Ode to the Humble Footbridge

Over traffic stream
the car-less trudge

the highway stops for no one

Bridging the gash (Hicks St. nr. Summit St.)

Above it all

The footbridge across the highway is a pedestrian refuge in the midst of the autosphere. The Summit Street Pedestrian Bridge in Red Hook spans the sunken BQE down below (the “Ditch”). When you’re on the bridge, you’re above the traffic, above the noise from the ditch below—that surf-like roar, with the blaring horns and screeching brakes. It drifts up to where you are, filtered by distance and tamed into a calming drone . . . Rush hour seen through the chain link fence is a panoramic glimpse of the city full on. Sunbeams reflect off glass and chrome, darting across windshields and spinning hubcaps—that mad kinetic frenzy! Looking over the Ditch, you feel like you’re commanding a perch all your own, above it all—ruthless velocity, concrete and steel.

Over and under (Hamilton Ave. nr. Henry St.)

Date with a highway (feel the vibrations)

Tunnel to purgatory

Another footbridge in Red Hook cuts across a 10- or 12-lane stretch where the Gowanus Expressway, the Battery Tunnel, and the BQE converge. It’s a jerry-built structure that goes over multiple roadbeds and under two others. Usually it’s bereft of pedestrians, except during certain parts of the day. When it’s empty, it’s bleak, a slab of concrete strewn with empty beer cans and who knows what—maybe a filthy pile of clothes or the odd used condom, everything coated with a dusting of exhaust fumes. It’s a blighted place, like a tunnel to purgatory. At one point, though, you pass under a road just a few feet above. You can feel the swarming traffic, the mechanical flow. The vibrations engulf you, allowing you to become intimate with the highway, perhaps more than a (living) pedestrian ever could be.

Walking on traffic

Any feelings of intimacy or omnipotence that may strike on the footbridge are usually fleeting, a result of lightheadedness perhaps. Back on the ground, one can see clearly that the footbridges of Red Hook symbolize the dominant place of highways in the neighborhood. They’re enduring reminders of the violence done by Robert Moses to expand his auto-centric vision into Red Hook and all over Brooklyn.

Moses was the Stalin of concrete, the “Master Builder” who built the BQE, the Gowanus Expressway, and so much more. The Ditch, like many of his projects, involved massive displacement—about 500 houses were demolished in the early 1950s. More significantly, it cut Red Hook off from the rest of south Brooklyn. It left a Mosaic landscape—a legacy of truncated avenues and bisected streets, more foe than friend to the walker trying gamely to navigate the broken topography.

SLIDESHOW – Footbridges & Pedestrian Tunnels (Flickr)