Thursday, August 21, 2008

Heroic Materialism; The Brooklyn Bridge

Conviction raised the Brooklyn Bridge.
Just as surely as faith raised the medieval cathedrals, so the modern conviction that the human condition could be changed, that we can make history rather than suffer it, raised the Brooklyn Bridge. Like the cathedrals, the Brooklyn Bridge was a great collective enterprise full of risk with a lot of civic pride at stake. The designers of the bridge, John Augustus Roebling and his son Washington Roebling, added Gothic arches to the stone towers deliberately to make that connection with those great engineering feats of the medieval past.
When it was built, it was the largest suspension bridge in the world, and the first built with steel cable (invented by John Roebling) rather than with iron chains. It was the first to be built on level ground rather than over a gorge or valley. Its towers were the first structures to top the spire of Trinity Church Wall Street, for decades the tallest structure in New York.
The construction of the bridge cost many lives and caused much injury, including the Roeblings themselves. John Roebling died of tetanus when his foot was crushed by an incoming Brooklyn ferry boat, fatally demonstrating the bridge's necessity. Washington Roebling became a bed-ridden invalid when he came up too fast from the deep water-tight chambers, "caissons," under the East River used to dig the foundations of the towers. He came down with what is today known by divers as "the bends," a painful crippling disease caused by nitrogen bubbles forming in the blood. Most of the fatalities on the bridge were caisson workers afflicted with this disease. His wife Emily took over most of the work of direct supervision. She is now credited as the 3rd designer of the bridge.

Ours is usually described as a "materialist" era. But, as can be seen in the Brooklyn Bridge, materialism requires conviction, a belief in the possibilities of this world and in this life. I wonder if our era is up to any kind of conviction. I wonder if we are truly capable of any similar enterprise (space exploration for example, now so nickeled and dimed we can barely manage a permanent orbiting trailer home, let alone go back to the Moon or beyond). No monster profit was made from the Brooklyn Bridge (it broke even), no agenda was advanced (except to get people quickly and safely back and forth between Manhattan and Brooklyn without disrupting ship traffic), and no egos were stroked (most New Yorkers have never heard of the Roeblings, like they've heard the name Trump). I wonder if we really believe in much of anything now.

1 comment:

it's margaret said...

sigh --I think in an age of extreme "profitalism" and self-gratification that it is impossible... but I hope there are still some real people as these people were real, somewhere.