Now that the weather has begun to turn, and the longest winter in recent memory is receding in the rear-view, I’ve begun walking places again. I’ve resumed my semi-regular walk home from work: a constantly evolving, jagged path through the fire-escape-gilded Lower East Side and the pungent lanes of Chinatown. Aside from the sidelines–Broadway to the west, and the Co-op (balcony-clad) and NYCHA (balcony-less) towers to the east–no street is safe. Anything in between is in-bounds.
A couple weekends ago, I offered to bring a case of Brooklyn IPA to an afternoon of watching baseball in the vicinity of Gramercy Park. Ordinarily, the trek to the Brooklyn Brewery involves the L-Train, but I decided to walk instead. Having never walked across the Williamsburg Bridge, I headed straight down Avenue D (and then Columbia, as I crossed Houston). After I realized that I couldn’t access the bridge at Columbia and Delancey, but before I started to backtrack west, I ran into something that reminded me of Iowa: Masaryk Towers.
Masaryk Towers, according to New York Songlines (a spectacular site for DIY walking tours of Manhattan), was a 1967 Mitchell-Lama co-op development, sponsored by SOKOL (A Czech organization similar to the German Turner’s Society). As I suspected at the time, this development was named after Masaryk the younger, Jan Masaryk, who while acting as Foerign Minister, was (though there is some speculation of suicide) thrown out of his bathroom window in 1948 by Soviet-sympathizers. This defenestration, was actually the third in Prague’s history, thereby emblazoning this unfortunate event as the “Third Defenestration of Prague.”
I spent the fall of my third year at Grinnell in the Czech Republic, and during my senior year I studied Jan’s father’s personal and literary relationship with Karel Capek, for whom this blog is named. Tomas G. Masaryk, a philosophy professor turned politician, led the exiled Czechoslovak army (literally) around the world during the First World War. After the War he became the country’s first president, and was a strong crusader for small nations during the inter-war years. Masaryk’s story and his writings are fascinating, and I would recommend “The World Revolution” (translated meekly in English as “The Making of a State”) to anyone with an interest in European history.
Back in New York, I rounded the corner of Columbia and Delancey, and headed west until I hit the bridge. Of the three East River bridges I’ve crossed, the Williamsburg Bridge may be the most visually interesting. And, like the elegant Brooklyn Bridge, it is most striking in that it reflects the character of the neighborhood you’re traveling to (that is, if you’re coming from Manhattan).
All gray steel and rivets, save the red stripe elevating pedestrians and cyclists above the roadway, the bridge is mesmerizing and beautiful and repetitive, while at the same time transparently functional. Nothing is showy; there is no artistic stonework; and the girders themselves are straight and simple, unlike the curved and stylized metalwork of the Manhattan Bridge.
As the cables between the towers began to rise in front of me, and as the slope of the bridge began to tilt Brooklyn-ward, I was reminded that my comparison between the bridge and Williamsburg itself was fragile and tenuous. On the south side of the bridge, uninteresting condominium towers jutted upward from what was once a completely industrial area, and much of the industrial buildings that have been left standing have long since become residential.
I like Williamsburg, and I like to an extent what it has become, but after two years studying cities and Urban Planning, there is one constant despite the chaos and diversity of American cities that is nearly universal. Once manufacturing areas are rezoned and turned to residential, they never go back. Jobs may be lost for residences, but residences are never lost for jobs. And in a society that requires vapid consumption just to survive economically (as we’ve seen recently with the demise of Circut City, Chrysler, and, (*gasp*) even the strategic shrinking of Starbucks), the permanent loss of manufacturing and industrial infrastructure in favor of residential development in communities like Williamsburg, Willets Point and Red Hook is a historic act whose reprocussions will be far reaching, and, most likely, irreversible.
These were the sorts of thoughts in my head as I got off the bridge and walked north on Berry towards the Brooklyn Brewery. But to finish my story, I made it to the Brewery, had a Blast! (the beer) while reading Lush Life (Richard Price’s most recent novel), and trudged back to Manhattan and up First Avenue to my destination: this time with a case of beer in hand. Thankfully for my back and my arms, I took the L-Train.
The moral of the story: Good beer tastes even better under the following conditions:
- it cost only $25 for a case,
- you drink it in good company, watching a good baseball game, and
- you just walked 4 miles to retrieve it