The Williamsburg Bridge may not have inspired the adoration that certain other bridges have — no Simon and Garfunkel songs or Hart Crane paeans — but the Brooklyn Arts Council is making sure that its centennial is celebrated in style, with a truck-sized bridge-topped cake, exhibits and discussions. Serenades to the bridge include an Italian giglio brass band, Dominican merengue, klezmer music by Andy Statman and a choral rendition of Lee Feldman’s “Williamsburg Bridge.”
The “Willy B,” as its celebrants call it, has always been in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, which marked its 120th anniversary earlier this month. While the “first East River bridge” is renowned as much for its aesthetics as for its engineering, its younger sibling was constructed for one reason only: “bald utility,” as a 1903 Scientific American article put it.
Much of New York’s modern Jewish geography can be ascribed to the bridge, which enabled masses of Jews to escape the overcrowded Lower East Side by moving to Williamsburg, whose longtime Irish and German residents were moving farther into Brooklyn. The neighborhoods the bridge connects still have significant Jewish populations today. With the Lower East Side’s gentrification over the past decade has come a repopulation by observant Jews. In Williamsburg, if you take a left you’re among the artists, a right and you’re with the chasidim — not as prosperous as their Boro Park brethren but, like the artists, creative, energetic and fruitfully multiplying.
In 1987 composer Feldman moved to Williamsburg, which, he said, was the cheapest neighborhood he could find, but “desolate.” His strolls on the bridge’s walkway — “shoddy and dangerous, but with a hell of a lot of charm” — and his interest in other strollers is transmuted into the song “Williamsburg Bridge.” Now learning Yiddish, the composer is both Jew and artist, representing both Brooklyn neighborhoods where the bridge finds a foothold.
The Willy B itself first opened for business not in June, but on December 19, 1903 — so after the big party, it will have a chance to celebrate its birthday with its regular clientele. Without fanfare, it will then do what it’s always done — take people from one place in the city to another.
Continental Army Plaza Park area, Roebling at S. 4th Street, Williamsburg; June 22, 11 a.m.-6 p.m., please visit Web site for complete listings; free. (www.brooklynartscouncil.org)