Undiscovered New York: Under the bridge

The bridges of New York City serve as lifelines, connecting this vast city of islands to the people, places and goods that lie beyond. From the iconic Brooklyn Bridge to the majestic Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, just about anywhere you look in New York, you’re bound to see one of these graceful structures dominating the city’s skyline and waterways. But for all the time we spend looking at and walking across New York bridges, did you ever think about what’s going on underneath them?

We tend to think of the space under bridges as a symbolic “no-go” zone, a place inhabited by phantom trolls and the darker side of our imagination. But in New York, a city that is among the most dense of any on earth, all that extra space is actually being put to good use. Since they were built, the undersides of New York City bridges have been used for everything from Cold War bunkers to massive art projects. In fact, rather than being areas of marginal interest, these spaces are among the most dynamic and intriguing in all of New York.

Ready to live it up in one of New York’s most elegant restaurants? How about a visit to a whimsical little lighthouse, located beneath a towering bridge? Or perhaps you’d like to hear the story of one of New York’s forgotten neighborhoods, hidden beneath the zooming path of millions of cars? This week, Undiscovered New York is going “under the bridge,” in search of attractions hidden from view under the city’s many bridges. Check it out after the jump.
Bridges provide a way to get past obstacles to travel elsewhere. But we might want to revise that assumption, especially when it comes to Guastavino’s a restaurant conveniently nestled beneath the Manhattan side of the Queensboro Bridge. As you walk into this elegant restaurant on 59th Street, a frequent setting for banquets and weddings, you’re immediately confronted by the size of the cavernous space. Visitors can settle in with a nice cocktail, taking the time to gaze up in wonder at the series of vaulted ceilings supported by towering pillars of rock. It’s like stumbling into the grotto of some forgotten medieval castle, hidden in plain view.

The Little Red Lighthouse
The George Washington Bridge is another of New York’s busiest arteries, pumping Manhattan commuters back and forth on their way to New Jersey across the Hudson River. Those not intimidated by the bridge’s hustle and bustle might want to take a look down below, where they’ll be greeted by the strange sight of the Little Red Lighthouse. This iconic lighthouse was first built back in 1880, when it was installed along the banks of Sandy Hook, New Jersey. By 1921, it had been moved to its present location along the shores of the Hudson, where it helped sailors navigate their way up the river to points north. Today it has become the de facto symbol of Manhattan’s Fort Washington Park, where it now greets the area’s joggers and bikers on their daily routes.

Forget about the elephant in the Disney movie, New York has a DUMBO of its own. This neighborhood, whose name stands for “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass,” is literally surrounded on all sides by bridges, with both the Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan Bridge passing directly overhead. The result of this infrastructure decision is that DUMBO feels like a neighborhood kept under wraps, bursting with great bars, restaurants and shopping that most visitors pass right by as they drive overhead. Start your visit with an authentic taco at Hecho in Dumbo before taking a look at some of the area’s great stores like record store Halcyon, powerHouse Books or Japanese toy store Zakka. Finish your trip with a stop at Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park.

A Canadian in Beijing: Proud Love for the Pedestrian Overpass

Alright, I have been excited about these things since I got here and I’ve felt a bit like a dork about it. Okay, maybe more like an urban planning design geek or something (no offense to a very necessary modern profession!) and so I’ve decided that I’ve just got to put it out there. . . with pride. . . so here goes:

I love a good pedestrian overpass.

Both Beijing and Shanghai have some of the most impressive outdoor pedestrian walkways that I have ever seen. These elaborate bridges are designed for pedestrians only – no motorized vehicles – and they’re all over the city. When I was in Shanghai, I found them there too. Both cities also have pedestrian underpasses that stretch under streets and often connect to the subway system, but the overpasses are the most structurally impressive.

I would venture to say that they’re often architecturally beautiful.

While walking around Beijing, I sometimes feel like I’m part of a herd. We are herd animals after all (right, Brrassie? See comment on this blog) and I realize that these street crossings have been designed to corral us from one side to the other without upsetting the flow of traffic. I don’t mind. I’ve happily swept up into these archways. I’m willingly lured.

As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, street crossing is a rather “interesting” experience here in China. Precarious? Death-defying? Brave? Ridiculously Random? Any of those descriptors will do. Where there are no specific crossings, i.e. overpasses or underpasses for the pedestrians, the mayhem ensues. I quite like the chaos, personally, and I’ve become quite used to forging forward into traffic flanked by several other equally insane human beings. . .

But, I’m equally charmed by these overpasses.

They seem so grand and elaborate but are just designed for a simple pedestrian like me. When I walk across them, I feel like I’ve been swept into an architect’s urban vision lit up under drawing lights on a drafting table. That’s me in my dusty sneakers and cap leaving my footprints across the crisp white page. That’s also me waving from the top at no one in particular.

When I was a kid living in Burlington, Ontario, there used to be a big pedestrian overpass across the railway tracks that ran parallel to Fairview Road. I have no idea if it’s there now, but it was big and made of painted-green metal and looked like a giant dragon’s spine that zigzagged its diagonal ramp up into the sky, stretched across and zigzagged back down. It was on the north-side as we drove east towards (what was then) the only mall in Burlington, “The Burlington Mall.” I would position myself eagerly by the back window when we turned onto Fairview Road because I always looked forward to the glimpse of that crazy structure that stretched past my imagination. I would picture myself climbing up into it and crossing it like it to the other (mythical) side like it was a giant amusement park ride that required no tickets or coupons.

When I learned that one of my classmates walked across that pedestrian overpass everyday, I looked at her in amazement. “What’s it like?” I asked, with all of my stories about this incredible journey stretching my eyes wide with expectation. I was deflated when I heard her response: “what’s what like? It’s just a sidewalk!”

Bite your tongue.

These are not just sidewalks; they’re gateways to the other side. They are proud pathways that feel regal under my feet. They’re an adventure with every crossing.

Now, I know you’re thinking that I’m getting carried away here, but let’s look at this logically:

First of all, they save your life. There’s no sidestepping vehicles or speeding bicycles in the crossing of these streets. There’s no potential death, shall we say.

Second of all, they’re a moment of respite from the direct fumes and the deafening noise of the Beijing (and Shanghai) streets and so it’s a peaceful experience! I usually walk a little slower up there just to take it all in from a different angle.

And finally, you can linger at the top of these pathways to get a great view of the street and your destination, especially if you’re lost. Trust me, I have used these overpasses as great places to study my maps.

Sometimes these pedestrian overpasses have “dianti” (escalators) and sometimes these escalators are covered and sometimes they’re not. I have often wondered about how snow mixes with moving steps, but I’m happy to be writing this in the summertime!

These ones in Shanghai stretched into elaborate sidewalks in the sky. They reminded me of images of “The Jetsons” cartoons. I shot endless photos much to my fellow sightseer’s annoyance.

I have a fond respect for these structures, as you can tell. Today, I crossed the street just because one was there beckoning to me with its amazing spiral staircases on each end. I crossed over and then walked up a few blocks before realizing that I had to go back under the street again to catch the subway.

I didn’t care.

It was worth it.

Next time you go across one, wave at the street below and to no in particular.

Why not?