Every morning the Verrazano-Narrows bridge greets me and every evening it says goodnight, the lights twinkling like the city’s own stars. It’s one of the best things about living in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. (The worst thing being the very long R train ride home.)
When I first moved to Bay Ridge, the bridge was an anchor of sorts. It told me, when I accidentally got off at the wrong subway station, which way was home. Walk this way, it said. Toward me. I might be biased but I think it’s a prettier than the George Washington; more elegant than the Brooklyn Bridge. Bigger than the Manhattan and sharper than the Williamsburg.
And it recently turned 50.
But the bridge, designed by Swiss-born engineer, Othmar Ammann, and the brainchild of master builder, Robert Moses, had a long difficult journey to formation: legal disputes, protests and, sadly, the deaths of three workers.
First there was dispute over what to call the bridge. The Italian Heritage Society launched a lengthy campaign in support of naming the bridge after Giovanni da Verrazano. Staten Island residents, feeling their borough was underrepresented, wanted it named the Staten Island Bridge. The neutrals pushed for The Narrows. In the end, the officials compromised with Verrazano-Narrows.
Who was this Verrazano anyway? Giovanni da Verrazano was an Italian explorer who, in 1524, was commissioned by the French to find a shorter path to Asia in the ship La Dauphine. It’s said that once Verrazano reached what would become North Carolina, he continued north; hit Sandy Hook and eventually the Hudson River. However, he miscalculated and thought the New York Bay was a big lake, turned around and went back to France. Eighty years later, Henry Hudson sailed in and, well, the rest is history.
So why the dispute? First off there was the possibility that Verrazano was not really an explorer but in fact a privateer who just...stumbled upon the mouth of the Hudson. (He was, in fact, tied to the pirate Juan Florin!)
[Fun fact: Verrazano gristly death came at the hands (literally) of Jamaican cannibals. I hope the fact that he’s got his own day (April 17th is Verrazano Day) helps him rest easier.]
Once decided on a name, there was the much bigger issue of spelling. One R? Two Rs? One Z? Two Zs? The Italian Historical Association of America had some very strong feelings about this issue. His name, in Italian, is spelled with two Zs but NYC and Governor Rockefeller decided on just the one, based upon the spelling found in early manuscripts and encyclopedias. The dispute over the Single or Double Z even lead to one courageous volunteer painting an extra Z on the sign announcing the planned construction site. And the Staten Island Chamber Physician actually quit his post over the naming issue.
But more than the name, most of the protests regarding the bridge came from the residents of my neighborhood, Bay Ridge. In Bay Ridge, the bridge was not a sign of progress but a harbinger of very real destruction. Eight hundred buildings would be leveled. Seven thousand people would have to find a new place to live. It was a difficult reality for the residents of Bay Ridge, one that was elegantly captured by Gay Talese in his book, The Bridge:
“Most people in Brooklyn did not, in 1959, understand the good part, and so they held on to their homes with determination. But sooner or later, within the next year or so, they let go. One by one they went, and soon the house lights went out for the last time, and then moving vans rolled in, and then the bulldozers came crashing up and the walls crumbled down, and the roofs caved in and everything was hidden in an avalanche of dust – a sordid scene to be witnessed by the hold-out next door, and soon he too would move out, and then another, and another. And that is how it went on each block, in each neighborhood, until, finally, even the most determined hold-out gave in because, when a block is almost completely destroyed, and one is all alone amid the chaos, strange and unfamiliar fears sprout up: the fear of being alone in a neighborhood that is dying…”
Construction began in 1959. By '63, three workers were dead. In protest, 300 of their fellow builders refused to raise a 400 ton roadway section into place until they were given saftey nets to work over. After five long arduous years (and $325 million), the bridge opened at 3pm on November 21, 1964.
And what a bridge it was!
It surpassed the Golden Gate Bridge as the largest suspension bridge in the world, with a 4,260-foot-center span between two 693-foot towers. The towers are twice as big as the Statue of Liberty! And the bridge is so long that the two towers needed to be angled away from each other to account for the curvature in the earth. Each of the cables contains 26,108 separate strands of galvanized steel wire, each about as thick as a pencil. There is enough wire on that bridge to circle the globe six times!
The opening ceremony was a huge event, attracting dignitaries such as Mayor Robert Wagner, Governor Nelson Rockefeller and “master builder” Robert Moses. The ceremony was capped off with a Navy flotilla including a submarine, two destroyers and three destroyer-escorts passing under the bridge with whistles blowing.
Open day toll: 50 cents. Ah, the good old days!