Wednesday, June 15, 2016

One or Two? Bridging NY's Z Crisis

Yo - fuggeddabout all diss Orlando, ISIS, Trump, Hillary fiasco, aww-rite?

You want controversy?  We got some hot sizzling controversy heating up for ya right now down in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and Staten Island, and our big, byootiful bridge!

Yes, indeedy, folks.  As if New Yorkers didn't have anything more to fuss about, now a group of Italian historical buffs are pressing the city, owner of America's longest suspension bridge, over the spelling of its name.

It's the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and no, they're not trying to simplify its spelling.

At least these history activists aren't calling for a completely new name for the iconic bridge, which links the middle-class neighborhood of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, with Staten Island, across the southern end of New York Bay.  Officials have been on a bridge re-naming binge lately in other corners of the city, much to the consternation of New Yorkers loathe to the fickle mentality from which such switches seem to spring.

And this bridge is truly a New Yorker's bridge - very few tourists likely ever cross it, since it's so far away from Manhattan, even though it's clearly visible from the borough's southern tip.  However, if you've ever tried to get from Kennedy International to Newark International, or from Long Island to the Jersey Shore, you've almost certainly crossed the Verrazano (or had a very deceitful cabby).

When it opened in 1964, it was the world's longest suspension bridge, surprisingly graceful and elegant for such a grimy and industrial city.  From a distance, the steel architecture of its designer, Othmar H. Ammann, has aged quite well.  However, up close, you can tell it's a workhorse of a transportation link.  Unless they've spruced it up recently, anytime I ever crossed it, the swaths of rust coating its surfaces made me wonder where the bridge's expensive tolls were being spent - certainly not on its meticulous maintenance!  These days, the normal toll for passenger cars is a whopping $16 each, although residents of Staten Island pay as little as $6.24.  Yet gridlock remains common, despite the prices.

And if you've ever set sail on a large cruise ship, even if you never docked in New York, chances are that the Verrazano played a role in your cruise ship's design.  You see, to reach any dock in New York's vast harbor, all of the world's major ships need to fit underneath the Verrazano's span, which actually can fluctuate by 12 feet between summer and winter, based on the temperature.

By any measure, the Verrazano is a significant structure, even if it's not as famous as its much shorter suspension siblings like San Francisco's Golden Gate, Manhattan's George Washington, and the world's granddaddy of bridges, named after Brooklyn itself.

Yet still, why does the Verrazano's name need to be fixed?  Because of discrepancies between the various ways the bridge's namesake spelled his name, or other people spelled it for him over the centuries.  You see, Giovanni da Verrazzano normally spelled his name with two "Z"s, whereas the city only put one "Z" into their bridge's official name.  And they did that because back in the 1960's, when the bridge was being designed and built, historical experts insisted that Verrazzano himself, ostensibly in a self-aggrandizing manner, would also spell his name in its Latin form, Janus Verrazanus.

So why didn't they call the bridge "Verrazanus-Narrows"?  Nobody seems to know.  But this issue bothers a lot of Italian-Americans who want the rest of us to remember that back in 1524, it was Verrazano, or Verrazzano, or Verrazanus, who became the first Eurpoean known to sail through the narrows, over which his namesake bridge soars today.

As if misplacing a "Z" is going to cause people to forget that, or refuse to learn it in the first place.

Whenever my family would visit relatives in Brooklyn, and we'd see the sweeping Verrazano, we'd call it "Daddy's Bridge," since my Dad used to work for a company that sold a lot of the construction products used to build it.  Dad made a number of on-site visits to the construction zone in the early 1960's on behalf of his employer.  He'd even chronicled the bridge's progress when he was a student at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute.  After Dad died last year from Alzheimer's, while I was cleaning out his boxes and boxes of old photos, I came across several photos of the Verrazano under construction, and the massive gutting of venerable neighborhoods in Fort Hamilton and Bay Ridge to accommodate the mighty bridge's "landfall" in Brooklyn.

Indeed, the freeway ramps and entryways leading up to the bridge and back down to the Belt Parkway wiped out blocks and blocks of established neighborhoods - with water views, even, making them particularly desirable.  Back then, it's what big cities did to accommodate the unprecedented demands of new vehicle owners, suburbanization, and what we've now come to know as white flight.

When the Verrazano opened, western Brooklyn was an aging urban core, although its far eastern waterfront was still being developed.  Staten Island was predominantly rural, and Long Island was still bucolic.  Today, property values have skyrocketed in all of these areas;  residential subdivisions and strip malls sprawl across Staten Island's former farms and forests.  While Brooklyn's Bay Ridge neighborhood still boasts iconic bridge views from almost any avenue, it's white population back when the Verrazano opened has become more Asian, more Middle Eastern, and more Hispanic.  Yet plenty of proud Italians remain in their traditional neighborhood, with its quiet parks, tree-lined streets, immaculate homes, and tasty restaurants.

Indeed, if I had to live again in New York City, Bay Ridge is where I'd want to be.

But getting back to the missing "Z" in the Verrazano's name:  How do you think the valiant explorer would feel if he came sailing up to the entrance to New York Harbor today?  And see that mammoth silvery span arcing across those choppy, chilly waters?

Yo, dude - we name dis after yoo!

Since the ways Verrazano himself spelled his own name have contributed to confusion over how we spell the bridge named in his honor, what do you think he'd say in response to today's controversy?

Everybody, say it with me:  FUGGEDDABOUDIT

Extra!  Three photos from the flotilla of ships, including warships, tall ships, and the QE2, celebrating the Statue of Liberty's 100th birthday over the 4th of July weekend in 1986 - thirty years ago.  And yes, that's me in those white pants...

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