Beth Fertig is WNYC’s Contributing Editor for Education. She previously covered politics, which included City Hall during the Giuliani administration, and the U.S. Senate campaigns of Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton. She also covered transportation and infrastructure.
Verrazano Bridge Turns 40
Sunday, November 21, 2004
Brooklyn, NY –
When the Verrazano Narrows Bridge opened forty years ago this weekend, it was the world’s longest suspension bridge. The Brooklyn Historical Society has mounted a new exhibit about the bridge. WNYC’s Beth Fertig has more.
On November 21st, 1964, nearly 5000 people attended a ribbon cutting for the new Verrazano Narrows Bridge. Mayor Robert Wagner called it a new summit of achievement.
WAGNER: The Verrazano narrows bridge is the longest and costliest single span suspension bridge in the world. Honoring the Italian Giovanni da Verrazano who sailed through these waters under the French flag 440 years ago.
Today, the Verrazano doesn’t get the attention of the Brooklyn Bridge or the George Washington. It’s best known as the starting point for the New York City Marathon. Or where John Travolta portrayed the cavalier Tony Manero in the 1977 film "Saturday Night Fever," climbing along the bridge’s parapets with his buddies from Bay Ridge.
GUYS IN MOVIE YELLING: "Whooo! Whooo!"
Aside from those who use it or live nearby, most New Yorkers can fugedaboutit.
MEYERSON: I think it is underappreciated and it may be because a lot of Manhattanites don’t really go on it very much.
Ann Meyerson is a curator at the Brooklyn Historical Society, which opened an exhibit about the Verrazano Bridge on Friday. The bridge was a tremendous feat of engineering.
MEYERSON: It is an untold story. The designer who designed it is kind of an untold story. I mean Othmar Amman was, he designed all the major river crossings of the 20th century in NYC. The George Washington Bridge, the Throgs Neck, the Whitestone, the Lincoln Tunnel.
But the Verrazano dwarfed any of thOse. It’s so long that engineers had to account for the curvature of the earth by making its towers about an inch and a half wider at the top. The exhibit features original drawings and documents from the MTA’s bridge and tunnel division. There are also breathtaking pictures of the ironworkers walking on narrow platforms nearly 700 feet above water.
Fifty-nine year old Joseph Farrell was an apprentice iron worker at the time. He helped spin the wires that form the bridge’s cables, draping them from Staten Island to Brooklyn. Sitting on a bench in Bay Ridge he gazes up at the bridge and dryly recalls working under conditions that would cause the average New Yorker to suffer a panic attack.
FARRELL: I had a job. And I was making some money. I mean I just went to work and this is what it was, and the heights didn’t seem to bother me I never gave it a thought to be honest with you.
But Farrell acknowledges the winds were dangerous, as he walked along girders that could be as narrow as 2 feet wide or even six inches in places.
FARRELL: The way the wind blows over this water it would blow you right off the iron. That was to me and still is the most treacherous part of this business. When the wind grabs you on the open iron, it can be very dangerous.
Three men died while building the bridge. The project took five years. And there was tremendous neighborhood opposition. Seventy-two year old Andrew Sichenze was living in Bay Ridge at the time. He recalls one meeting where Mayor Wagner and the legendary Bridge and Tunnel Authority chairman Robert Moses addressed the residents.
SICHENZE: There was one fellow who spoke who was very, very aggressive and very upset over it. It was Charlie Bianco. And I'll never forget his speech and he was getting real excited, very, very excited. And what happened, Charlie Bianco said at the conclusion and real fiery he said, "The trouble with you, Mister Mayor, is you’re following the wrong Moses!" I’ll never forget that statement.
Perhaps the most dramatic changes were felt on Staten Island. Its population has doubled since the bridge's opening. Staten Island’s official historian – 75-year old Dick Dickerson – recalls coming over from Manhattan by ferry to visit relatives when he was young.
DICKERSON: I mean people grew vegetables, they would grow, have some chickens at least. They might have a farm animal like a pig occasionally. And of course cows.
The Verrazano was the city's last great public works project. And it's still something to marvel at. Especially in Bay Ridge.
TONY: "Do you know how tall that bridge is. That bridge, that tower right there goes up 690 feet. They got 40 million cars..."
Maybe Tony Manero said it best, when he prattled off its impressive statistics to the dancer Stephanie in "Saturday Night Fever."
TONY: The center span right there is 4260 feet long. And with the on ramps it all together totals something like 2 and a half miles. STEPHANIE: You know all about the bridge, don't ya? TONY: That's right.
The Verrazano Bridge exhibit is at the Brooklyn Historical Society through March. For WNYC, I’m Beth Fertig.