A Blogtoberfest guest post By Joe Schneiderman, social law attorney
Although I’ve lived in (and currently live in) Connecticut and have adopted Massachusetts, I’m still a New Yorker at heart. And I lived in New York, New York for ten years, seven years of education plus two adopted by a New York City Firehouse plus a cumulative year visiting family in the Bronx. (That’s one way to add up ten years, right?)
Despite my love for New York, I made peace leaving New York-and have no decisional hangover. Sadly, sometimes I find myself asking, “What happened to this beautiful place, and are we approaching another moment akin to “Ford to City: Drop Dead”? (For further consideration, I endorse Ric Burns New York: A Documentary Film, esp. Episode 7.). But there is one thing I really miss: not being per se reliant on a car. And I miss walking everywhere for miles at a time. I am drawn to villages and downtowns, which, for whatever reason, are somewhat absent from my neck of Connecticut. (Curiously enough, the towns along U.S. 20 between Westfield and Becket, Mass. have said downtowns/villages.) And you can walk everywhere with the positive spirit of the city fulfilling you.
And that was what I did on Saturday, October 23, 2010-still in Law School. Having studied and had brunch, I had a beautiful, blue skied fall day outside that I couldn’t let pass by. So, I set out west on 47th Avenue in Queens towards the mighty spire of the Empire State Building. The block quickly changed residences to industry, the Fire Department Shops, and, eventually, at Van Dam Street, a correctional facility and LaGuardia Community College. A right on Van Dam took me to Queens Boulevard and Thomson Avenue, and I continued west on Thomson. Vehicular traffic could head for the upper level of the Queensboro Bridge as the street rose over the Sunnyside Rail Yards. A turquoise high rise soon replaced the Empire State, the CitiBank Building. Yes, Queens has a high-rise.
And, directly underneath is Court Square and the historic Long Island City Courthouse. Once Criminal Court and adjoining the Queens County Jail (now a parking a garage, but the walls foretell its penal past), the Courthouse is home to Civil Term of Queens County Supreme Court-New York’s trial court of general, original jurisdiction.
This is the second Courthouse on the site, the original was built circa 1875 when Long Island City became the seat of Queens County (which then encompassed what is now Nassau County, the latter broke off in 1899.) In 1904, that two story Courthouse burned (curiously enough, it has living near twins in Springfield and Northampton, Mass., but I do not believe they have a common architect.) The current Courthouse was rebuilt by 1908, and, ironically, Peter Coco, the architect, went on trial there!! So too did Ruth Snyde and Willie Sutton. Alfred Hitchcock also employed the Courthouse for “The Wrong Man.” Today, the Court mainly hears civil matters but is home to the largest Courtroom in New York State and is a historic landmark. And there are other criminal throwbacks-adornments for the District Attorney and Sheriff line the sides.
And, during those early law school days, I would walk from my house to Court Square often whenver I needed peace and perspective. The Square was beautiful, with the fountain, the trees, and the benches. The prior spring, I drove out there and sat and watched the block, possibly smoking a cigar (I can’t remember for sure.) But, when seabreeze comes off the East River onto Jackson Avenue, Court Square becomes a wind tunnel. Court Square is a site for all seasons. And Court Square replenished me that day too-the first chance I had had to reconnect with the City after two very hectic months with death, betrayal, and new responsibilities.
Jackson Avenue teases the edge of the Long Island City historic district and the brownstones there as the elvated Number 7 trains ducks underground in a sea of graffiti. The Court Square Diner sits in ecstatic glow under the subway station of the same name. Gentrification is coming. But, at the time, the neighborhood still maintained a healthy balance. The junction of 11th Street, 49th Avenue, and the appropriately named Hunter’s Point Avenue portend the west end of Queens along the Newtown Creek. Not far from here is where the Dutch landed in marshy lowlands some 350 years ago. Further west takes you to the water’s edge at Hunter’s Point. South on 11th Street takes you over the Pualski Bridge to Brooklyn.
That’s where I would go.
Newtown Creek separates Brooklyn from Queens is/was one of the single most heavily trafficked and polluted waterways in the country. The waterway sits in the shadow of Midtown, a rail yard, the Queens Midtown Tunnel and the Long Island Expressway viadcuct, and, of course, the Empire State. But, thanks to proud riverkeepers, sailing ships have made a comeback there-and people are living there again.
The Pulaski Bridge is a drawbridge principally for cars carrying six lanes between Brooklyn and its geographically larger (and soon to be more populous) counterpart, but, intrepid pedestrians may certainly cross on the sidewalks under the gatehouses. The bridge is not harrowing, not like the Triborough (why they named the bridge for RFK is beyond me, it should be Captain Brian Hickey or someone else who had true connections to all three boroughs) where ten feet separates you from the traffic on one side and one hundred and fifty feet separates you from Hellgate below. But, for the hipster jerkasses invading the neighborhoods it connects, they’d run in terror-you can feel the bridge and the traffic. Not me. I relish it.
Newtown Creek gives way to McGuiness Boulevard, and industry in upper Greenpoint- where said jerk-asses are invading and gentrifying. But, Greenpoint Avenue announces the neighborhood itself, complete with Engine Company 238 and Ladder Company 106 sitting sentinel on one corner. “Greenpurnt”, as affectionately known to locals, is historically a Polish neighborhood and the northern limit of Brooklyn. The residents once occupied Engine Company 212 during the 70’s to keep it from closing. (sadly, Mayor Bloomberg won that one.) A right on Greenpurnt Avenue takes you to Downtown, and, eventually, the Northside of Williamsburg-where more hipster doofus invader jerkasses can be found. But, the Brooklyn Brewery is also there on North 11th Street-and you can get four delicious beers for 20 bucks. I should know-I proudly took my Dad there for his birthday the year before. And we also walked in-although we took the Greenpurnt Avenue Bridge over Newtown Creek.
That was not my destination that day. I meandered down McGuinness, eventually reaching McCarren Park, a green oasis shared by Williamsburg and Greenpoint and home to many wonderful athletic fields. The Brooklyn Queens Expressway, a traffic nightmare of disappearing lanes, rose high above me. At Leonard and Richardson, I found Firefighter Daniel Pujdak Way-and Engine Company 229 and Ladder Company 146’s quarters. The specifics evade me now, but, I cointuned south along Meekerand the BQE through the edge of Northside to Southside at Marcy Avenue, and at Borinquen Place, I turned west again.
The Southside is what most people know of Williamsburg, lofts, wine bars and restaurants, etc. But, there’s still echoes of diversity-New York’s real strength. Peter Luger’s Steakhouse is at Broadway and South Fifth Street.. And, the Williamsburg Bridge exits Manhattan here at Continental Army Plaza at South 4th and Roebling Streets, opposite a mighty statue of General George Washington.
That was my first destination-after four miles of walking.
The Williamsburg Bridge is the middle child of the three East River Bridges between Brooklyn and Manhattan. The suspension tower design foreshadows its sibling on the Hudson with clean metallic lines. The bridge carries subway lines, cars, and pedestrians and bicycles between the Lower East Side and Williamsburg. I should note, the walking path is centered on the bridge and not a sidewalk-unlike the Pulaski. And the grey sunset over the skyline offers tremendous majestic views of Manhattan Island skyline.
Someone asked me, albeit not verbatim, “Joe, why do you walk these bridges?’ Because they’re there. Walking is a tremendous exercise in urbanism because you never know who you will encounter, what stories you will hear or tell on the street, and people are brought together. I for one despise how the Internet connects and simultaneously isolates us. I was five months Facebook free that day-because I felt Facebook devalued true friendship. Facebook never brought me closer to people. The streets of New York did. Of the people I knew on Facebook, who would go with me to Junior’s for cheesecake? There was some ridiculous group about New York in the fall-and the shitty Richard Gere film. Fall in New York is an ideal time of year-between the foliage, the seabreeze, and the opportunities to soak up hope from the past year and prepare for the holidays.
It was my second time on the Williamsburg Bridge. Three weeks returned to New York, I walked from my house to the Brooklyn Brewery for the first time. And, with some beer in me, in sweltering summer heat, I crossed that bridge at dusk. And so too did I cross the Williamsburg at dusk at fall. Subways passed me, bicycles were callous, but I had sunset on my side. And, the towers of the many public housing developments soon began to loom at Corlears Hook. (Why people have stopped using the nautical points of reference I also don’t understand.) But, as one enters Manhattan, one can just pick out yet another firehouse, well, actually, a combined firehouse and police precinct. From the bridge, it appears as something tiny below-but it’s there.
And as easily as you have climbed above the East River, you seamlessly integrate into Delancey Street and the business district there. I stopped for nourishment. One bridge down, two to go. And, at some intervening point, I called my parents, and, as I often did on trips like this, asked, “Guess where I am?”
The Lower East Side was one first immigrant melting pots in New York in the 19th Century. Today, I don’t know what to make of it. I wish I did. I never really went there. There’s all kinds of heritage, ranging from Italians to Jews to Puerto Ricans to punks to everything. Regardless, I continued west on Delancey to Allen Street, passing the tenement museum. I was not sure quite where to head next. But, Allen Street seemed logical enough to head south. The last time, I had headed all the way out to Lafayette Street or so, which, at that point is SoHo and Little Italy.
Allen Street was alive. A main drag into Chinatown, people were on the street as the fall night chilled but held onto vapors of the 65 degree warmth we enjoyed that day. Smells of Chinatown and food , music, Chinese characters greeted me from the storefronts. Tenements and architecture have changed little here over the years, other than changing hands often. As I recall, I greeted people on the street as names of neighborhood legend passed. Broome. Grand. Hester. Canal.
And what have we here? CPC L6? Yes. Engine 9 and Ladder 6, the Chinatown Dragonfighters. A fireman still drives the back of Ladder 6, and Engine 9 takes Satellite 1’s monitor to major fires. And the brothers of Ladder 6 survived in the B Stairwell with Josephine Harris on September 11th. Five minutes later on Canal, I was crossing under another arch onto the Manhattan Bridge as the last gasps of navy faded to dark.
A blue sentinel over a mighty river, the Manhattan Bridge is the youngest East River Crossing and has been under perpetual rehabilitation since 2000. Traffic moves in a canyon while pedestrians get views on thte south side of the East River to the Financial District, Lady Liberty, and the Harbor. The views are tremendous, although, highrises in DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, perhaps it should be Dumb Underachieving Myopic Boring Overbearers) are slowly closing Brooklyn and taking up the view. The last time was here, it was my Dad’s birthday, and we were walking from Brooklyn to Manhattan. My Dad had wanted to return to that bridge for many years-and I gave him that opportunity at 58. But this time, it was just me. Subway trains lit up the edge of the bridge, the old BMT line still running to connect people. Behind me, Manhattan had lit up.
By now, my body was informing me in no uncertain terms that I was overtaxed. Sweat had cooled on me and the chill of the sea had entered the air. But I was determined. I would walk all three East River Bridges in a single transaction-and Goddamnit, I would finish! I had simply come o far. (So to did that see me through three days of the Bar Exam in New York and Springfield, there came a moment in the Javits Center where I was cold, sick to my stomach, and my mind had gone blank.)
The last time I had been in DUMBO, it struck me as cold and inhospitable. The factories had not yet been fully renovated. But I was 15 then. I was not yet 24 when I went for this walk. And thoughts of Genesis, Steve Hackett, Nadine Strossen, criminal procedure and reasonable suspicion, were on my mind. But they were tempered by this accomplishment and the ineffable energy of my city.
The bridge gave way to Jay Street-and housing projects. I could not remember how to get to the Brooklyn Bridge-and the streets are a labyrinth. Sure enough, I circled my way to Prospect Street and the stairs to the Brooklyn Bridge. I’ve made that tip at least 25 times over the years in all four seasons. And every time I feel wonderment crossing the old wooden footpath dead center on the bridge. And that night was no different, from the Watchtower, to the Manhattan to my right, the lights of the Financial District, a red Empire State building, the Verizon building…
It’s Saturday Night in New York and I am crossing the Brooklyn Bridge back to Manhattan-Yes, I am Zig-Zagging!
The arc of the bridge eventually brought me over the East River to Manhattan-signs for the FDR, the Woolworth Building, finally, City Hall! I am back on solid ground in Manhattan! I have walked 10 Miles (as I would find out later)-how is that possible? Oh, in New York it’s possible. I am exhausted, my feet could probably fry eggs, but,
I WALKED ALL THREE EAST RIVER BRIDGES IN A SINGLE TRANSACTION!
There’s only way to celebrate. Dinner at Junior’s.
Joe Schneiderman is an attorney who resides in Connecticut.