Imagine it. It is some day in the near future. You are out for a stroll in Battery Park, admiring the counterpoint of greening trees and steel and glass towers, drawn on by a gentle waft of southerly sea air. You reach the waterfront, but are suddenly compelled to keep walking. And you do! Where? To Governor’s Island. How? Over the world’s largest pedestrian-only bridge!
Absurd as it may sound, the writer Mark Vanhoenacker imagined this very day, or advocated for it, in the opinion section last Sunday’s New York Times. He began by noting, with some reverence, that New York already has more than 2,000 bridges spanning its waterways. As if sensing that this was not necessarily the most strategic way to open an argument for building another, he quickly countered by saying, “Still, let’s build one more—a pedestrian and cyclist bridge from Brooklyn to Governors Island to Lower Manhattan. Let’s just call it the New Bridge.”
His reasons for doing such a thing are various and range from the romantic—“because it’s not there”—to the civic—“even hourly, year-round ferries would not integrate the island in the life of the city as well as a bridge would”—to the environmental—“it would increase the numbers of pedestrian and bicycle commuters between Brooklyn and Manhattan, cutting congestion” and “reduce energy consumption”. Excluding the first obviously, all these reasons are basically just empirical claims about benefits the so-called “New Bridge” would bring the city if it were built. And in a sense they are all probably true. It seems plausible that a massive pedestrian bridge (and if the single link he posted to a design for such a bridge is any indication, it would be massive; 2500’ long and 600’ tall) from Red Hook to Battery Park, via Governor’s Island, would have some positive effect on congestion and, in the long run, the environment.
But what Vanhoenacker fails to mention, or perhaps does not see, is that any number of civic projects could yield these benefits, probably to a greater extent and certainly for less than the (highly optimistic) $300 million to $350 million dollar cost of building the “New Bridge.” (Incidentally, Vanhoenacker concludes his piece by suggesting that the beneficent and omnipotent Michael Bloomberg could pay for the bridge personally.)
It may not be as flashy as a new Sydney Harbor-level bridge, but if dwindling green space and overcrowded bike lanes are what you are worried about, then new parks and additional bike lanes are probably the most efficient solution. This is not to suggest that only conventional, small-scale solutions are required to meet New York’s myriad urban, social and environmental problems. Quite the opposite. It is because so many of the challenges looming on the horizon—soaring population, rising sea levels, etc.—must be met with unprecedented ambition and ingenuity, that we must pick our battles. In a city where it is nearly impossible to build anything (e.g. ground zero) there is no sense in spending untold time and political capital on an engineering marvel whose job can be done in large part by increased ferry service.
Ultimately though, the main argument Vanhoenacker’s makes for his “New Bridge” is not practical, but ontological. Building bridges, he believes, is simply what New York does; it is part of its being. “Bridges make New York, and New York makes bridges.” Or, at least it did. He laments that the city’s last great bridge was the Verrazano-Narrows, built in 1964, and implies that the place has been in steady decline ever since, sapped of its vitality—a cowardly lion. But if we could build just one bridge more, says Vanhoenacker, perhaps we might return to that golden age when New York was still the Big Apple, jazz was king, and hipsters were Hart Crane. Maybe so, though I fear with so many real challenges ahead this “New Bridge” might be a bridge too far.