For us non-automotive types, it was quite an adventure crossing the 59th Street Bridge’s bike and pedestrian path a few summers ago. Bridge maintenance, pretty much all day and night, had meant navigating a maze of workers, equipment, and debris; getting doored by contractors' trucks; and between 10:00 PM and 5:00 AM many nights, throwing our bikes in the back of a school bus for a half-hour drive over the bridge with a couple of stoned Rasta guys. But there was a small silver lining – for at least one late night that July.
The 59th Street Bridge is unique among the great bridges over the East River. It’s not a suspension bridge. That means none of the elegant cables and wires of the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg, or Triboro Bridges. The 59th Street is a huge jungle gym of steel beams and girders, passing from Midtown Manhattan, across Roosevelt Island, to Long Island City in Queens. The longest bridge across the East River, it’s a majestic, rusty, century-old dame with more than a few tricks up her sleeve. Before an old window got repaired, I’d already figured out a way to cut 15 minutes off of my walk home from the East Side to Long Island City by using a combination of an abandoned staircase and a tree growing off of Vernon Boulevard.
I’d commuted over the bike and pedestrian path of the bridge countless times, and always wondered what the view would be like from the top. Friends and I periodically chatted about climbing it, but we could never figure out a sufficiently risk-free way to get up. There just didn’t seem to be any ways to climb it without getting seen.
Why risk arrest, possibly jail, and definitely inconveniencing thousands of commuters just to be able to go a few hundred more feet to somewhere you can see everyday anyway? Not only “because it’s there,” George Leigh Mallory’s great rational for climbing Mt. Everest, but because it’s there and you’re being told you can’t climb it. There’s something about exclusivity, about not being allowed to go somewhere interesting, about being told “no, that’s not for you,” that can drive a person mad. As I continued my commutes, I started to become palpably jealous of the workers I saw on top every once in a while. I wondered if the best thing to do wasn’t maybe to just grab a hardhat, get a friend to drop us off on the outer roadway, and head up the exterior ladder some random weekday afternoon.
But it doesn’t come to disguising ourselves as bridge workers. One moonlit night, it turns out we’re in luck. After months of dreaming about her towers, the old broad suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, lets us in on another one of her hidden nooks and crannies and we’re off. The feeling is unreal - it’s like you’ve been after a girl whom you’re sure you haven’t got a chance with, and then one day she lets you know she’s just been playing hard to get all along.
Starting the climb - photo by Steve Duncan
The climb to the top is almost like a video game, or maybe a military obstacle course – an athletic, nerve-wracking, mentally challenging puzzle of climbing up ladders, crawling through girders, squeezing through holes, balancing on steel beams. One wrong step, at points, and they’d be scraping us off the roadway some two hundred feet below.Watch your step - photo by Steve Duncan
But the advantage is that the course is 90% hidden from view. As we hit the top, we noticed traffic was still running smoothly across the bridge – a sure sign we’d made it up without being seen. As we’re up there, I realize we’re also benefiting from another commuter inconvenience: had we tried this sometime earlier, we’d almost assuredly have been seen by the then-out-of-commission Roosevelt Island Tram that passes right next to the bridge tower. Like many adventures, timing and patience were key ingredients, and those who try to find their way up today will encounter locks and obstacles where for a very short time there were none.
As with many long, drawn-out romantic pursuits, the culmination doesn’t really live up to its expectations. For one thing, the view actually isn’t that great. The bridge is only about the height of a 30-story building, and the lights of Midtown are almost completely obscured by the uninspired residential skyscrapers of the East Side. It’s so windy on top of the metal towers that crown the walkway that I can’t pause for more than a second at the pinnacle before having to climb down. And the shaking of the bridge in the heavy winds, combined with the obvious inability to use flash photography, means that we only have somewhat fuzzy, dimly lit shots to commemorate our conquest.
View toward Manhattan - photo by Steve Duncan
View toward Queens - photo by Steve Duncan
Despite the mild anticlimax, I’ll never think of the bridge the same way again. Now when traversing its paths, mundane thoughts of interrupted commutes and the necessities of infrastructure maintenance give way, if only for a moment, to a remembrance of that amazing sense of wonderment that only a city like New York can provide.