The Old Man and The Bridge

Home Brooklyn Life The Old Man and The Bridge

Whenever John Manbeck, an 80-year-old retired professor of English and former Brooklyn borough historian, drives across the Brooklyn Bridge, he stays in the middle lane. “Drivers tend to drift toward the edges,” said Manbeck.

Manbeck studies how people move. On a July afternoon, he led a walking tour of the bridge. Manbeck said that he developed an interest in transportation, especially canals and railroads, as an undergraduate at Bucknell University.

As it happens, John A. Roebling, the German immigrant who designed the bridge, also had an interest in moving people from one place to another. The bridge addressed a transportation challenge that persists to this day: how to travel between Manhattan and Brooklyn with ease.

Manbeck said that Roebling, who got his start building canal barges, invented the twisted steel cables that hold the bridge in place. Prior to Roebling, suspension bridges had a habit of falling down because they lacked the right support. “Roebling’s genius was the diagonal cables, which prevented the wind from taking the bridge,” said Manbeck.

For all the talk of threats to the bridge since 9/11, Manbeck discounted the notion that terrorists will be able to bring it down. Again, he credits Roebling. “Terrorists reportedly wanted to destroy the bridge by cutting the cables, but that would not have destroyed the bridge,” said Manbeck.

That’s not to say that terrorism hasn’t threatened the bridge. Manbeck said that on Sept. 11, 2001, when the bridge was closed to cars, the throngs of people streaming across the bridge to escape Lower Manhattan presented the greatest danger. People, Manbeck explained, produce more pounds per square inch than automobiles. Think Timberlands.

A few paces behind Manbeck’s tour, Matthew Lopez and Jake Glasser, who live in Manhattan, were thinking ice cream. “We decided to go for ice cream in Brooklyn Heights and walk the bridge, which seemed like a better option than the subway,” said Lopez, who added that they took a cab to the bridge.

Roebling would have understood. “The bridge was meant to be a utilitarian structure that brings people back and forth, but it was also supposed to be a leisure experience,” said Julie Golia, a public historian with the Brooklyn Historical Society. Golia says it’s one reason why Roebling’s design for the bridge included pedestrian walkways and public emporiums to be housed in the stone structures that anchor the bridge on each side.

Manbeck is six feet. For the bridge tour, he wears a faded red polo shirt, saffron-colored canvas shorts, and silver rings with turquoise stones. With his wispy gray ponytail tucked under a baseball cap and white beard, he evokes a retired surfer.

Manbeck grew up in the Flatlands section of Brooklyn and later moved to Brooklyn Heights. He divides his time between his apartment there and a home in Pennsylvania near the Delaware Water Gap. On mornings in New York, Manbeck visits Brooklyn Bridge Park, a band of green along the East River, just south of the bridge. Manbeck says he sees cormorants and swans there.

Back on the bridge, Adi Wickramaratne and his friend Devon Connor were visiting from London. “I’ve actually driven over this bridge at 200 miles per hour,” said Wickramaratne. “I did it in ‘Project Gotham Racing,’ a video game.”

Manbeck says he’s excited about Brooklyn. When last heard from he was out of town, giving a talk on the Brooklyn Bridge upstate.

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