50 Favorite Places #5
The first thing you notice about the Carroll St bridge is its bright blue paint job. The second thing, at least if you’re approaching from the west, is the sign that hangs from its exceedingly modest central tower:
ORDINANCE of the CITY
Any Person Driving over
this Bridge Faster than
a Walk will be Subject to
a Penalty of Five Dollars
For Each Offense
The NYC Department of Transportation isn’t generally known for its playfulness, but the sign – which is relatively new and entirely official, if unenforced – is a fondly playful nod to the rules of an earlier era, when traffic on Carroll St was powered by horses rather than internal combustion engines.
The Carroll St bridge inspires that kind of fondness. It was constructed in 1889, when the Gowanus Canal teemed with industrial activity and barge traffic (and also filth: accounts of “sand bars of human waste” interfering with navigation go back to 1870). Its claim to fame is that it is one of just three or four retractable bridges left in the United States (bridge aficionados have strong opinions on what qualifies as a retractable bridge vs. a much less cool bascule bridge – hence the discrepancy). As it happens, one of the others is also in New York City, over in Queens.
So what’s a retractable bridge, you’re asking? Instead of being raised to allow ships to pass beneath it, a retractable (sometimes also called “retractile”) bridge slides out of the way along an angled track. You can see the Carroll St bridge’s track and pulleys in the photo below (along with the reflection of 363-365 Bond, described in 50 Favorite Places #4). While I’ve never seen the bridge in action (barge traffic on the Gowanus isn’t what it used to be), there are some YouTube videos of reasonably recent vintage showing that, by god, it really works. (Addendum, 2/10/20: After this post went up, a friend told me of a summer street fair at few years back at which NYC DOT representatives allowed folks from the neighborhood to “ride” the bridge as it swung open and closed.)
As far as I can tell, the bridge operator’s house is unoccupied, so I assume retraction is by appointment only. (There’s a phone number by the door for you to call.)
Last fall, around the time of the Gowanus Open Studios weekend, an artist created an effigy of an angry Trump surrounded by snakes, and floated it down the canal. It eventually wedged itself into a corner by the bridge, and there it remained for several weeks.
I paid a return visit at the end of last year, and found that all that was left were the snakes. When I went by yesterday to photograph the bridge for this post, there was no sign even of them.
(Read into that a metaphor if you want. In fact, I encourage you to do so, and then act to make it a reality.)