Oct 28, 2021, 05:57AM

Underneath the Bridge

A distinguished landmark’s dark secrets. 

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Something bad happened. The NYPD made a gruesome discovery in their back yard at 7:10 a.m. on Saturday. A middle-aged man’s lifeless body was found “face-down” sprawled over a piercing wrought-iron fence; his legs straddled each side. Pronounced dead, most likely of an overdose, the body was taken to the morgue.

The incident happened in a park directly behind the department’s Lower Manhattan main fortress; 1 Police Plaza, 256 feet away. James Madison Plaza is a small, triangular green space with oak leaf hydrangeas and showy crepe myrtles.

Early the next morning, I got all Law & Order cop for hire, went undercover and decided to investigate the Plaza scene. Yellow DO NOT CROSS police tape was everywhere.

To some degree, Manhattan’s Lower Eastside bordering the edge of Chinatown, operates in a low-key, Grand Theft Auto type, alternative reality mode. At times, the area’s an empty shadowland of siren-filled streets, “not great” for a late-night walk. Nearby, the bulky Brutalist style, federal prison facility that housed the notorious El Chapo, Bernie Madoff and Jeffrey Epstein is now closed. Every place in New York has its fair share of danger.

The former Verizon building, located on Pearl Street across from the Alfred E. Smith NYCHA Houses, is one of Manhattan’s least celebrated architectural gems. I can’t believe the “Eighth Wonder of the World” is right next to this big, boring tower. As suspected its neighbor, the world-renowned bridge hides a treasure trove of secrets. 

The Brooklyn Bridge has its own tale to tell. Imagine the horror of someone in mid-air and hearing screaming from their lips as they hit the water. These are the kind of tragedies the bridge has seen. It goes hand-in-hand with the East River’s long history of mortality, from the PS Slocum Disaster to the drowning of actor-writer Spalding Gray.

This past June, bohemian artist Hash Halper, known for drawing chalk hearts on New York City sidewalks took his life in a suicide jump. Unofficially as of 2003, there have been 1300 jumpers, with many failed attempts. The first occurred in 1885; Robert Emmet Odlum plunged into the icy water at a violent 60 miles an hour, causing a concussion, burst liver, kidneys, spleen and three broken ribs.

While the Brooklyn Bridge was under construction, as many as 40 laborers perished. Fatalities included: loss of balance and plummeting to death, getting crushed by falling granite blocks and working in the treacherous underwater caisson chambers on the riverbed below. Workers called “sandhogs” had nitrogen bubble in their bloodstream causing a crippling condition called “the bends.”

The bridge’s original designer and chief civil engineer, John A. Roebling, never saw his dream project. He died of tetanus after a freak accident, just months before the bridge’s 14-year construction began in 1869. Roebling’s son, Washington Augustus, also an engineer was appointed to follow through. He adjusted the design going with a more Gothic approach.

In 1871, Washington Augustus fell ill to the bends. While incapacitated from his Brooklyn Heights bedside window, he oversaw daily activity observing through a telescope. But Washington also did something unheard off at the time,another a milestone for the period. At Washington’s request, his wife came to the rescue. Emily Warren Roebling took over day-to-day operations as head engineer. The great bridge opened on May 24, 1883. Emily was the first person to cross, riding in a carriage with a rooster on her lap as a victory sign.

After being open for just eight days on May 31, 1883, a crowded Memorial Day stroll turned deadly. A woman fell and rumors quickly spread that the bridge was going to collapse. Panic ensued. The multitudes started a stampede; 12 trampled to death with many injuries.

Back on South St. directly underneath the bridge, an inspection reveals three twisty pretzel, layers of roadway high above. Traffic moves in all directions. There’s the deafening roar of streaming traffic; underscored by the smell of gas and oil. Bright orange “Wrong Way” road signs mounted at overpass entrances and exits connect to the neighboring FDR expressway. By a lamppost, I notice an eerie reminder: a wreath with “In loving memory of” notes for a poor soul who never made it across this dangerous street.

My thoughts stray to the past as I walk underneath through the bridge’s arches inspired by the melancholy splendor. Remembering around the Fulton Fish Market: the chilly, clammy hands of oyster shuckers, fishmongers’ filleting the catch of the day; and dockworkers cussing and telling wisecracks, hollering in-between cigar puffs.

Spiraling back further. Seeing salty river pirates and New York gangs going to whorehouses and rum holes; betting on terriers at Kit Burn’s Rat Pit, where there was also a fighting black bear; cobblestone streets full of hard drinkers, pickpockets and thieves.

The southern Manhattan side is another story; it’s where ahistoric waterfront neighborhood connects with the “Old World.” Sightseeing tourists flock to Seaport for riverside docks, sailing ships and restored early-19th century commercial buildings. Stores and restaurants still struggle from Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath. Later that same Saturday morning—another body is discovered, this time “face-up” on a Seaport bench making it a busy day for the coroner.

I wanted to revisit an old, sailor and pirate saloon brothel in the bridge’s shadow which has a few murders under its belt. The Bridge Cafe is one of oldest taverns and wood-framed structures in NYC. Once called the Hole-in-Wall-Saloon, the musty establishment was owned by “One Armed Charlie” Monell. A six-foot tall, cheeky female bouncer worked the front door. Her name was Gallus Mag; she carried a pistol and a club and was known to bite off a troublemaker’s ear and drop it into a pickling jar kept behind the bar. With that kind of tawdry past, during the 1990s, the place made a perfect New York Press staff after-work spot.

Unfortunately, my search ended in vain. I peered through a shuttered, dusty window on Dover and Water St. The cafe’s empty; closed due to flood damage. According to a neighbor, it’s for sale. Meanwhile, local media outlets continue to speculate about Saturday’s fatalities.

I turned around in the shadows and looked skyward. The entire bridge is undergoing a restoration with a completion date of 2023. My investigation comes to an end. Detective Olivia Benson says it’s time for me to hang up my badge. The Brooklyn Bridge looked down the entire time, aware of my presence, but it was deafeningly silent.

  • Nice work, Michael. I biked and walked over that bridge hundreds of times, commuting to the workshop. Your story reminds me of the book "Gangs Of New York."

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