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What’s in a Bridge’s Name?

from the magazine

What’s in a Bridge’s Name?

On New York’s mania for naming monuments after politicians Autumn 2018
New York
Politics and law

Squabble if you will over ICE or the MTA, but for me the most engaging part of a September 2018 gubernatorial debate between Andrew Cuomo and his unsuccessful primary challenger, Cynthia Nixon, was their exchange about the name of the new Tappan Zee Bridge. An overwhelming majority of locals want to keep the old name, a position for which Nixon expressed sympathy. Cuomo, who last year pushed through a measure to call it the Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge, stuck to his guns. Coincidentally, even as the two candidates were disputing this matter, Beltway insiders were discussing the merits of Senator Chuck Schumer’s proposal to rename the Russell Senate Office Building after John McCain.

Naming a Senate office building after a longtime senator, of course, makes sense. But a bridge? In many parts of the world, it would be unlikely to see a politician’s name on a major bridge—or on any important infrastructure project. For example, the impressive span that connects Denmark and Sweden simply bears the name of the waterway it crosses, Øresund. Heathrow, Europe’s busiest airport, is named for a nearby town. Amsterdam’s airport has never been called anything but Schiphol, a word whose origins nobody is sure of.

When major European airports and crossings are named for someone, the honor is usually richly deserved. What could be more apt than naming Rome’s airport after Leonardo da Vinci, who, in his sketches, anticipated the invention of the airplane?

Likewise, it makes perfect sense for Portugal’s—and Europe’s—longest bridge to memorialize that country’s most celebrated explorer, Vasco da Gama. Yes, the airports in Prague and Madrid bear the names of politicians, but they’re not just any politicians: they are, respectively, Václav Havel and Adolfo Suárez, brave heroes of freedom who played key roles in their nations’ transitions to democracy.

In America—and especially, it seems, in New York—it’s far more common for politicians’ names to adorn public works. In some cases, the move is justified. Who would begrudge George Washington a bridge, Abraham Lincoln a tunnel, or John F. Kennedy an airport, even though none of them was a New Yorker? Franklin D. Roosevelt’s term as governor of the Empire State, his record-long tenure in the White House, and his victorious leadership of the Grand Alliance during World War II more than justify the 1945 renaming of East River Drive as FDR Drive—even though, well into the 1990s, my late father continued to call it by its old name.

In recent years, however, slapping politicians’ names on New York landmarks has gone epidemic. Did a bridge that already had two names—the Queensboro and the 59th Street—need to be given a third, in order to immortalize Ed Koch? Did the Manhattan Municipal Building need to be named after David Dinkins, an unexceptional mayor who is still alive? Michael Bloomberg has already named his own building after himself, which is his right, but when is Rudy Giuliani going to get something named after him, while we’re at it? Why rename the Triborough Bridge for Robert F. Kennedy, who, yes, represented New York in the Senate for three and a half years, but whom nobody today identifies with the Big Apple? In any event, it’s arguably in bad taste to name a bridge after a Kennedy.

I don’t live near, or use, the Tappan Zee Bridge. Nonetheless, I sympathize with folks in the Hudson Valley who don’t appreciate seeing the name of the current governor’s father—a Queens kid with no special connection to the region—slapped on the gleaming new construction in their midst. And if it has to have somebody’s name on it, why not pick a historical figure of local significance? Why not, for example, a member of the Hudson River school of artists, such as Albert Bierstadt or Thomas Cole—they both created spectacular paintings of the Tappan Zee—or Edward Hopper, who was born in Nyack, where the bridge is anchored? Or Washington Irving, whose “Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” one of the earliest works of American literature, is set on its eastern bank? Why, in twenty-first-century New York, does everything in sight have to be named after a politician?

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

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