Monday, November 14, 2011

The Trip to Beautiful

Roosevelt Island is an anchovy-shaped strip of land in the East River next to midtown Manhattan. You can go there with tourists on an overhead cable tramway, and the F Train stops there now too. But this vertical lift bridge from Queens is the only way to drive onto the island. Or ride a bicycle, which is what I was doing when I took this picture.

I only snapped it because I was bored. They're painting the bridge, which means they raise it every half hour or so to daub hard-to-reach surfaces while the traffic stacks up. The bridge always struck me as just another example of the ugly infrastructure every rust-belt city depends on but ignores unless it fails to work or goes down for maintenance. Girders, gears and grime, not worth a first look, let alone a second.

That just shows what I know. Before I could make my return trip, the painters stopped me again on the other side. Bored again, I read the oxidized dedication plaque and learned that when this bridge was built in 1955, a national society of steel engineers named it the "most beautiful" in its class.

I had to ride another bridge from Manhattan just to get to this one, the Queensboro, a.k.a. the 59th Street Bridge. Everybody who ever watched a movie in which somebody leaves the city for LaGuardia has seen that bridge. I think it's even uglier than the Roosevelt Island bridge, but Paul Simon wrote a song about it, so I lose that argument too. And anyway why would I disrespect any bridge that has a bike path.

Roosevelt Island has a bike path too. It goes all the way around the island from the lighthouse on the north end to the remains of the Civil War era hospital at the south.

The lighthouse overlooks Hell's Gate, where the East and Harlem rivers meet the waters of Long Island Sound. The water heaves and bulges as if it were seething. Years ago, we were returning with friends from a sailing cruise and lost power right in the grip of these currents. A reeking garbage barge was bearing down on us with no time to stop or turn. Our friend put out a panicky distress call on his radio. Out of nowhere, two guys in an inflatable dinghy with a big Evenrude and a hand-held radio roared up, tossed us a line and towed us to safety. I have no idea who they were or why they were loitering there, but we never got to ask. The Coast Guard showed up a quarter hour later to tow us the rest of the way to the 23rd Street Marina and give my friend a summons for not having enough fire extinguishers and personal flotation devices aboard. Only time I ever went home from a yachting excursion on a subway.

Here's what you see at the other end of the island:

It's part of the old hospital, an amazing pile of masonry from different eras, some brick, some stone and not much more than gravity holding it together. All of it is now braced with new steel girders inside, because it will be the centerpiece of a park dedicated in FDR's name to the suffering and courage of the disabled. The park opens in 2013, but it's open enough now to approach these ruins and marvel that they stayed vertical long enough to be saved.

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