As a Yonkers guy, I’ve spent a lot of time in the Bronx and Manhattan, but I recently took a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and I was surprised by its beauty, its fascinating history, and also by what I found on the other side. I love that I get to take people around New York on walking food tours, but sometimes I like to be a tourist, too.
About the Brooklyn Bridge: everyone who comes to New York should walk across it at least once. It’s a little over a mile long and the views are spectacular. You can see the Statue of Liberty out in the harbor on a clear day, and there’s a sense of wide open space, which is not an easy feeling to come by in New York.
I found out that the first person to cross the bridge when it was finished in 1883 was a woman named Emily Roebling. On her trip across, she rode in a carriage and carried a rooster, which apparently symbolized victory.
And the bridge was a victory. Even after tragedies and deaths and setbacks, Emily saw to it that the bridge became a reality.
The Brooklyn Bridge was the first steel-wire suspension bridge in the world. Its opening day was presided over by the U.S. president and the governor of New York, and was proclaimed to be the eighth wonder of the world.
But let’s back up a little. Emily’s father-in-law John Roebling was a Prussian immigrant and brilliant civil engineer. He built bridges and buildings, and he had a son named Washington, who was equally gifted. Washington was sent to study at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and then he served in the Civil War where he made a name for himself building suspension bridges for the Army. By 1865 he was promoted to Colonel, and he was married to Emily Warren Roebling.
In 1869, with John’s architectural designs, construction of the Brooklyn Bridge was about to begin and John and Washington were the chief engineers. The effort was unprecedented. About 600 workers—nicknamed “sandhogs”—labored away under dangerous conditions. By the time the bridge was completed, nearly 30 men had died in accidents, explosions, and other mishaps.
The bridge took 14 years from start to finish, and neither father nor son fared very well. Early on, John’s foot was crushed by a boat and he died from tetanus a few weeks later. The massive task of chief engineer was left to Washington.
Years earlier, to prepare for the bridge’s construction, Washington went to Europe to study the technique known as caisson construction. Caissons were large wooden boxes which were sunk into the bottom of the river to allow the men to work inside them, excavating the riverbed, laying granite, and building the bridge. To keep water out, compressed air was pumped into the caissons, which put the men in danger of decompression sickness when they rose back to the surface.
One day Washington was working in a caisson and ended up with this illness, also known as “the bends.” He was left partially paralyzed and too sick to head up the construction progress any longer.
This opened the door for Emily Roebling to step in. With the two chief engineers tragically sidelined, she brought the bridge to its completion. Emily went back and forth from home to construction site, delivering messages to and from Washington, and updating him on progress.
Emily adapted so quickly to the huge task in front of her that she quickly became the chief engineer. At the bridge’s dedication ceremony, Congressman Abram S. Hewitt said she would “thus be inseparably associated with all that is admirable in human nature.”
Time for Lunch
When I exited the bridge on the Brooklyn side, I went in search of some lunch and what I found was yet another family drama.
You can’t miss Grimaldi’s—the pizza restaurant with the line of people out the door every day, rain or shine, even before they open for business.
A couple of doors down is Juliana’s, whose website says that the owner Patsy Grimaldi is New York City’s “most celebrated pizza proprietor.” So—and stay with me for a second, it’s a real saga—Juliana’s is owned by a Grimaldi but Grimaldi’s is not.
Here’s the story. Patsy and his wife Carol opened the original Grimaldi’s on Old Fulton Street. The pies, made with Carol’s homemade fresh mozzarella and cooked in a coal-fired oven, earned them devoted fans.
When Patsy and Carol retired, they sold Grimaldi’s—name and all—to a longtime customer named Frank Ciolli. Ciolli turned Grimaldi’s into a brand. It became a popular chain restaurant, which Patsy believed led to a lower standard of ingredients. Original Grimaldi’s fans complained to Patsy that the pies just weren’t the same, and since Patsy had sold his name, too, he had a reason to be concerned.
In a turn of events, Ciolli was nearly evicted from his Grimaldi’s location. After a dispute with the landlord, he moved a couple doors down to 1 Front Street. Patsy and Carol leased the place Ciolli left vacant and Patsy named it after his mother, Juliana.
Patsy and Carol, to the great delight of their fans, returned to making pizza in their original location and in that original coal-fired oven.
Some say the two are bitter rivals. Ciolli sued Patsy, accusing him of trying to steal back his business, but the case didn’t go anywhere.
In the end, though, the most important question is, who has the best pizza? I couldn’t tell you because I was eating a lobster roll at Luke’s Lobster, but stay tuned. I plan to put Grimaldi’s vs. Juliana’s to a taste test, and you’ll read about it here.