Image courtesy Harper's Magazine.
In preparation for an upcoming program Urban Oyster is doing for a group of 6th graders about the Brooklyn Bridge (send us a note on our tour inquiries page
to find out more about this), I’ve been reading The Great Bridge
, David McCullough’s outstanding history of the building of the bridge. McCullough traces the story from designer John A. Roebling’s upbringing in Germany and his earlier engineering triumphs through to the completion of the bridge by his son and protege, Washington. McCullough brings to life not only the masterminds of the project, but the men who endured the toil of the construction, the political controversies swirling around it, and the wife, Emily Roebling, who shepherded her ailing husband through to the bridge’s completion.
The bridge itself is an iconic symbol of New York City, but the saga of its construction and its slow rise out of the East River marked watershed moments in the lives of a generation of New Yorkers and Brooklynites. Thousands gathered on the shoreline to watch landmark stages of the construction unfold. One of the most enlivening parts of McCullough’s book is the description of the first wire strung across the East River between the bridge’s gargantuan stone towers in 1876.
A harrowing catwalk connects the shores. Image courtesy Brooklyn Historical Society.
Image courtesy Brooklyn Historical Society.
After stringing the first “traveler” rope, which would be used to lay successively larger wires over the span, it was decided to make use of it to actually cross the river. E.F. Farrington, a master mechanic who had worked on the bridge since construction began in 1869, was chosen for the high-wire theatrics. He was strapped into a bowswain’s chair – a sort of swing attached to a pulley – and he made the journey up the wire from the Brooklyn shore to the first tower, and then down across the river, dangling over 200 feet in the air. This historic moment was famously captured by an artist for Harper’s Monthly (pictured above), with Farrington waving his hat in triumph to the crowds below.
But a far more exciting moment, at least in McCullough’s telling, came when the second traveler wire was strung. This rope was lashed to the first and pulled out along the bridge’s span. Workmen where then sent out from both towers in swings to cut the lashings with knives and separate the two cables. Harry Supple, a sailor who had worked on the bridge for six years, was sent down between the New York tower and anchorage, and he detached the ropes with incredible ease and speed. As McCullough writes, “When his feet landed on the anchorage, the ovation was such that he ought to have taken a long bow” (p. 367). The two men tasked with cutting the lashings over the main span, however, ran into some trouble, getting stuck only partway down.
It was at this point that young Supple, who had by now returned to the top of the New York tower, decided to go to the rescue. He swung himself out over the river, sailor-style, hand over hand, with his legs wrapped around the traveler rope. He reached Carroll quickly enough, passed him by, and cut the next lashing, which instantly freed the pulley. Then back he went, up to the tower, in the same way he had come down, carrying on an easy conversation with those on the tower all the while. The crowd below was ecstatic" (p. 367-8).
Harold Lloyd, hanging on for dear life.
No fan of heights myself, I could feel my palms getting clammy as I read this passage. A short while later, the traveler got hung up again, and Supple repeated his feat, nonchalantly shimmying out over oblivion, much to the crowd’s delight. He was no stranger to the perils of the work, nor were any of the workers on the enormous project. He had narrowly escaped death at least once (and probably many other times as well) in 1871 when during construction of the Brooklyn tower, the hoisting derricks collapsed while lifting massive stone blocks, crushing two men below and injuring others, including Supple. Sadly, the lithe sailor would not get to see the bridge completed, as he was killed in 1878 when a strand of the bridge’s main support cables snapped, knocking him off the New York anchorage and throwing him 80 feet down to the street below.
I recently felt a similar thrill as I did from reading McCullough’s account of these death-defying feats when I watched Safety Last!, a 1923 film starring Harold Lloyd. Far less known known than Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, Lloyd was nonetheless an equally skilled master of physical comedy in the silent era (which earned him the nickname “The Third Genius”). The climax of the film shows Lloyd scaling the facade of building for an ill-conceived publicity stunt to drum up business at the department store where he works and impress his fiancee. At each floor he is harangued by dogs, flocks of pigeons, and absent-minded residents, all of whom nearly send the inexperienced climber to his death. Lloyd did most of the stunts himself, including the famous shot dangling from the hands of a clock high above the street, with only primitive safety equiment (mattresses were piled two or three stories below to break his fall) and despite the fact that he was missing his thumb and index finger on one hand. In my opinion, modern, high-tech blockbusters have offered few shots more thrilling than these:
(Jump to the 52 minute mark for the climactic scene, or feel free to watch the whole movie. Click here for a brief but fascinating documentary showing some of the filming locations around Los Angeles used in Lloyd's movies, including
But movie stunts are one thing; dangerous, back-breaking work another entirely. In all, between 20 and 30 men lost their lives building the Brooklyn Bridge (accounts differ as to the exact number, but here is one list of casualties
), from falls, equipment failures, and other accidents. Even the bridge’s designer, John A. Roebling, was felled by the bridge. While surveying the construction site, his foot was crushed by a ferry, an injury that led to a fatal case of tetanus. The condition came about as the result of his belief in the curative powers of moving water, in which he soaked his injured foot constantly, leading to the bacterial infection and his slow, painful death in 1869.
The most dangerous work was not high above the river, but deep below it in the caissons. Image courtesy Harper's Magazine.
His son Washington took over the project as chief engineer, and he subjected himself to all the dangers he asked his men to endure. But he soon fell ill with a debilitating case of caisson disease, known today as decompression sickness or “the bends.” Caused from working in the compressed air environment of the caissons – massive underwater chambers used to excavate the riverbed for the bridge tower foundations – and returning to normal air pressure too quickly, the condition killed at least three workers and left countless others sick or maimed. The younger Roebling survived working in the caissons, and he stayed on as chief engineer until the bridge’s completion in 1883, but he was so weakened that he coordinated the construction from his sickbed for the better part of 12 years, aided by his extraordinary and talented wife, Emily.
I can only imagine the thrill he felt watching from his window as Farrington and Supple went out on the wires, connecting the span of his masterwork for the very first time.For questions or comments about this blog post, please contact Andrew Gustafson or leave a comment. If you would like to follow this blog, subscribe to our RSS feed or sign up for the Urban Oyster email newsletter.
Most people like to celebrate Cinco de Mayo with a few too many margaritas at their local Chili’s, followed by some drunken rendition of the Mexican Hat Dance. This year, we decided to mark the holiday in a slightly different way – by making tacos with local ingredients, and going to see where some of those ingredients were made.
We took a trip to the “Tortilla Triangle,” an area of Brooklyn straddling the border of Bushwick and Williamsburg that gets its name from the many tortilla factories there (read more about the area in Edible Brooklyn
). One such place is Tres Hermanos Tortilleria
(if you click through, be prepared for some Mexican music), located on Starr Street, that deserves special mention because it also has its own taqueria where they serve up fresh-made Mexican delicacies. Thanks largely to the marketing departments at Corona and Jose Cuervo, Cinco de Mayo has become a favorite excuse for non-Mexicans to get drunk, but on this day, most of the Mexicans we met didn’t have time to celebrate – they were too busy working. After placing our order at Tres Hermanos, we stepped through the door in the back, and there we saw the manufacturing line buzzing away at 10 p.m., with fresh tortillas rolling out, soon to be filled with savory meats, fresh vegetables, and sour cream and served to hungry customers just a few feet away.
The tortilla manufacturing line is even on the menu.
Cinco de Mayo is thought to be a major Mexican holiday, but it is more widely celebrated in the United States than in Mexico. The date marks the 1862 Battle of Puebla, when Mexican forces defeated a French army that was trying to install a puppet government. The French were ultimately successful, placing Archduke Maximilian on the Mexican throne in 1864, but he was eventually deposed and executed, and the French were driven out in 1867. This holiday has special significance for New York’s Mexican community, as the vast majority come from Puebla state, which is the only place in Mexico where Cinco de Mayo is regularly celebrated. Here in Brooklyn, the Moore Street Market
in East Williamsburg will be marking the holiday on Saturday, May 7th with live music and special vendors; Urban Oyster will also be holding its inaugural tour of the market and the surrounding neighborhood, which we’ll be running regularly starting in June (tickets go on sale next week, so click here to learn more
, or sign up for our newsletter
to receive updates).
But back to the tortilleria. Having a restaurant in the front of your factory is a great way to create more jobs and generate more revenue, but it also invites people to see and learn about the manufacturing process. Manufacturing remains an important part of New York’s economy, but it is usually done in small-scale operations hidden away in quieter, more remote parts of the city. New York actually ranks second in the nation in the number of industrial jobs, and one of the largest industries is food processing; companies that make products to serve immigrant communities, like tortilla factories, make up a large part of this sector.
Emperor Maximilian (far left, being shot) was never a fan of Cinco de Mayo (Edouard Manet's "The Execution of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico," 1868).
Advocates of “slow food” and “locavores” tout the idea of shrinking the distance from the farm to the dinner table. Eating local, seasonal foods, they argue, will reduce our impact on the planet, make us healthier, and make us feel so much better about ourselves. That is all well and good, but I think there’s something to be said for shrinking the distance from factory to table. Last year, Good
magazine published a fascinating article titled, “Your Taco, Deconstructed,”
about a project conceived by a group of graphic designers and researchers that sought to trace the pathways of every ingredient in a taco eaten in the Bay Area, from the corn in the tortillas to the aluminum in the foil wrapper. The end result was an infographic
that showed a vast and sprawling network stretching to nearly every corner of the globe. Of course, this is not something unique to tacos; almost every food item we eat is linked to global networks or production and trade. Even mundane items travel thousands of miles and pass through the hands of thousands of workers.
When I first encountered this project, I was actually eating a taco that I made at home, and it gave me pause. But not because I thought about the global impacts of the taco in my hands; rather, I thought about how it was so closely linked to the local economy. Nearly all of the basic ingredients were either grown, processed or manufactured in New York City. So, being a cartographer, I decided to map it out in a similar manner as the Tacoshed
project had. Here’s what I came up with:
As you can see, most of the items didn’t even have to leave the borough. I like to think the tacos I make at home approximate something you might get at a decent taqueria or food cart, and I accomplish this by using authentic ingredients. Foul-mouthed celebrity chef (though I guess that modifier does not really distinguish him from other celebrity chefs) Anthony Bourdain visited Tres Hermanos on his show No Reservations
), where he decried the tasteless, adulterated, quasi-Mexican food most Americans eat at chain restaurants and from pre-packaged taco dinners. Like with all food, good Mexican food starts with good ingredients, and those can be easily found in New York, if you know where to look.
The tortillas I used actually didn't come from Tres Hermanos, but Tortilleria Buena Vista in East Williamsburg, and the mole was made at the nearby Moore Street Market. The sour cream was made at Casa Blanca’s in Rockaway, Queens, and the cheese came from Quesos Mexico just a block from my house in Windsor Terrace. The beef came from a butcher in nearby Kensington, though I later learned that it was slaughtered and processed in Jamaica, Queens. Other than the Green Mountain Gringo salsa, which was made in North Carolina, and the onions from a farm on Long Island, nothing traveled more than a dozen miles to my local grocery store. Of course, for most of these items, only the penultimate step to my belly (the last being my cooking) was made in New York. The ground beef probably came from a cow raised in the Great Plains; the mole was likely made from cocoa grown in Mexico; the list goes on.
Perhaps someday I will be able to do a full commodity chain analysis of the food the food that I eat (and the full report of the Tacoshed project will eventually be published as a book). But until then, at least I know that I can eat a delicious, authentic, homemade taco that supports local producers and manufacturing jobs. And that made for an enjoyable Cinco de Mayo.If you would like to learn more about the city's efforts to preserve and expand manufacturing jobs, or to find a list of manufacturers, visit Made In NYC. For questions or comments about this blog post, please contact Andrew Gustafson or leave a comment. To see more of his graphic design work, visit his website.