Willis Avenue Bridges

Ever since I started driving in New York City (circa 2001), the Willis Avenue Bridge was a standby for driving back from Manhattan “the free way” or simply from the East side. It was a bumpy, potholed, metal-plated piece of crap. But hey, it was free, and connected nicely with FDR Drive to the south and I-87 to the north.

More recently, they’ve been doing some sort of construction on both ends of the bridge. Something is going on near the Manhattan entrance to the Triboro bridge (yeah, yeah, Robert F. Kennedy bridge) around and above FDR drive. On the other side a lane is closed on I-87 just south of where the Willis dumps out onto it. I think there may be more than one project at work here. I assumed as a consequence of one part or another of this the regular Willis ramp from FDR had been closed since winter. In its place, a scarred patch of road past the old ramp led up to an extremely tight 270 degree curve to get on the bridge.

Driving up the FDR a week or so ago I noticed new signs for Willis. Before I knew it, my car and I were riding a brand new concrete ramp (in the place the old one used to be) up to Willis! The curve, now only 90 degrees, was even more gradual than it was before the construction. And at the end, a smooth-as-silk, brand new, Willis Avenue Bridge span. My tires were so thankful!

But the most engaging part of the drive was that the OLD Willis Avenue Bridge still stood, right next to the new one but closed to all traffic. Brother bridges, right next to each other! I knew immediately that I had to first look up the project online, then return and take pictures of this rare occurrence. I read that old Willis was over 100 years old (the condition of the surface made so much more sense after learning that). Not once in over 100 years had two bridges stood there together, and soon they wouldn’t again for another 100 or more years. It was definitely not just the pure existence of the infrastructure that spoke to me, but the sense that this was a rare point in time, a sight almost never seen.

I looked up before whether one could walk on the Triboro span from Manhattan to Randall’s Island (you can), because that’s Willis’s closest neighbor. Armed with my camera, I went in the afternoon to document. I parked in Harlem and nervously approached the Triboro pedestrian ramp. Up the ramp I ran into signs that said “No photography! Strictly enforced!” But I didn’t see a soul on the ramps either coming or going. I snapped a few photos of the brother Willises through the tall fence on the pedestrian ramp, but also found a place where the fence wasn’t, under one of the bridge supports. Funny that it should say “no photography” and also “keep moving, no loitering between signs” (it’s a drawbridge) when the view is so beautiful.

Brother Bridges through fence

Gap in the fence exposes panorama

My need to document the Willises satisfied, I kept my promise to myself to continue walking across the Triboro. It would seem incomplete, a cop-out, to just turn around and walk back mid-bridge. The ramp dropped me off in a dank corner of Randall’s Island, sort of a utility area for parks department vehicles. I made my way out into the park area of the island and peed in a not-as-gross-as-you-expect port-o-potty. I wandered over to the shore where I got a great view of both the Triboro span that I’d been on and the brother Willises. I sat on a rock on the shore, feeling the strong wind and sun, trying to capture the panorama and what it felt like to be in the space with my mind and camera so I could keep it.

Dark descent from pedestrian ramp

Triboro peeking up from Randall’s island

The Willises from my rock perch

The shore from my rock

Triboro from my perch

Feeling adventurous, I walked under the bridge approach. I knew there was a pedestrian walkway on the other side of the same span and I wanted to find it and use it to get back to Harlem. One man, maybe parks employee, in a truck, gave me a funny look as I sat on a guard rail under the bridge. Coming out the other side, I gave myself another beautiful panorama, stepping in a circle in the middle of a bare patch (maybe previously used as overflow parking or storage of some kind).

Under the Triboro

Police area under the Triboro

But as I found before with Randall’s Island, there were some crazies wandering or standing around (I’m not mean, its Siamese twin island, Ward’s, is home to the Manhattan Psychiatric Center). I heard someone break a bottle. A bit unsettled, I made my way among parks department trailer offices to the other pedestrian ramp. The walk was almost symmetrical, but different, as I was facing away from the tollbooths. This time I noticed even more the shaking of the bridge and its fence as trucks and busses passed by, even in the opposite lane of traffic. I reached for the railing by the fence as it rattled. It wasn’t scary – just the bridge showing its resilient flexibility.

Under the tolls, ready to ascend the pedestrian ramp

I notice that when I feel the impulse to move in these spaces it’s often slow, tai chi-like walking; stretching my fingertips to touch the surroundings; or sitting and looking.

Taking a few pictures, I wished I had gotten closer to the other Triboro span and the Hell’s Gate bridge, but that’s a trip for another time. I noticed the maze of vehicle ramps on my descent, more than on my approach, and the walkway dropped me off safely back on solid ground.

Hell’s Gate and Bronx-Queens Triboro bridges

Looking south on FDR

Triboro drawbridge mechanism

The East River

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6 Responses to Willis Avenue Bridges

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