There’s often more to Instafamous infrastructure than meets the eye.
The first birds returned in the spring of 2022. First it was just a few scattered families: black coats, colorful heads, chirping in an unknown language. As the weather warmed, the visitors shed layers, their plumage brightening. They landed in groups, fledglings in tow. They came as singles, stretching and preening in the sunshine. They came in pairs, taking turns being the center of attention. Alighting, fluffing, resettling in a more comfortable position. Observation seemed only to make them more comfortable, as if their natural habitat were the backside of a smartphone.
Although Brooklyn Bridge Park sits on the Atlantic Flyway and plays host to more than 120 species of birds lured by its wetlands and piers cultivated with native plants, the birds I speak of here are the Instagrammers. In the depths of the pandemic, as I took my daily walk through the linear landscape, I passed real birds and local birdwatchers moving through the park in morning waves, cheeping in the underbrush, settling on the spindly trees, posing on the pylons of a ruined pier. In the afternoon the prime movers were joggers and cyclists; on weekends particularly scenic spots—the glade north of Pier 2, the deck underneath the Brooklyn Bridge, the arches at St. Ann’s Warehouse—would host parties of more exotic plumage. Brides and their clutches of bridesmaids in champagne or mint, groomsmen in matching ties. A teen decked out for her quinceañera, her dress almost as wide as she was tall. Less often, on one of the slowly greening slopes, an engagement picnic set up with the Manhattan skyline as backdrop.
But these park denizens were mostly locals, Brooklynites drawn to the edge of the borough by the promise of nature and scenic views. It didn’t feel like the city was back until the flocks returned to Dumbo. When tourists clogged the path outside Empire Stores. When strollers ringed Jean Nouvel’s transparent pavilion for Jane’s Carousel. When influencers had to jockey for position on the Belgian block surface of Washington Street, where two historic brick warehouses and one cobblestoned street perfectly frame an oblique view of the azure Manhattan Bridge.
A spot that once seemed like a perverse choice (when in history had anyone cared about the Manhattan Bridge?) and that had morphed into a neighborhood annoyance (last year’s New York Times headline: “Can a Neighborhood Be Instagrammed to Death?”) suddenly seemed full of hope. If the world felt well enough to make this pilgrimage, who was I to judge their choice of station?
If you go to Dumbo these days, it is hopping. TikTokers, music videos, photo shoots, bikes, scooters, skateboards, milkshakes, pizza, ice cream, lattes. But the hoppingest spot of all is Washington Street, where, despite the occasional honks of vans insisting the street is theirs to dominate, selfie-takers rule. There’s a family in matching black puffers and mirrored sunglasses, looking as if they have just left the slopes. There’s a young man strutting for friends in an excellent checkerboard coat. There’s a tall blonde in an iridescent parka, left unzipped so as not to camouflage her shape, bringing her hair forward over her shoulders. In fact, as I scan the singles and pairs and groups, all taking their photos on Washington Street in the spring sunshine, this is a gesture I see over and over again—as automatic as the sign of the cross—tucking both hands under the hair and bringing it forward over the shoulders to maximize the appearance of fullness. Once the hair is settled, the ritual can proceed.
The movement of the visitors also mimics the spatial patterns in church. The timid cluster in the aisles—the sidewalks—off to the side, waiting their turn on the part of the street in the sun. The confident walk up and down the center of the street, pausing to check their angle. The whole ensemble resembles a nave: The mid-height brick sidewalls of the converted factories, the stone floor of the street and, soaring above everyone’s heads, the bridge’s blue span. Foreshortening visually connects the suspension cables to the factories, while the pointed arch at the center of the Manhattan Bridge’s eastern tower completes the ecclesiastical parallel. The Brooklyn Bridge may be chunkier, the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge more minimal, but in this setting, the forgotten bridge soars.
Once I started to think of Washington Street as architecture, I began to realize how many popular Instagram sites ape sacred architecture. St. John’s Bridge in Portland, Oregon, has a more delicate, more explicitly Gothic structure, soaring high over the heads of those posing between the concrete legs of its anchorage in the park below. Chris Burden’s “Urban Light” (2008), the stand of deco street lamps that welcome visitors to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (many go no further), also suggests the stepped structure of church aisle and nave, offering foreground framing and depth of field. Acorn Street, on Boston’s Beacon Hill, is like the baby brother of Washington Street, cobblestoned and with three-story brick row houses on either side, but it lacks the drama of the high arch in the same way some say Boston’s skyline pales in comparison to New York’s.
The narrow frame, the distant release: These are also the hallmarks of many naturally occurring Instafamous sites. When Rebecca Jennings wrote for Vox about Antelope Canyon, in 2019, she noted that the canyon, “with its towering walls and natural skylight, looks like a church, or rather, churches look like it.” But Antelope Canyon, Mesa Arch, and other sought-after sites in parks and public lands have seen overcrowding, traffic jams, and destructive overuse. And yet, the cobblestones of Brooklyn, a few blocks from a subway station, can take it. The hot dog cart, parked just outside the money shot, can take it. The urban cathedrals of the past were surrounded by hardscape, commodious and easy to maintain, and so is this sacred selfie space.
“Once I started to think of Washington Street as architecture, I began to realize how many popular Instagram sites ape sacred architecture.”
Bridge No. 3 was how the project to span the East River from Canal Street to Flatbush Avenue was originally identified. The New York Times initially criticized the “meaningless” choice to officially name it the Manhattan Bridge (and indeed, the name has proven confusing), and questioned the series of designs presented to the Municipal Art Commission as decreasingly artistic. The points in favor of Leon Moisseiff’s final design were all technical—the first use of a Warren truss, an advance in deck-stiffening theory—and today his name is remembered largely as a failure. He was the design engineer for the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, which collapsed, on film, four months after it opened. Emily Roebling, who guided the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge after her engineer husband, Washington Roebling’s death, was granted her own generous memorial plaza during the pandemic (too wide for good ’gramming). Othmar Ammann, the civil engineer of the Verrazzano, George Washington, and Bayonne bridges, has his own brand of in-group fame.
It’s Bridge No. 3’s accidental ensemble of structures that have made it a star, an urban agglomeration captured in photographs. Those tourists, flocking in from season to season and year after year, turned an ordinary intersection into a place of pilgrimage by noticing, then documenting, the space as a dramatic frame for the vagaries of human appearance.
Artists have piggybacked on the spot’s popularity. Brooklyn Bridge Park has long partnered with the Public Art Fund on temporary installations. Jeppe Hein’s antic persimmon benches offered a scavenger hunt through the length of the linear park, while Olafur Eliasson’s “The New York City Waterfalls,” positioned just below the Brooklyn Bridge, underlined that structure’s position as the granddaddy of all Brooklyn bridges.
Claudia Wieser’s “Rehearsal,” installed in the park at the foot of the Manhattan Bridge during the pandemic season of 2021–2022, commented more specifically on selfie-taking practice. Five pierlike sculptures, tiled in pop colors, were scattered like sentinels on the flat plaza below the bridge. One was a mirrored arch, a reflection on what people do on Washington Street, while several others featured fragmentary images of classical sculpture, a commentary on what beauty used to be. For kids, it was another jumping off place (literally). For adults, the spot offered a pilgrimage within a pilgrimage, a side chapel for a more focused type of photographic worship.
It is easy to make fun of Instagram-famous spots as shallow (the Paul Smith pink wall), but many of them turn out to have high-art priors (Luis Barragán’s Cuadra San Cristóbal in Mexico City). To make architecture for Instagram is a task best left to festival pavilions and restaurant bathrooms; to find architecture in the wild that’s worthy of Instagram—well, aren’t we all on the lookout for something that stops us in our tracks? That lifts our eyes up to the sky? That makes us consider the slant of sunlight? That’s worthy of a hair toss? Once people are out there, they notice other aspects of the environment, too: the waves on the river, the brides by the shore, the birds. If a historic corner draws people out of their homes, back to the city, back to communal life, the least we can do is provide them a safe place to land.