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New York, New York

PHOTOGRAPH BY ANTHONY BUTERA

Known for Her Crumb Cake

Staten Islanders are an insular crowd; but once the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge connected them to the rest of New York, everything changed. Well, maybe not everything.

On November 20, 1964, the night before the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge officially opened, directly connecting Staten Island with Brooklyn and the rest of New York City for the first time, my family did something that at the time seemed equally impossible: We drove across it.

My father’s friend Jerry, who had been moonlighting as a security guard at the bridge construction site, said to meet him at the Staten Island toll plaza after dark—and so we did. When we pulled up in our green ‘61 Ford, Jerry smiled and waved us through the nearest open lane.

To my seven-year-old mind, getting an advance joyride across the bridge was beyond cool: It was like the dreams I had of flying, except it was real. With Dad at the wheel, we drove all the way to Brooklyn and back, gaping out the windows like complete hicks at a view of the harbor—and the city beyond—a view previously reserved for seagulls.

Even my father was impressed, as much as he tried to hide it. At one point the ash on his cigarette burned to such a length that it dropped onto his pants leg and he had to quickly brush it off. If it had burned through, distracting him from driving, we might have made history as the first crackup on the world-famous Verrazano-Narrows. But it didn’t.

In that situation today we probably would be shot on sight as suspected terrorist car bombers, but at the time, I guess, homeland security wasn’t such a big deal. In fact, there were a lot of other cars under the sparkling lights of the brand new suspension span that night. I assume they carried the friends and families of the steelworkers and truck drivers and watchmen and others who had worked on it, or knew somebody who did. And I’m sure it was a heady moment for all of us, young and old, getting a jump on the unlucky masses who would line up in their cars early the next morning for the “first” rides across.

 

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I grew up right near the Staten Island shore of the Narrows, and as far back as I can recall, I watched the bridge going up. The best part was when the huge steel sections of the roadway deck—pre-assembled at the Pennsylvania Railroad yard on the Jersey City waterfront—were floated under the bridge on barges and lifted up hundreds of feet by special hoists on the main cables. Eventually all the sections linked up like something out of God’s erector set, and the span was complete.

I remember that the two 60-story towers supporting the roadway were a blazing burnt-orange color throughout most of the bridge’s construction. I was pretty disappointed when the prime coat was finally painted over, prior to the bridge opening. Beautiful as it was, the bridge didn’t have quite as much flair in battleship gray. Still, when the Verrazano-Narrows opened for traffic, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world—even longer than the Golden Gate, which it kind of looked like until they covered up that sweet orange primer.

I also remember being very impressed when someone told me the pencil-thin strands of steel spun into the bridge’s cables were long enough to wrap around the equator five times. Or maybe I read that later, when I started to devour all the bridge-building books and articles I could find.

One of them was by Gay Talese, who went on to write about the Mafia and sex and other important topics. His book, The Bridge, was the story of the Verrazano-Narrows and the workers who defied gravity to build it. They were called “boomers” because they moved around the country to different boom towns where steelworkers and welders were being hired for big projects. Talese said they were “graceful in the air, restless on the ground,” drinking and catting around a lot when they weren’t on the high steel. Come to think of it, he worked some sex into that book too.

 

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This all came rushing back to mind recently when a program called A Walk Around Staten Island aired on PBS. Early on in the hour-long show, co-hosts David Hartman and Barry Lewis attended a game at the bayside stadium of the Staten Island Yankees, a minor-league team affiliated with the real Yankees. Barry admitted that it was the first baseball game he’d ever been to in his life, and Barry is no kid. You got the feeling that David—a talented high-school ballplayer long before he became a TV host—was a little hurt.

The program went on to cover a lot of the points of interest that most people who aren’t from Staten Island would never know about, like the Tibetan museum and Snug Harbor, the old home for retired seamen that’s now a cultural center. (David and Barry didn’t mention this, but there’s a stained-glass window at Snug Harbor that says it was founded for “aged, decrepit, and worn-out sailors.” They really didn’t sugarcoat it too much back in the 19th century.)

A few weeks ago, I saw the entire existence of a 71-year-old grandmother summed up as follows: “Lifelong Islander known for her crumb cake.” A Walk Around Staten Island provided some useful information for visitors from the rest of the world, millions of whom take the ferry from Manhattan every year and get right back on the boat for the return trip without even thinking about looking around. Once, a tourist on the ferry asked me if anyone actually lived on Staten Island. He was shocked when I said yes.

David and Barry also made an appropriately big deal about how the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge changed everything about the island, especially for the natives. They pointed out that the bridge and its connecting expressway system fueled a development boom in the borough that hasn’t stopped yet, that the population has more than doubled in the past four decades, and that Staten Island is still the fastest-growing county in the state, among other facts.

They were right about all that. If I had been interviewed, however, I would have added a few details. For example:

My dad wasn’t too happy about the bridge. Being Irish and an Island native, he just didn’t like the idea of those Italians escaping from Brooklyn with a one-way ride over the Verrazano-Narrows. He and my uncles used to call it the “Guinea Gangplank” when they were drinking in the backyard. Despite the slur, they turned out to be partly right.

To make room for a couple of hundred thousand people who moved in after the bridge opened—most of them, it appears, from Brooklyn—vast swaths of unprotected woods and wetlands on the Island were replaced by tract housing and condos between the 1960s and ‘80s. Of course, decades later the city and state still haven’t gotten around to putting in sewers in many of those areas. Or building enough schools. Or providing mass transit to get people out of the cars and SUVs that are strangling the local streets and highways, not to mention the residents of the borough with New York City’s worst air quality.

Meanwhile, if my father and uncles were worried about Brooklynites, I wonder what they would think about all the Sri Lankans, Liberians, Mexicans, Russians, and Albanians who have put down roots here. This kind of diversity was unthinkable when I was growing up on Staten Island. For the old timers, the only upside would have been getting soused and coming up with the equivalent of “Guinea Gangplank” for every newly arriving ethnic group.

It’s not the kind of thing David and Barry had a chance to discuss, so I thought I’d pass it along.

 

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The Staten Island Advance devoted a glowing write-up to the PBS documentary when it aired in December, saying the show was good for the island’s image. I know this because I picked up an edition of the local daily that one of my fellow commuters left behind on the ferry.

It’s hard to commit to the 50-cent cover price for the Advance, which, if you skip the ads, takes about five minutes to read cover to cover. But the paper does reveal a lot about the insularity that still exists on Staten Island, despite all the changes wrought by the bridge. When I find an abandoned copy on the boat, I often go straight to the obituaries, where natives of the borough are invariably identified as “lifelong Islanders” and everyone else gets short shrift by comparison. This includes people who weren’t born on the island but lived and raised families there for 70 or 80 years—sorry, not “lifelong” enough.

It’s very thoughtful of the Advance to provide headlines conveying tidbits about the life of the deceased. In recent issues, you might have read about the death of someone who was a “Veteran of WWII” or “Worked as a pipe fitter” or “Volunteered with her church.” A few weeks ago, I saw the entire existence of a 71-year-old grandmother summed up as follows: “Lifelong Islander known for her crumb cake.”

On Staten Island, that is not faint praise.

My father’s obituary appeared a little over 17 years after the night when we got to drive across the gleaming new bridge. Through family crises, weddings, funerals, illness and retirement, he had lived out those years cursing the Verrazano-Narrows on a daily basis.

When dad’s time came, the notice in the Advance talked about how long he had worked for the city and how much he liked to golf, all of which was true enough. If they had asked me, however, I would have added a detail: “Known for wishing they’d never built the bridge.” Every lifelong Islander who grew up with him would have understood exactly what that meant.