The Verrazano Narrows Bridge is intertwined with the growth of Staten Island and assorted problems related to it. The bridge was the first direct road connection between Staten Island and the rest of New York City. As a result, residential and economic/commercial growth exploded in the years after the bridge was built.

From the 1960 census to the 2000 census, Staten Island's population has nearly doubled (from approx. 222,000 in 1960 to 443,728 in 2000) while the rest of New York City's population has leveled off or even declined.

With the boon there's been growing pains. Increased traffic and pollution are two major issues. The bridge itself was related to both, as long lines at the toll booths led to traffic nightmares and tons of air pollution. In 1986, a mandate shifted all tolls to Staten Island-bound traffic only (instead of 2-way tolls), so much of the traffic jams and pollution are on the bridge itself and in nearby Brooklyn.

Unrelated to any of this, the bridge is the site of the start of the New York City Marathon.

Staten Island has always been the "forgotten borough" of New York City. Closer to New Jersey than to the rest of Greater New York City, it was even politically part of the former state until 1664. Legend has it that this transfer occured when a boat race between the two states was won by New York and Staten Island was the prize. Staten Island is also the most "rural" of the five boroughs, and a Republican enclave in a largely Democratic city. Staten Island even voted in 1993 to secede from New York City, although ten years later they still remain a part of the metropolis. But we're not here to insult Staten Island.

Staten Island and Brooklyn are separated by a strait known as the Narrows which divides the Atlantic Ocean from New York Bay. Obviously a strategic military location, the Narrows was used by the British to stage an invasion of Brooklyn during the Revolutionary War. Two forts were built on opposite sides of the straits, with Brooklyn getting Fort Hamilton in 1831 and Richmond County turning a 1779 British fort into what would become Fort Wadsworth in 1812.

For years the only connection to Staten Island was by ferry. The first real bridge to the island was built in 1883 by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. This line, called the North Shore Line, connected to existing trackage in New Jersey over a lifting bridge built over the Arthur Kill. However, railroad cars would still have to be ferried across the Narrows or the bay to Manhattan and Brooklyn. The railroads were not the only ones who wanted a permanent crossing. The ferry across New York Bay took half an hour. The ferry to Brooklyn took only ten minutes, but ice or fog or other problems could delay or even stop the ferry service.

The B & O proposed a rail tunnel in 1888. Unfortunately, internal problems within the rail company delayed approval. In 1910, long after Staten Island was made part of Greater New York, Charles Worthington unveiled designs for a 2500' long, 260'-clearance bridge across the Narrows, meant to not only connect Staten Island to its sister boroughs but also to serve as a gateway to The City. The Army, unsurprisingly, nixed the idea, pointing out that yes, the bridge would be wonderful and all, and great for the city, but if the bridge were to fall or be destroyed, then New York Bay and the Brooklyn Navy Yards would be paralyzed.

New York City Mayor John Hylan authorized construction of a twin-tube rail tunnel for the BMT between Brooklyn and Staten Island in the 1920s. Construction was started, and holes were dug, but the costs were higher than expected and the site was abandoned. The city never filled in the excavation, however, and the site was referred to as "Hylan's Holes". (Supposedly, the holes can still be found in Owl's Head Park. Further exploration in the late fall of 2003 turned up no evidence, however.)

Three more bridge ideas were run up the pole in 1926, 1929, and 1937. The 1926 bridge would have been a Gothic masterpiece which would have included observation towers and beacons. The military was not alone in denying this particular bridge; the public stood behind them, including then-Congressman Fiorello LaGuardia.

By 1931, the three vehicular bridges that connected Staten Island to New Jersey were built, but were barely used because, let's face it, who wants to go to Staten Island? The Port Authority had to be given control of the Holland Tunnel in order to stop losing money on the bridges. The City proposed another tunnel in 1941 but, as the Depression shelved the earlier projects, the war would shelve this one.

In steps Robert Moses. The Narrows crossing fell under his jurisdiction in 1946 when he gained control of the Tunnel Authority. Moses carefully studied the proposals and then decided that the tunnel should instead be a bridge. It would be cheaper, he said, and take less time. Of course, it would also be the first thing sailors into New York City would see, and he already lost his chance to stick one of his structures in front of the New York City skyline.

The Army was again a problem. Although they had dropped the argument that a Narrows crossing would weaken the city's defenses, and the two forts that faced each other across the narrowest part of the Narrows were long since useless, the Army did not want to give up any part of their land. Eventually, through Moses' shrewd negotiaton, enough land was granted even to allow the bridge to be shorter than originally planned. An example of Moses' negotiations came with his acquisition of Hendrick's Reef, a small island in the Narrows that was home to Fort Lafayette. The fort was abandoned after World War II, and Moses argued successfully that the island should be placed under the Parks Department's jurisdiction, claiming that "commercial interests" would ruin the site. The only real opposition came from the American Legion, who wanted to place a headquarters on the island. Moses, unsurprisingly, won, and essentially owned the site. Rather than developing it, or turning it into a park, he demolished it in 1960 and used the reef as the base for the Brooklyn tower of the bridge.

After Moses released his Joint Study, detailing all of the work he felt should be done in the city, he ran into what would have been another problem for anyone except him. In order to construct the bridge and its approachways, he would have to condemn houses that lay in the right-of-way he wanted. The residents of Bay Ridge protested and picketed and petitioned that the bridge approachways run along the shoreline and connect to the Shore Parkway there, rather than the approach from the Gowanus that Moses proposed. Moses carefully considered their requests, but maintained that his way would require less condemnation of property and cost less. The right-of-way was acquired in 1957, and despite vehement efforts by the public and politicians, seven thousand residents were removed from their homes in 1959. Interestingly, some of these residents (including some of the most violently opposed) ended up working on the bridge.

Incidentally, the opposite was occuring on the Staten Island side. Twice as many homes would be destroyed in Richmond County, but the residents were all for the bridge; it would finally link their isolated community with the rest of the city of which it had been a part for over 60 years. 1959 saw a massive land rush on the island, with lots doubling or tripling in price, some even during the same day. The bridge was seen as Staten Island's savior.

What may have been Moses' master stroke came with the payment of the bridge. The Port Authority, the TBTA's chief rival, wanted the Narrows Crossing more than anything. The problem was, the Port Authority had the money to build it, but not the power; Moses, of course, had the power, but wanted to use the money he had for other projects. A "Joint Program" between the Port Authority and Moses' TBTA was entered into. The contract of the Program stated that the Port Authority would pay for the construction of the bridge, but would lease it to the TBTA with the option to buy once sufficient revenue was generated. Moreover, the TBTA would have total control of the bridge: operation, maintenance, everything. Finally, the PA would be paying for the bridge with money that they had set aside to build a bridge at 125th Street in Manhattan (which Moses would have had nothing to do with); they would be forced under terms of the contract to defer the project indefinitely. Moses' funds were therefore freed up to work on his other bridges and highways, and he essentially came out of the deal with a free bridge.

With the land problems out of the way and the public dealt with, the last problem was that of naming the bridge. Staten Island residents wanted to call it the Staten Island bridge, their reasoning being, well, it's the first New York bridge to Staten Island. The Staten Island Chamber of Commerce even went so far as to charter a small plane carrying a banner urging the support of that name. Official support was behind naming it after Giovanni da Verrazano, the first white explorer of New York Bay. There was much popular opposition to this name, some complaining that it was hard to spell or pronounce, others (mainly the Irish) not wanting a bridge named after an Italian. Some of those opposed took to referring to the bridge as the "Guinea Gangplank", a name that became even more apt when thousands of Italians, soon after its completion, began to flee one island to settle on another. Other names were thrown out: "Gateway Bridge"; "Freedom Bridge"; "Neptune Bridge"; "New World Bridge"; "Narrows Bridge". One person expressed, in a letter to the Times, that the name Verrazano was neither "romantic" nor "tremendous" enough, and suggested that the bridge be called the "Commissioner Moses Bridge". The Italian Historical Society threw their weight in support of their countryman from centuries past, and after a few months of debate, the bridge received the title of "Verrazano-Narrows Bridge".

Othmar Ammann was chosen as the chief engineer, and the bridge was officially started on August 13, 1959. Construction began first on the anchorages that would hold the weight of the cables, and cofferdams were sunk to build the piers that would hold the towers. The two massive arches themselves were built during 1962. The cables were spun during the early part of 1963, and then in October the deck was begun. The laying of the cables was done against tradition: rather than finding a way to lay the original rope that would later hold the catwalks on which the cablespinners would travel from the ground, the first ropes would be hauled to the top of the two towers from barges in the Narrows, and the Coast Guard had to stop all traffic in the area during the process. The deck was, also against tradition, built from the middle outward, in order to reduce the strain on the towers and cables. 75 "boxes", 115' x 27', were built on the ground and hoisted up to the level at which they would be installed. Nets were hung under the bridge after the third (and final) death on the bridge in 1963, although an additional five-day strike by the ironworkers would also be required.

The bridge (then the world's longest) and its six-lane upper deck would be open to the public on November 21, 1964. The six-lane lower deck was scheduled to be opened in 1975, if traffic proved that it was needed, or possibly it would be converted to rail use, connecting the Fort Hamilton line to the B & O tracks on Staten Island. Moses, of course, would not hear of one of his projects being used to carry public transportation, and as by 1966 the bridge was carrying traffic at a level he hadn't predicted would happen until 1980, Moses went over the opposition of then-Mayor Lindsay and opened the second deck in June 1969.

The impact on Staten Island was incredible. The meager population of the borough doubled in just a few years after the bridge opened (many of the new residents the Italians mentioned before); now, Staten Island was at least sort of useful. Unfortunately, not all of the effect was beneficial. The toll plazas were built on the Staten Island side, and collected the tolls from people crossing either way. Richmondites complained about the pollution caused by millions of idling cars waiting in both directions to pay their tolls, and about the congestion found on the Staten Island Expressway because people who wanted to get around the island had to compete with those who wanted to leave. In 1986, a compromise was struck, and the toll was doubled, but only collected in one direction.

BRIDGE FACTS

The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge was, at its completion, the longest suspension bridge in the world, beating out its nearest competitor by a meager 60 feet. Since 1981, it has fallen behind other bridges to become 6th longest in the world; however, it still remains the longest in America. If the Army had not given up its land, the bridge would today be the fourth longest in the world, at 4,620'.

The bridge is long enough that certain factors had to be considered in its creation. It is somewhat famous for requiring the curvature of the earth to be taken into consideration: the tops of the towers are 1 5/8 inches further apart from each other than the bottoms. The curve of the bridge, designed to meet the Army's requirements with a four-point grade on the approaches, lowers up to 12' during the summer months, due to expansion of the joints between the "boxes" which make up the roadways. The bridge even expands differently depending on the time of day: on long summer afternoons, the sunny side could be significantly lower than the shaded side. Because of this, the more precise measurements of the bridge had to occur at night.

The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge is 6,690' long, anchorage to anchorage. Throw in the approaches as well and the total length becomes 13,700'. It is 103' wide, and carries 12 lanes of traffic: 3 in each direction on both decks. The center of the arch rises an average of 228' above the surface of the Narrows; the two towers rise 693' above mean high water. The whole thing was completed at a cost of $320,126,000. An average of 190,000 vehicles cross the bridge daily. The toll, as of this writing, is $8, double the usual MTA toll, for it is collected Staten Island-bound only.

There is currently no support for pedestrians or bicyclists to cross the bridge. Pedestrian walkways were included in the original design, but Moses feared that people would use the bridge as a means for suicide and so the walkways were not built. Pedestrians are only allowed on the bridge for the New York City Marathon, and bikers during the 5-Boro Bike Tour. A movement has been lobbying since 1994 to have these walkways installed.

The views from the bridge are unsurpassed by anything short of those from the Staten Island Ferry. Moses had this in mind when the bridge was planned; his emphasis when creating many of his bridges and parkways was that the driver should enjoy the scenery. However, signs on the bridge explicitly prohibit picture taking from the bridge (the only bridge in New York City that obviously has this restriction). Since there is no pedestrian access to the bridge, the only way a driver can appreciate the views of the city is during one of the frequent traffic jams.

The bridge was red as it was built and clad in steel, painted "battleship grey", before the opening. The bridge was formerly illuminated at night, dramatically sillhouetted against the night sky. For some unexplained reason, the only lights that remain on the bridge at night are the navigation lights upon each tower, the lights on the cables, and the streetlights which illuminate the two decks. The bridge, however, rendered obsolete a lighthouse that was situated at Fort Wadsworth.

SOURCES

http://www.hamilton.army.mil/Default.htm
http://anand2.home.att.net/sp/Fort.htm
http://www.nyfreedom.com/thenarrows.htm
http://statenislandusa.com/html/hike_nature.html
http://www.uscg.mil/hq/g-cp/cb/JAN00/NY.html
http://www.nycroads.com/crossings/verrazano-narrows/
http://www.transalt.org/bridges/verrazano.html
http://www.mta.nyc.ny.us/bandt/html/veraz.htm
http://www.newyorkled.com/verrazanobr02.htm
http://www.structurae.de/en/structures/data/str00085.php
http://www.forgotten-ny.com/STREET%20SCENES/bayridge/bayridge.html
http://www.panix.com/~danielc/nyc/sibktunl.htm
http://www.brooklynhistory.org/main/calendar.html
http://www.nyrail.org/sir/sirt-arlington/

Talese, Gay. The Bridge. Harper & Row: 1964
The New York Times, The Curious New Yorker. Random House: 1999
Ellis, Edward Robb. The Epic of New York City. Kondansha America, New York:1997 (originally published 1966)
Homberger, Eric. The Historical Atlas of New York City. Henry Holt, New York: 1994
Miller, Stuart and Sharon Seitz. The Other Islands of New York City. W.W. Norton & Co: 2001
Caro, Robert A. The Power Broker. Vintage Books-Random House: 1974
Wright, Carol von Pressentin, Stuart Miller, and Sharon Seitz. Blue Guide: New York. W.W. Norton & Co: 2002

phone calls to Fort Hamilton and the Brooklyn Historical Society

This is just another tale that’s been waiting to be told, perhaps, waiting too long.

As a so-called adult, I feel it’s pretty safe to say that a lot of things messed with my head when I was growing up. Here’s just another lesson in life that was learned way too early.

As a kid, I could just about see it from my back yard. When I’d wander the streets of 3rd or 4th Avenue, its looming presence was inescapable. I rode my bike under its shadows and fished near it along the shore. It gained some notoriety on a larger scale in the 1976 movie Saturday Night Fever when one of the characters plunged to his death in the icy waters some two hundred feet below.

Have you ever been to a place where you didn’t want to go? I’m not talking about a physical place like a doctors or dentist office. I’m not talking about the boring confines of high school or any other place a young teenager might be forced to go. I’m talking about a place inside your head, a dark place where fear the resides. It’s a place where, at times, can be ignored but never truly forgotten.

I'm about to go there.

A long time ago I told you about some of the circumstances regarding my brother and his wild ways and his ultimate demise. Now, for some reason that I can’t even figure out, it’s time to tell the back story.

He “died” a long time before that.

At the time I was thirteen or fourteen and like most kids at that time was under a strict curfew to be home before 10:00 PM on school nights. Failure to comply would be dealt with swiftly and surely at the hands of my father and the expense of my body. I learned early to comply.

It was probably around 11:00 and we were watching one of those shitty detective stories that were so popular in the early 70’s. God, anybody out there remember the likes of Barnaby Jones, Mannix, Adam-12, Baretta and Cannon? The good guys always won. So, I’m getting ready to pack it in and call it a night when the doorbell rang. This was pretty much unheard of at the time and my father pried himself off the couch and went to answer it and I figured I’d stick around to see what was going on.

Two men flash their shields and identify themselves as detectives with the NYPD and ask if they can come in. Given my brothers track record I’m sure my folks had gone through the drill before and were either getting tired or numb to it. After a couple of perfunctory questions they got down to the business at hand. To the best of my recollection, this was the gist of the conversation.

Detective 1:”Do you know where (insert brothers name here) is?”

Father: “No, what did he do now?”

Detective 2: “When was the last time you saw him?”

Father:”I don’t know, maybe a few weeks ago.”

Detective 1:”How about the last time you heard from him?”

Father:”What the hell (or fuck, I can’t recall) is going on”

Detective 2:”Do you know how we can get in touch with him?”

Detective 1:”Maybe it’d be better if we can talk in private.”

It was then I was told to go to bed but I couldn’t help myself and made it as far as the kitchen. What the heck was going on? I knew my brother had quite a few scrapes with the law but the cops had never been to the house before. Then the shit hit the fan.

It seems the cops had discovered some of my brothers possessions such as his wallet, ID, pants and jacket atop the Verrazano Bridge. Though no suicide note was found, they thought he might have jumped and they were searching the waters for his body.

As to be expected, my mother starts going ape shit, wailing and screaming and I sit down on the kitchen floor and bury my head. My father tries to calm her down and after awhile manages to get things under some semblance of control. He makes promises to the cops that he’ll try and get in contact with my brother and will keep them updated on his whereabouts if he hears anything and they promise the same in return.

Three or four days pass and no body is recovered nor has anybody heard from (insert name here). Nobody knows what the hell to think.

I think I was hanging out on one of the corners when one of the Angels pulled up on his bike. He says something along the lines of “Hey little man, get your ass over here” and off we go. We ride around for a little bit and park in front of some apartment building I’d never been in. We get buzzed through the door and climb up a few flights of stairs and enter one of the apartments. Guess who the fuck is there?

After my initial shock turns to relief I’m told the real story. Yeah, he wanted to fake his own suicide to beat a bunch of outstanding warrants they had on him. He was planning on making a new life for himself far away from Brooklyn, New York and I wasn’t to tell a soul, not even my parents, about it. After some trepidation on my part, a pact born of brotherhood was put in place.

Things got real quiet in the borgo household for the next couple of weeks. My parents spoke in hushed tones about what they were supposed to do and my gut ached with a knowledge that I couldn’t share.

It didn’t matter, a few weeks later he got busted before he had a chance to leave town. He did some time for his warrants and then got out and was free to go about his business. The real thing wouldn’t happen for another two years or so.

Over the years I’ve questioned my decision to remain silent. On one hand, I think I kept my word but on another hand I think I could have spared my parents a shitload of grief and wonder.

In the end, there probably was no “right” decision to be made but now that I think about it that wasn’t fair of him to put such a burden on one so young. Maybe, he too, thought his was doing the “right thing” by letting me in on his little secret. I don’t know if I was better off or not.

One thing I am sure about though, those were some mighty screwed up times and I never looked at that damn bridge again without it conjuring up some bad memories.

Not to mention some feelings of guilt.

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