Brooklyn Bridge: help is on the way

"All modern New York, heroic New York, started with Brooklyn Bridge," says British architectual historian Kenneth Clark. Now this engineering and artistic milestone spanning the East River is undergoing the biggest overhaul in its 98-year history -- despite being "built to last a thousand years" when it opened on May 24, 1883, "with befitting pomp and ceremonial," according to one contemporary account.

It will take 10 years and an estimated $115 million before comprehensive repair and replacement work on the "grand dame" of suspension bridges, as it is sometimes affectionately called, will be completed.

In the meantime, workers continued early this week around-the-clock to reanchor one of two steel cables that snapped late last month. A pedestrian walking on the bridge's promenade was struck by one of the two cables and fatally injured.

The pedestrian walkway was closed following the June 28 cable accident and will remain closed until at least through Aug. 1, according to the city's Department of Transportation. Officials had hoped for an earlier reopening of the walkway, which affords one of the most panoramic views of the city, but one of the two repaired cables started to sag. As of this writing, however, it has been shored up.

The cable that snapped is called a "stay cable" and "in the next three weeks, " Assistant Transportation Commissioner Able Silver told the Monitor, smaller "retainer cables" will be attached to each one of the 56 large-diameter stay cables so that if one does break it will not fall into the pedestrian walkway below.

The stay cables are about 2 1/8 inches in diameter. All of them will be replaced in the course of the 10-year repair program.

In the meantime, other transportation officials declared emphatically that the bridge is "absolutely and unquestionably safe for vehicles." In fact, after being closed briefly to vehicular traffic for the second weekend in a row, the bridge is once again carrying its normal traffic load between Manhattan and Brooklyn boroughs.

The Brooklyn Bridge not only has been a symbol of "heroic New York" architecture, but of America's "Gilded Age" of manufacturing that saw thousands of people leave their family farms and head for city factories that made everything from textiles, shoes, and wagon wheels to tall-ship anchors. In the New York City area in the late 19th century, many who lived on farms in rural Brooklyn left them each day to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge to factories in Manhattan.

During the years before the automobile arrived on the scene, these farmers turned factory workers, along with those who sold their farm products in Manhattan, used the bridge day and night.

City officials have noted with increasing concern over the last several years that the Brooklyn Bridge, despite its masterly design by German-born architect John A. Roebling, was accommodating more traffic than it was intended to take.

In 1978, a study of the city's 253 bridges concluded that the Brooklyn Bridge was "in fair condition" and "not unsafe." The study recommended "major rehabilitation" for the bri dge but little was done until recently.

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