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Bridging the Gap in Community & Business: The Williamsburg Bridge

As the 19th century came to a close, city planners in New York faced a big question: how can disparate neighborhoods in a sprawling metropolis be integrated into one accessible, cohesive New York City? In the face of rapid technological innovation and population growth, sustainable integration was urgent. The Williamsburg Bridge is an iconic example of building for–and then with–New Yorkers.

At the time, multiple transit systems were spread throughout New York City, making public transportation complicated. To come into Manhattan from Williamsburg via trolley, commuters would pass through an underground terminal on the edge of the East River, and then connect to buses and trains that would take them into different neighborhoods. Today, the trolley station lay empty and abandoned under Delancey Street–as it has been since 1948– as local artists and engineers submit proposals for how to best use that space. A proposal for The Lowline, an underground park inspired by Chelsea’s High Line, is currently being considered.

So, what happened in these formative years in NYC history? How did New York adapt to fit the needs of both the industry and the individual? Industrial expansion around the turn of the century meant money pouring into infrastructure. It also meant the potential loss of individuality as humans participating in mass production, factories replaced small businesses, and bigger meant better.

City planners built up New York in a decidedly Beaux Arts style, drawing inspiration from Greek Revival architecture, but pricing pragmatism and large-scale modern aesthetic. They wanted New York to be convenient, but also beautiful. Grand Central Station is another example of building at the nexus of pragmatism, vastness, and beauty. The Williamsburg Bridge was unveiled in 1903, changing the commute to and from Brooklyn–and the accessibility of lower Manhattan–forever.

When it was first unveiled, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world. It was built to last, standing 135 feet above the East River, spanning 1600 feet and reaching the 7308 feet across the water. Its massive portico and multi-lane entryway was a spectacle and to this day, it’s widely photographed, drawn, written about, and documented by New Yorkers and visitors who are moved by its vastness.

The Williamsburg Bridge has undergone two major changes since it was built 115 years ago. The original Bridge included two outer lanes for streetcars, with entrances through the trolley station. By the 1940s, NYC was making the transition from streetcars to automobiles; more practical, and more cost-effective for the City. Use of the streetcar discontinued and those tracks were demolished in 1948, clearing more space on the overcrowded bridge for automobiles and buses, the preferred modes of transportation. The portico was scaled down and the center lanes were opened up for more traffic. The expansion was practical, but not pedestrian-friendly.

The second major change came after 2012, when 12-year-old Dashane Santana was struck and killed trying to cross the street at the bridge’s entrance. The Department of Transportation mobilized quickly, redesigning the crosswalk and renaming the corner of Clinton and Delancey street Dashane Santana Way. First, they made the crosswalk narrower, removing one lane of traffic on each side and widening the center island, making it possible to cross the intersection one half at a time. This was also one of the first intersections in Manhattan to have a countdown on the street sign, letting pedestrians know exactly how long they have to cross the street.

In 1903 and 1948, the City’s authorities were in charge of designing this major hub. The changes came in an effort to keep up with a changing city, but without input from commuters or community members. The 2012 changes tell a different story: an urgent community need arose from tragedy, and the city needed to respond by implementing infrastructural changes.

Today, the Williamsburg Bridge carries 8 lanes of traffic, the J/M/Z subway lines, a bike path and a pedestrian walkway. The Department of Transportation continues to actively seek a less crowded and more efficient Bridge by implementing measures based on the need for safety.

How do a city’s structures tell its community’s stories? Why is community input necessary in the development of new infrastructure? What is at risk when a city does not involve its communities in the building and shaping of its neighborhoods?