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Voices Fall-Winter 2003:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read “Happy Birthday, Willy B!” by Kay Turner with Kathleen Condon here.
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Volume 29

Happy Birthday, Willy B by Kay Turner with Kathleen Condon

A hallmark of industry, the Williamsburg Bridge symbolized New York City’s early twentieth-century desires for expansion, productivity, and democracy. Instrumental in creating the cultural diversity of New York, this "immigrant bridge," known locally as the Willy B, has long served diverse working-class populations moving out of Manhattan to seek a better life in Brooklyn. In the 1980s it was threatened with demolition but instead is being restored. A birthday party in 2003 celebrated the history, occupational labor, and community arts that distinguish the culture of the Williamsburg Bridge. The Willy B was—and is—the people’s bridge, and it remains a symbol of the city.
Williamsburg Bridge in 1901
The Williamsburg Bridge was built in less time than it is taking to restore it, but residents of the community for which it is named wouldn’t have had it any other way. This photo was taken in 1901, two years before the bridge connected Manhattan with a working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn. Photo: Courtesy of Parsons Transportation Group.
When the Williamsburg Bridge opened to horse-drawn carriages, pedestrians, and bicyclists in 1903, it was hailed as a marvel of engineering innovation. Twenty years had passed since the opening of the stone-arched Brooklyn Bridge. The much-needed new bridge—completed in a record seven years—had the longest suspension in the world: 7,308 feet with a 1,600-foot main span. Its great length was supported by four massive cables, spun from enough wire to stretch 17,500 miles, and its 118-foot width carried twice the load of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Photo of boys making a raft beneath Williamsburg Bridge
In 1958, photographer Jerry Dantzic captured images of a gang of local boys making a raft under the bridge. Like his subjects, Dantzic lived in Williamsburg. Photo: Jerry Dantzic. East River Raft (Series), Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 1958. Copyright 2003. Courtesy of Jerry Dantzic Archives.

The Williamsburg Bridge also boasted the first all-steel towers, each 310 feet high. High-strength structural steel, reinforced with 40-foot-deep stiffening trusses, made the bridge both lighter and stronger, able to withstand high winds and, through various adaptations made from 1903 until the 1940s, carry increasingly heavy car and subway traffic.

Building the Bridge

Construction began in 1896 under the supervision of its designer and chief engineer, Leffert L. Buck. No one had ever designed and built a suspension bridge of this size, let alone with steel. The success of the bridge rested on Buck’s gauge of steel’s true strength and his adoption of construction techniques associated with wrought-iron structures, inspired by the Eiffel Tower. Buck’s design was widely disdained as architecturally unappealing, however, and in the final building stages, architect Henry Hornbostel was engaged to add ornamental flourishes. Nevertheless, the day after the bridge’s opening, the New York Times criticized the thick look of the "bandy-legged towers."

The bridge was opened with an elaborate celebration on December 19, 1903. Hundreds of dignitaries in greatcoats and top hats processed across the garlanded bridge, then returned to a grandstand on the Brooklyn side for a "Presentation of the Bridge" by the commissioner of bridges, Gustav Lindenthal, as well as speeches by New York City Mayor Seth Low and the Brooklyn and Manhattan borough presidents. A civic parade followed, with games and competitions, including “first to cross backward on a bike.” The day ended with a grand spectacle of fireworks.
Photo of a ten-foot cake at Williamsburg Bridge birthday party in 2003
A ten-foot-tall cake created by pastry chef Anthony Smith was a scene of family photos throughout the celebration day. The Maldanado family welcomed their mother, Mercedes, who raised them in Williamsburg and came back from Puerto Rico just for the celebration. Photo: Martha Cooper.
The Williamsburg Bridge almost didn’t make its hundredth birthday. Years of neglect and lack of maintenance resulted in corroded cables and general deterioration. In 1988, the bridge was shut down for almost two months for emergency repairs. Closing the bridge created headlines and chaos but also served to demonstrate its importance as a major city artery. The transportation commissioner, Ross Sandler, addressed the crisis by appointing Samuel Schwartz to chair a panel of experts who would evaluate the future of the bridge. They considered replacing it with a new structure but in the end decided to rebuild and refurbish the historic structure—and, remarkably, to keep it open while doing so.
Builders and Rebuilders

The workers who built the Williamsburg Bridge at the turn of the past century possessed a combination of skill, agility, fearlessness, and stubborn dedication. The four hundred to eight hundred who labored on the bridge during most days of its construction hailed from many countries—Germany, Ireland, Italy, Greece, Lithuania; many belonged to the Housesmiths’ and Bridgemen’s Union. Particularly dangerous jobs included caisson work (for which workers spent their days in watertight boxes beneath the East River securing the anchorages), constructing the towers, fitting the trusses, and spinning the cable wires. Many of the men were former ship riggers, accustomed to scaling heights, negotiating catwalks, and handling pulleys. Still, during bridge construction, thirty-one men died, most from falls.

Folklore of the construction era indicates that workers played competitive games as a release from the dangers of their work, and that milestones were marked by ceremonies. An American flag was attached to the last cable wire, carried from Manhattan to Brooklyn on June 27, 1902. A game of Capture the Flag followed. The winner was Brooklyn’s Henry Johnson, who in 1933 gave his trophy flag to C.C. Mollenhauer, president of Dime Savings Bank of Williamsburg. The same flag was recently discovered at the bank by its current president, Michael Devine.

Centennial celebration of Williamsburg Bridge
After having been rediscovered at the Dime Savings Bank, the flag that made its first trip across the East River when the final cable was strung in 1902 was carried across the bridge again in the centennial celebration. Joining in the procession were, from left, Samuel Fritsky of Dime Bank, Evan Korn of the Department of Transportation, Commissioner of Transportation Iris Weinshall, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, Chief Engineer of East River Bridges Henry Perahia, and Mike Pucella of Dime Bank. Photo: Martha Cooper.
Inspection, analysis, restoration, and reconfiguration of the bridge began in 1988. The skills and applied knowledge of workers from many unions are required for such major tasks as reinforcing the main towers, repairing broken cable wires, installing new roadway decks, and renovating the approaches and the footwalk. Hundreds of men and a number of women have worked on the project—and not a single one has died.
Shaping the Community

Williamsburg, once a somewhat-isolated industrial community dependent on ferry service, was home to mainly Irish and German immigrants, who worked in its breweries and sugar refineries. Ten years after the bridge opened, its population had doubled. Williamsburg soon became a place of refuge and opportunity for Italian, Polish, and East European Jewish families. In mid-century, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and others joined the neighborhood. The Williamsburg Bridge connects these people to their past, present, and future, especially because it serves as a source of romance and memory. A Yiddish poem from 1920 ends,

...and I, out of loneliness and longing,
must go walking on the Williamsburg Bridge.
A child wears crown she decorated as part of a Brooklyn Arts Council project
A child wears the crown she decorated as part of a Brooklyn Arts Council project. Photo: Martha Cooper.
Many have walked the bridge. A Puerto Rican man remembers picnics at the Bridge Plaza in the 1950s. An Italian man recalls walking the bridge to save the nickel cost of a ride. Jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins’s 1962 recording "The Bridge" memorializes the time when he busked regularly on the Willy B, in the late 1950s. Others recollect the spark of love ignited while promenading the bridge on hot summer nights. And for reconstruction workers, there is the memory of standing on the bridge and watching the twin towers in horror on September 11, 2001.

On June 22, 2003, the Brooklyn Arts Council, traditional artists and other presenters, and eight thousand celebrants honored the Williamsburg Bridge in a day-long festival marking its centennial. The council’s folk arts director, Kay Turner, who lives by the bridge, conceived the project and began fieldwork in 2001, interviewing workers involved in the reconstruction effort. Opening ceremonies imitated the original inauguration and featured tributes to the bridge by city leaders, including Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. A procession across the bridge featured the historic forty-five-star U.S. flag last flown from the bridge in 1902 by workers marking the run of the last cable wire. Throughout the day, storytellers including ironworkers and local merchants recounted personal tales of the bridge; engineers and historians gave bridge tours; and Williamsburg traditional music, including merengue tipico and Chassidic dance tunes, was performed. Galleries featured bridge paintings, an exhibit highlighted construction laborers, kids played stickball and slapball, and the giglio was lifted. Atop a ten-foot-tall birthday cake was a model of the bridge.

Reconstruction of the Willy B is scheduled for completion in 2006.


Kay Turner is director of FolkArts at the Brooklyn Arts Council. She also teaches folklore and gender courses in the Performance Studies Department at New York University. A traveling photo exhibit, "The Williamsburg Bridge at 100: Spanning a Century of Change," is available from FolkArts.

The workers who built the Williamsburg Bridge at the turn of the past century possessed a combination of skill, agility, fearlessness, and stubborn dedication.

Bridge workers, engineers, Williamsburg residents, and artists were interviewed as part of the Williamsburg Bridge 100 project. The following excerpts from fieldwork are provided by folklorist Kathleen Condon and oral historian Nadine Stewart.

Mike Canavan, electrician who works on the bridge, interviewed by Kathleen Condon

On installing new security cameras at the top
Up there, there’s a room, that’s where the cables ride up and over. There’s windows—I would climb on the windowsill and pull myself up. I’ve got a harness on, tied to a piece of steel in the room below. You feel like you’re on top of the world. You really can’t be afraid of heights. I find it exciting. I’m kind of adventurous—I like the challenge. Not everybody’s cut out for it, that’s sure. I’m actually running a crew of guys doing this fiber optic work. I know who to pick to go up in the towers. Only one or two guys feel comfortable climbing up there. It’s a job just climbing up there, because usually we have to bring working materials up with us—the camera we’re installing, pipes, wrenches, ratchets, bolts, everything.

The last time I was up there, the weather changed on us really quick. It was nice when we started, but as we went up, as we were installing the new camera, a wind really whipped up. And I said to myself, "I gotta get out of here, because there is really nothing to hold on to."

It was a great sense of satisfaction getting these cameras up and running for them.

Lina Manino, owner of Aldo’s, a diner located near the entryway to the bridge; interviewed by Nadine Stewart

On the reconstruction
It was amazing the way the men worked. Everything was done just so: One piece goes here, this one does this, and another crew does this, and it was just amazing how they put everything together. The excavation somehow did a job with the rats. Everybody had rats. You have no idea what it takes for you to work in a restaurant and be so careful—close both doors, even though it’s hot as hell. But you have to close the doors.

On the Willy B
The bridge is a road to everywhere. I mean, it’s an open door. That bridge takes you to every place you want to go.

Inez Pasher, long-time Williamsburg resident and cofounder of Williamsburg around the Bridge Block Association, interviewed by Nadine Stewart

On the decision to restore the bridge
You don’t get to build a new bridge every day. And they had people from all over the world submitting plans. And here we were, this little community sitting here, and based on an architect’s design, they could move the bridge through your house!

On the sandblasting
One morning in June I came out of the house around the corner to the bridge to walk my dog. And all of a sudden, I’m walking down and I hear this noise ssssss and it’s like steam coming out of some place, and I realize I’m being pelted. But it’s not big pieces of stuff that’s hitting you. It’s like pinpricks—your skin is getting hit by pinpricks. And I’m seeing this bounce off—I had a large Akita, 120 pounds—and I see this crap bounce off the dog! So I said to the dog, "Let’s get out of here!"

Comparing the Willy B with the Brooklyn Bridge
It was the poor person’s bridge, where people just walked over. Whereas you strolled on the Brooklyn Bridge and you had parasols and long dresses. When you seen the humanity on the Brooklyn Bridge—O.K., it was a different kind of humanity...the people are different on the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s a class thing. That’s how it is. But then, that’s what this city is all about. [The people on the Williamsburg Bridge] didn’t wear parasols, and you know what? They probably didn’t care to, so that’s O.K., too.

This article appeared in Voices Vol. 29, Fall-Winter 2003. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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