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Entries in New York City (3)


Blue Highways: Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, New York

Unfolding the Map

We pass over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge on our way into Staten Island and eventually out of New York City.  Why do bridges figure so prominently in our architecture, and why do we celebrate them so much?  I have a few ideas.  To see where the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge spans the waters of New York, cross over to the map.

Book Quote

"....Then a windingly protracted ascent up the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (the Silver Gate of the East coast) with its world's longest center span, and below the bay where the Great Eastern, the Monitor, the Bonhomme Richard, and the Half Moon sailed.

"The low sun turned the Upper Bay orange.  Freighters rode at anchor or headed to the Atlantic, and to the north, in the distance, a little glint of coppery green that was the Statue of Liberty.  I slowed to gawk and got a horn; the driver passed in a gaseous cloud and held aloft a middle digit opinion."

Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 7

The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Photo by Carl and hosted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host page.

Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, New York

More than any other city that I've visited, New York is connected as a city, an entity and a wider community through its bridges.

Recently, on a trip to Brooklyn with my wife for a friend's wedding, I was reminded of just how special the bridges in New York City actually are.  My wife had never strolled across the Brooklyn Bridge, and so we took part of a day to walk across.  For anyone traveling to New York, I would suggest you make that walk.  It is on an elevated wooden walkway above the traffic, and the views are phenomenal.  Just on a superficial level, if you want an amazing view of the skyline of Manhattan, the bridge is worth that walk across.  But there are multiple levels.  At each tower there are plaques that briefly tell the story of how the bridge was built, and the context of history in which it was built.

At the time the bridge was conceived, New York City was really just Manhattan.  Brooklyn was its own city and political entity and in many ways a rival of New York City.  A walk along the upper walkway takes one past a plaque that shows a woman representing the City of New York clasping hands with a woman representing the City of Brooklyn, with the bridge underneath, and the motto Finis Coronat Opus.  The Latin translates literally into "the end crowns the work," but could mean "the end justifies the means" or "the end of a crowning achievement."  Regardless, the Brooklyn Bridge paved the way for Brooklyn and New York to join together to create a greater New York.  At this time, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island also joined.

Much of New York is on islands.  Manhattan is its own island, separated from New Jersey on the west by the Hudson, and on the east from Brooklyn and Queens by the East River.  To the south of Manhattan lies Staten Island, which is also separated from New Jersey on the west by the Arthur Kill and on the east from Brooklyn by The Narrows.  There are 10 bridges connecting Manhattan to Brooklyn over the East River.  There are fifteen bridges over the Harlem River, connecting Manhattan to the Bronx.  There is one bridge over the Hudson River, the George Washington Bridge connecting Manhattan to New Jersey and four bridges connecting Staten Island to New Jersey.  Staten Island is connected to Brooklyn by the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.  Of all the bridges, the Brooklyn Bridge was the first completed, in 1883, and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge was the last major bridge to be completed, in 1964, spanning 81 years of a process where New York City connected itself together into the unified metropolis we now know.  And all of this doesn't even count the tunnels that were dug under the rivers for traffic, train and subway service.  Nor does it count the ferry services that existed before the Brooklyn Bridge, and which still operate as alternative ways to travel in the New York City area.

In fact, I'd argue that without the bridges, New York City wouldn't have become the major city that it is today.  New York City is what it is because of the variety of its boroughs and neighborhoods within them.  On my last trip there, I had the opportunity to spend a morning and early afternoon in the neighborhoods and more laid-back central areas of Brooklyn, getting the flavor of the place through its fine museum, its botanical gardens and its restaurants.  Then, we walked across the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan, noisy, busy and constantly moving.  We got above the hubbub on the High Line and enjoyed a less crowded, more peaceful walk through Chelsea, and then took a taxi up to  to meet a friend in a high-rise and fancy apartment for drinks on 5th Avenue overlooking Central Park.  We ended back up in Brooklyn by subway later that evening.

Staten Island, closer to New Jersey than the rest of New York City, has almost been a reluctant participant as a member of the consolidated New York City area, and indeed voted to secede from New York City in the 1990s.  However, the vote was non-binding and the issues of Staten Island were resolved.  Yet, even if the vote had carried some weight, I believe it would be hard for Staten Island to sever itself completely from New York City because of its connection through the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and the Staten Island Ferry.  It might be able to sever politically, but not necessarily culturally.

A bridge is a lifeline, an artery.  We have sayings that reflect how important bridges are.  We try to "build bridges" to span gulfs and bring us together with others on common ground.  We try not to "burn bridges" with friends, colleagues and those we care about.  In war, bridges are among the first primary targets, targeted to cut off routes and supplies to the enemy.  When consolidating newly conquered territories, the conquerors often build bridges to enable the consolidation to take place.

I remember the movie Escape From New York, in which Manhattan is a large penal colony and all the bridges have been mined to keep convicts on the island.  In I Am Legend, the Will Smith movie, as the contagion of the deadly virus spreads through Manhattan the military destroys the bridges in a futile attempt to keep the contagion on the island.  The main theme in both of these films is that without the bridges, the New York City as we know it ceases to exist as an entity.

With so many bridges that that connect New York City to itself - to its boroughs and neighborhoods and all that is great about the place - it is easy to appreciate the role of a bridge, no matter how small or how large, how young or how old, how complex or simple the design.  They allow us to access places not easily reached, and bring together disparate parts into unity.

Musical Interlude

I had hoped to find a song about bridges that matches this post.  But I couldn't.  A lot of songs have to do with building bridges or burning bridges.  Some have to do with jumping off bridges.  They really didn't feel right to me.  The song I kept coming back to was a simple song by Steve Young that The Eagles covered, Seven Bridges Road.  It may have nothing to do with the post, but I like it.

If you want to know more about the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge

MTA: Verrazano-Narrows Bridge Verrazano-Narrows Bridge
Verrazano-Narrows Bridge: A Brief History
Wikipedia: Verrazano-Narrows Bridge

Next up: Staten Island, New York


Blue Highways: Pawcatuck, Connecticut

Unfolding the Map

We cross into Connecticut... the 31st state on the Blue Highways tour.  I have some connection to Connecticut - I used to go there quite a bit to see some friends but I haven't been there in several years now.  I used to go to New York City a lot, and that would bring me to Connecticut.  This post i about how I was intimidated to drive in New York City, until I actually did it.  To see where Pawcatuck sits, follow the freeway to the map.

Book Quote

"When I crossed the Pawcatuck River into Pawcatuck, Connecticut, just up the old Post Road from Wequetequock, I realized I was heading straight into New York City.  I had two choices: drive far inland to bypass it or take the New London-Orient Point ferry to Long Island and cut through the bottom edge of the Apple."

Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 6

Mechanic Street in Pawcatuck, Connecticut. Photo by Jennifer and Pat at their Road Trip Memories blog. Click on photo to go to host page.Pawcatuck, Connecticut

It's hard for me to believe, but there was a time when I'd have avoided New York City.

Don't get me wrong.  I understand LHM's reasons for trying to find a way that minimized his exposure to NYC.  After all, Blue Highways states very clearly at the beginning that LHM's purposes is to find the roads less traveled.  He is not, in any sense of the word, a socially anxious person.

He is unlike my parents, for example, who avoided cities if they could help it.  We lived in a rural town with a population of just over 5,000 people.  The biggest city that my parents cared to visit regularly was a town of about 50,000 two hours drive distant, and they only did that for medical reasons or perhaps to do some shopping.  Since the mall was just off the freeway, or in other words easy to get into and easy to get out of, that suited them just fine.  When we did have to go farther, to San Francisco or Oakland for example, that was occasion for anxiety.  I've already written about how horrible it was for them to take a wrong turn or get off on the wrong exit.

I was a little different.  Something in me sought out the challenges of cities.  When I left California at age 22, I went to live in Milwaukee.  Milwaukee was large, about 500,000 people, and it felt like a big city.  Driving in Milwaukee, especially on the freeways, was fun because you had to be aware at all times.  Milwaukee was one of those cities that was built first, and when freeways came around they just threw them into places where they might best fit.  Curves were sharp and one had to watch for exits as they would just sneak up on you and before you knew it, you'd have passed them.  There was even a "bridge to nowhere," that was part of a lakefront freeway that never quite happened.  The freeway crossed the bridge over the harbor area and then, abruptly, ended in the quaint neighborhood of Bay View.

Chicago was Milwaukee times ten.  Miles and miles of freeways seemingly plunked down in the middle and the outskirts of the city.  As I drove through, looking up at the tall buildings, they seemed to almost mock me in my puny car, as if I and the rest of the little ants driving in didn't belong there.  Chicago was always filled with pitfalls.  Exits that one had to watch for on both sides, construction continually happening that blocked exits and made one detour.  Traffic jams that slowed things to a crawl and made a usual half-hour trip past downtown turn into two hours or more.  Aggressive drivers that scared the hell out of the rookie Chicago driver.  Toll booths where you literally tossed coins into a basket and hoped that the little green light flashed on.  Yet I never avoided downtown Chicago.  I could have taken the I-294 loop around the city, but I loved the challenge and I loved the views and therefore I always aimed my vehicle for the heart of downtown.

I never avoided the downtowns of any other city either.  Even if it meant taking less time off my trip, I drove through downtown Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Indianapolis just to see them.  But New York City was a different animal.  I was intimidated by that city.  I had never been there, but just the reputation alone, built up by reputation passed on through books, television, movies and word-of-mouth and other sources had me convinced that one needed to be an expert to drive there.  So it was with great trepidation that I took my first driving trip from Milwaukee to New York.  It seemed simple enough.  I would cross the George Washington Bridge, take the first exit and find a friend's place on the upper West Side just a stone's throw from the bridge.  It was intimidating, but I did it.  When I parked the car, I felt like the member of an exclusive club.  Nobody I had grown up with had ever driven in New York City!

Of course, that's all I did.  And even parking the car was a problem.  The next morning when I got up I was warned that I should check on my car because it was garbage day.  I ran out to find the street empty save for my car, which was adorned with a large ticket and a big red sticker on the the window that declared how my car had impeded that day's city services.  I drove with my scarlet letter to find another parking place and cursed what seemed a huge amount for a ticket.

Being there, however, led me to be courageous enough to drive one of the freeways, at least for a look.  It was intimidating, but doable.  And I got over my fear of driving in New York City.  I must say that I didn't do much penetration of the streets where the taxi-cabs rule.  But, I learned that any city in America is drivable if one pays attention and doesn't take loud horns too seriously.

Today, I like to think I'd drive anything.  My next goal, something I've never tried, is to drive in a foreign country (not including Canada, where I've already driven).  I'd start out with an easy one, where they drive on the right like in the US.  Then, perhaps, I'd try a country like England or Ireland where the traffic moves on the left side of the road.  I must say, I'm probably too intimidated to try driving in a place like Rome, where it seems that it would take years of study to know what the unwritten rules of the road are.  I would have to say the same for India or another developing country metropolis.  There are both written and unwritten rules for driving in those places, but the rules are too convoluted for me to follow and would take being a true native to understand.

But, you never know.

Musical Interlude

I'm going to repeat this song from an earlier post.  I was driving through Chicago and this song, Midnight Oil's Dreamworld, came on WXRT, and it was the perfect song for driving at 65 down the freeway toward the city.


If you want to know more about Pawcatuck

Greater Westerly-Pawcatuck Area Chamber of Commerce
Wikipedia: Pawcatuck

Next up: Mystic, Connecticut


On the Road: Times Square

Click on Thumbnail for MapUnfolding the Map

Sal gets the skinny guy starving himself for health to take him all the way to Times Square.  He's almost home, and so are we.  Click the map to see our progress.

Book Quote

"Suddenly I found myself on Times Square. I had traveled eight thousand miles around the American continent and I was back on Times Square; and right in the middle of a rush hour, too, seeing with my innocent road-eyes the absolute madness and fantastic hoorair of New York with its millions and millions hustling forever for a buck among themselves, the mad dream-grabbing, taking, giving, sighing, dying, just so they could be buried in those awful cemetery cities beyond Long Island City. The high towers of the land - the other end of the land, the place where Paper America is born."

On the Road, Chapter 14


Times Square, New York City

I put this video up because I really like the billboard where the guy smokes, and because it was taken in the 1940s about the time Jack Kerouac was in and out of the area.  I can imagine Jack, searching for cigarette butts on the ground to get a puff or two off underneath the billboard as he tries to figure out how to get over to Paterson without any money.

It's hard for me to imagine Times Square as it was, because I only began traveling to New York City in earnest, three times a year, for a job from 1995-2000.  At that time, the transition of Times Square from a seedy place filled with porno shops and cheap sex shows to a clean, family friendly Disney atmosphere was almost complete.  In 1995, you could still find some of the old Times Square off on some of the side streets, but they were fast disappearing under the onslaught of Mickey Mouse.

The interesting thing about Sal's statement above is how he describes being in New York City once again after having been on the road for so many months.  He almost describes the feelings that I have heard some describe after living for a while in a developing country.  The hubbub, the busy-ness and the businesses, the traffic at rush hour (which I'm sure is even worse today than in the late 1940s), the chaotic swirl of life in America's biggest city.  When you've been standing for hours in a place like Shelton, Nebraska, or picking cotton in Selma, California, or even just riding a bus through places and past names that have almost a mystical sound to them, a jolt of New York City can definitely be a shock to the system.  I suppose that in a way, large portions of rural America in the 1940s were akin to a developing country.  Though America had awakened its industrial giant in World War II, there were still large portions of rural America that didn't have running water or electricity.  If you were near a populated area, you most likely had electricity, but the farther away you got from cities or towns, the less chance that power lines extended out to you.

Sal also makes a distinction between "Paper America," or the business and legal America, with the rest of America he has just seen.  In rural America, life must have been even more in stark contrast with the city than it is today.  If one doesn't have electricity or running water, one is forced to live a more simple lifestyle.  The trappings of a modern society are not needed, nor are they missed because they have never been there.  Contracts and stocks, bonds and licenses are not as important.  Most likely, even currency was not as important because more bartering took place, i.e. a couple of dozen eggs in exchange for use of tools to fix the old truck.

For Sal, or actually Jack, stepping back into New York must have been quite a culture shock.  I'd be interested in knowing if, after visiting a more simple and innocent America, whether he saw things like smoking billboards and the hustle and bustle of Times Square as exciting, or overkill?  I know that for me, after spending a month in a developing country, getting used to the hectic pace of my own life back in the states was an adjustment.  The rhythm of the road or trip, replaced by a new beat of life.

If you want to know more about Times Square

42nd Street: At the Crossroads
An Appreciation of the New Times Square (video)
History of Times Square
Seven Decades of Times Square (video)
Times Square Alliance
Times Square: Crossroads of the World
Times Square (short film)
Wikipedia: Times Square

Next up: Paterson, New Jersey and end of trip