Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Triborough Forever

Bridge Should Keep

Time Honored Name

No Offense to RFK

By Henry J. Stern
February 2, 2010

There is a subject which we have wanted to write about for over a year, but put off to see whether the passage of time would bring fresh insights or a new point of view on the question. That has not happened, and in fact our point of view has jelled. When speaking to New Yorkers about the issue, we find that a large majority, irrespective of ideology, share this opinion. It should not be a matter of politics.

The renaming of the Triborough Bridge for Robert F. Kennedy is an affront to both history and geography. Triborough is a seventy-five year old name which accurately describes the bridge's function: uniting three boroughs: Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens. It is one of New York City's landmarks, built by Robert Moses, who formed the Triborough Bridge Authority (later TBTA, the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority) to accomplish that purpose. The bridge has its own proud history and significance as a model of public works, built during the Great Depression and providing employment for thousands. The great bridge opened up Randall's Island and Ward's Island for recreational use, limited by other agencies which were given sections of Ward's for a mental hospital, now largely abandoned, and a wastewater treatment plant.

When the Triborough Bridge was opened to traffic in July 1936, President Roosevelt, Mayor LaGuardia and Commissioner Moses spoke at the ceremony. The bridge cost $60.3 million in 1936 dollars to build. It was a major architectural and engineering achievement, as well as a monument to Roosevelts New Deal, which provided substantial Federal funding for public works.

None of this has anything to do with Robert F. Kennedy, who was ten years old when the bridge opened. The opposition to the name change, however, is not based on any lack of respect or regard for Senator Kennedy, who accomplished a great deal in a tragically short public career. In fact, we have high regard for RFK, and it is appropriate that there be an impressive memorial to him in New York City. But one does not honor one man by eliminating a well-recognized geographic name which has public significance and has been used by millions for three quarters of a century.

The renaming proposal was made by Governor Spitzer in his inaugural on January 1, 2007. It resurfaced in Governor Paterson's administration, and the renaming ceremony took place on November 25, 2008, close to the 45th anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination. Robert Kennedy had been murdered in June 1968, just after winning the California primary for President, by Sirhan Sirhan, who is alive in prison, periodically seeking parole so he can be lionized in another part of the world. This was the first Arab terrorist attack in the United States, although it was not recognized as such at the time despite the fact that Sirhan made clear that he hated Kennedy for supporting Israel.

The argument can be made that nobody will call it RFK bridge anyway: the name Triborough will stick because it is sensible and informative. That may be so, but it is in fact an argument for not burdening the bridge with an extraneous formal name, one that will only baffle any out-of-towner who asks a local for directions. Millions of tax dollars have already been spent eradicating the name Triborough from highway directional signs what a way to confuse motorists!

We have other formal names in New York City that have met with mixed success. Perhaps the grandest of these was the 1945 designation of Sixth Avenue as the Avenue of the Americas, a brainchild of Mayor LaGuardia. The Sixth Avenue el had been demolished, and LaGuardia envisioned a boulevard, with statues of Latin American liberators along the way. Most New Yorkers, sixty-five years later, still call the street Sixth Avenue, and traffic signs reading "6th Avenue" have been reinstalled, just below the under the signs that say "Avenue of the Americas". The elegant name is used by some law firms and corporate offices between 42nd Street and Central Park South, but the further south you go the more the traditional name takes hold. The brand new Bank of Americas building, which could have been 1111 Avenue of the Americas (an address to die for) chose instead to be called One Bryant Park, a decision with which we, with a park heritage, agree.

Other superimposed names have fared even worse. After Yankee star Joe DiMaggio died on March 8, 1999, Mayor Giuliani proposed naming the West Side Highway the Joe DiMaggio Highway. The legislature approved, and Governor Pataki signed the bill that granted the mayor's request on March 30. This hasty reaction was completely inappropriate. The result is that nobody calls the highway by its artificial name. In any event, the highway had already been named. It was called Miller Highway, in honor of Julius Miller (1880-1955), Manhattan Borough President from 1922 to 1930. (Before assuming the borough presidency, Miller had been a state senator. After his two terms, he became a judge.) Miller was instrumental in the construction of the elevated roadway, and conducted negotiations with the New York Central Railroad to acquire the property for the city. BTW, the road was opposed by the Port Authority, who felt it would interfere with the movement of freight. When the highway was built, Joe DiMaggio was a teenager in San Francisco.

Another speedy posthumous tribute was the naming of East River Park on the lower east side for Mayor John V. Lindsay. He died on December 19, 2000, and Mayor Giuliani signed a bill naming the park John V. Lindsay / East River Park less than a year later. I served eight years in the Lindsay administration and the mayor deserves credit for his achievements and his honesty. He provided leadership at a critical time of racial unrest. He too deserves a memorial, as Mayor John Purroy Mitchel has in Central Park at 90th Street and Fifth Avenue, and Mayor LaGuardia has on LaGuardia Place in Greenwich Village, not to mention the airport, the college and many schools. But to tack Lindsays name on to East River Park creates a meaningless juxtaposition.

In the end, common usage decides what a place is called. No politician can compel people to use an inappropriate, irrelevant or tongue-twisting name. But public officials should not use names to honor the freshly departed, or worse yet, use famous names so they can have photo opportunities with people who are more important than they are. That, however, would require more restraint and good sense than many of today's officeholders are likely to possess.

StarQuest #641 02.02.2010 1091wds


  1. Larry the Luddite11:15 PM

    I still tell the cab driver National airport when I'm in DC rather than call it Reagan, and I'm a Sixth Avenue person when I'm in NYC, so I guess I'll always be a Triborough person as well

  2. Anonymous8:03 PM

    Bravo, Henry, for writing about this. Everytime I cross that bridge, I get annoyed about this name change. Some NY landmarks are bigger than any one person. Robert Kennedy did some great things in his too-brief life, but that does not justify taking away a bit of the fabric and history of the City.