50 Favorite Places #27
The Verrazzano Narrows Bridge – the second Z was added in 2018, about which more below – has connected Brooklyn and Staten Island since 1964. It’s a massive span. Until 1981, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world; it’s still the longest in the Americas. You can see it from much of Brooklyn and Staten Island, catching glimpses while walking or driving or riding the train. You can see it from Manhattan. You can see it across Jamaica Bay in Queens. And if you pick the right vantage point and maybe crane your neck a bit, you can see it from the Bronx, too. (I have not personally done this, but according to the nyfacts.com site, it’s possible.) Another fun fact from the same site: the bridge’s length required its designer to compensate for the earth’s curvature by making its two towers 1 5/8 inches farther apart at their tops than their bases. I’m sure an engineer will soon come along to say that’s not in fact unusual, but it sure sounds impressive to me.
Like the best suspension bridges, the Verrazzano is simple. This is a bridge that’s comfortable with itself. You’ll find no decorative froufrou here, just a clean, graceful, soaring span. For that, we can thank Othmar Ammann, whose decades-long career designing the city’s river crossings – from the 1930s into the 1960s, the Robert Moses era, he was New York’s bridge guy – culminated with the Verrazzano. An engineer like my father, Ammann was born in Schaffhausen, Switzerland, from whence my paternal great-grandfather also emigrated, probably at around the same time. As ridiculous as it may seem, this gives me a warm, almost familial feeling toward Ammann. I mean, how many people from Schaffhausen do you know?
So I refuse to hold Ammann responsible for the Verrazzano’s unfortunate lack of pedestrian and bicycle access. That’s on Robert Moses and his spiritual heirs at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
For now, the only time pedestrians are allowed on the bridge is during the New York City Marathon. And so my earliest and still most vivid memory of the bridge is standing on its upper level in 2005, astonishingly close to the front (I was faster then), nervously shifting my racing flats to avoid rivulets of pee from other runners, looking out at the harbor and the distant Manhattan skyline, and thinking “holy shit, am I really going to run from here to there?”
Since then, I’ve run the bridge in four more NYC marathons (always taking the descent too fast); crossed it in a variety of passenger vehicles (including the very last road trip of my late, lamented Saturn wagon, whose engine began to sputter during the crossing but, mercifully, did not die completely until we were safely on the Brooklyn side); taken in its views from a high perch on the S79-SBS bus; and jogged directly below it. Mostly, though, I experience it in fleeting glimpses as I go about my business. When I cross the Brooklyn Bridge, I see the Verrazzano in the distance. When I shop for Mexican groceries in Sunset Park, there it is, anchoring the far end of Brooklyn’s Fifth avenue. When I take the D train to Coney Island, rolling on elevated tracks through Borough Park and Bensonhurst and Gravesend, the Verrazzano rises over the endlessly repeating rooftops of South Brooklyn.
And that’s really how I like to experience the bridge: as a backdrop for daily life in the borough, seemingly ordinary until something shakes you out of your complacency and you realize how extraordinary it actually is.
Oh, yes, about that spelling. The bridge is named after the 16th century Florentine explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano, the first European to sail into what is now New York Harbor. One story attributes the dropped Z to a typo in the construction contract, but that’s a myth. In fact, the spelling was intentional – and hotly debated. Orthography in the 16th century was not particularly standardized, and Giovanni’s surname was no exception. According to the Italian Historical Society of America – the organization that led the campaign to name the bridge after the explorer in the first place – one Z was correct. In Rome, the National Committee for the Commemoration of Verazzano begged to differ (while also dropping an R). The Italian Ambassador, speaking for his country, deemed two R’s and two Z’s preferable. Leading Democratic politicians – Governor Averell Harriman, Mayor Robert Wagner – were two Zers, while Harriman’s Republican successor, Nelson Rockefeller, was a one Z man. (If you want to join me down this rabbit hole, you can start here.)
It was Rockefeller who was in office at the time of the bridge’s groundbreaking, and so Verrazano – with one Z – it was.
In the intervening decades, this historical orthographic dispute was recast as a historical injustice and an affront to Italian-Americans. It was an issue tailor-made for grandstanding politicians and so, of course, it was taken up by one – former State Senator Marty Golden, a Bay Ridge Republican whose other accomplishments included racking up speeding tickets and impersonating a cop. Golden’s bill to change the spelling to Verrazzano sailed through the legislature and was signed into law by another politician who knows a bit about grandstanding, Governor Andrew Cuomo.
The change hasn’t altogether caught on. Plenty of businesses on Staten Island and in Bay Ridge and surrounding neighborhoods, named after the bridge that towers above them, have stuck to the old spelling. Their namechecks of the single-Z Verrazano served them well for decades, and besides, replacing awnings and uniforms and trucks and delivery vans is expensive. I like the new spelling myself, mainly because I no longer have to remember which the hell it is that gets doubled, the Z or the R, only that the N is not.
With one Z or two, the Verrazzano remains one of my favorite places. Less endlessly celebrated than the Brooklyn Bridge, it’s a bridge for those of us who live here – and particularly, in its lofty disregard for Manhattan, for those of us who live outside the city’s glittering center.