridge'' Hart Crane wrote over half a century ago: ''I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights/With multitudes bent toward some flashing scene.'' As if on cue, the reporters who had been covering the Brooklyn Bridge turned their hyper-attention to ''Return of the Jedi.''

A film fantasy whose special effects (not allowing for the special effects of inflation) cost twice as much as the Brooklyn Bridge became the new hot topic.

Off with the old souvenir T-shirts, on with the new.

One of the Brooklyn voices-for-a-day told an interviewer he hoped to be around for the 200th birthday party. Certainly he would have to wait that long for another moment of such exhaustive attention.

What a curious failing of journalism that we are so slavishly governed by arbitrary spans of time! The 101st anniversary of the Brooklyn Bridge will mean next to nothing. The figures have to be rounded off at least to the decade before the TV crews and the print chroniclers spring into action.

Total obsession. Total neglect. Can't there be something in-between?

It's bad enough when the all-or-nothing subject is the Brooklyn Bridge. But what about when the now-you-see-it now-you-don't agenda happens to be the boat people of Cambodia or water pollution or fossil fuel? - issues that require a steady, patient gaze rather than a psychedelic blink.

Why must so much news be delivered at the hectic pitch of a party or a crisis?

The centennial celebration for the Brooklyn Bridge reached its climax with a fireworks display - an estimated 9,600 rockets and Roman candles, all going off pretty much at once. A few minutes of noise and flash and then darkness again.

Alas, it makes too apt a metaphor for too much of journalism. Journalists live with the temptation to deal in novelty and excitement - history as fireworks. But even when the Brooklyn Bridge is the subject, and the sub-topic is, in fact, fireworks, we can at least spread out those flares just a bit, and go in for illumination as well as bang-and-sparkle.

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