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WILLY B GOOD

The underdog over the East River celebrates its 100th anniversary

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Despite growing up in the shadows of the world-famous Brooklyn Bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge has endured its sometimes inglorious history to reach the age of 100. And while the bridge’s physical beauty has always been a matter for debate, the importance of its contribution of linking northern Brooklyn and Manhattan’s Lower East Side has never been questioned.

"Isn’t it good to be assembled for something wonderful, another unique feature of Brooklyn?" asked Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, in announcing the 100th anniversary celebration of the Williamsburg Bridge, which is set for June 22.

"To achieve the young age of 100 is truly something to celebrate," he added.

Gathered at Peter Luger Steak House in Williamsburg on Monday to help Markowitz announce the bridge festivities were Kay Turner, project director for the celebration, Ella Weiss, president of the Brooklyn Arts Council, and Transportation Commissioner Iris Weinshall.

Speaking on behalf of City Councilman Lewis Fidler, of Mill Basin-Canarsie, his chief of staff, Bryan Lee, focused on the utilitarian nature of the Williamsburg Bridge over the years.

"This bridge has been here every day for 100 years just getting the job done, like a true New Yorker," said Lee.

Following in the wake of last month’s 120th anniversary of the Brooklyn Bridge, the "Willy B," as it’s affectionately called, was inevitably compared with its older sibling. But Turner, whose role it is to bring the bridge out from under the shadow of its East River co-habitant, has planned an almost month-long celebration for what she refers to as "the unsung, very heroic bridge of our borough."

Preliminary events began with the opening of an informal exhibition of bridge photos, taken by community members, at the Brooklyn Brewery, 79 North 11th St. last Friday. Other events will include panel discussions with historians, community activists and bridge engineers, as well as a mini-retrospective of films featuring the Willy B at Galapagos Art Space, on North Sixth Street between Kent and Wythe streets, also in Williamsburg, on June 14 at 6:30 pm.

The main celebration on June 22 will last from 11 am to 6 pm and feature a wide range of events. Live bands will play music representing the various cultures of Williamsburg on the main stage in Continental Army Plaza Park, at Roebling and South Fourth streets, interrupted only briefly for a cake-cutting ceremony at 3 pm. That 10-foot cake will be topped with a replica of the Williamsburg Bridge.

Local food vendors and restaurants will offer foods from Latin America, Poland, Italy and other countries whose emigrants have settled in the neighborhood, and a wide variety of exhibitions, tours and performances will take place throughout the day.

Kicking off the day’s events will be a re-enactment of the bridge’s original opening ceremony in 1903, with Markowitz and other city officials on hand to oversee a procession from Brooklyn to Manhattan of the original 45-star flag, flown from the bridge by workers in 1902.


Work in progress

The Williamsburg Bridge opened officially Dec. 19, 1903. It was constructed in just seven years - half the time it took to build the Brooklyn Bridge - at a cost of about $24 million. The rapidity of the construction is often offered as an explanation by some, including Henry Perahia, chief engineer for the Transportation Department, for the way the bridge looks.

"They wanted it designed quickly and cheaply," he said. "They didn’t spend a whole heck-of-a lot of time on aesthetics."

Although the bridge and its designer, Leffert L. Buck, endured their share of criticism early on, proponents of the project brought attention to its notable achievements: it was the longest suspension bridge in the world (1,600 feet from tower to tower, four-and-a-half feet longer than the Brooklyn Bridge), it was the first steel-towered suspension bridge in the world, and, most importantly, it was architecturally sound and sturdy.

Or so they thought.

Over time, concerns about the bridge’s strength began to mount, to the point that an advisory committee was formed in 1988 to evaluate the integrity of the bridge, and to recommend whether it should be torn down and replaced or reconstructed.

"If you don’t maintain a bridge, it will fall into disrepair," said Weinshall.

"Particularly for that bridge," she added, referring to its eight lanes of traffic and two lines of train tracks. "There’s more wear and tear on it."

Ultimately, the city decided to repair the bridge, which extends from Delancey Street on the Lower East Side to Marcy Avenue, while keeping it open as much as possible.

The City DOT began reconstruction work in 1991 (after earlier construction by the State) which has continued to this day at a cost of approximately $1 billion, according to DOT spokesperson Keith Kalb.

The work has finally entered the final phase, focusing on the subway tracks, and is scheduled to be completed in January 2006, according to Perahia.

"When we finish, it’s going to be as good as a brand new bridge," said Weinshall.


Good neighbor

Neighbors of the bridge, which carries an estimated 140,000 motorists and 92,000 subway riders daily, don’t sound so sure.

"I’m surprised the [expletive] thing didn’t fall down on my building," said Al Byrnes, 71, who owns the blue garage that houses Vince’s General Auto Repairs on South Sixth Street, within a block from the bridge. Byrnes’ mother and father lived in Williamsburg at the turn of the century and witnessed the bridge being built, while years ago he witnessed locals playing softball under the bridge, and more recently, over a decade of reconstruction.

"They spent a fortune on it and they spent years," he said of the work.

While another business owner echoed Byrnes’ concern about the bridge collapsing on his roof, Kate Tarlow, wife of a co-owner of Diner restaurant, at 85 Broadway, said her family has gotten a lot from the bridge.

"One of our favorite activities is walking over the bridge and down into Chinatown" with their 2-year-old son, said Tarlow. Her son is already able to identify the Williamsburg Bridge as a landmark, which tells him that they’re almost home.

 

For a complete listing of Williamsburg Bridge centennial events, call (718) 625-0080 or visit www.brooklynartscouncil.org.

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