Before the Bridge

Fifty years ago this month, on a frigid Saturday in 1964, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, connecting Brooklyn to Staten Island, officially opened for business. Despite the cold, the mood was celebratory. Robert Moses, Mayor Wagner, Cardinal Spellman, Governor Rockefeller, and the borough presidents of Brooklyn and Staten Island cut a ribbon on the Brooklyn side, then crossed the span in limousines.

The Verrazano-Narrows at 50

Image via the MTA via flickr.

Fifty years ago this month, on a frigid Saturday in 1964, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, connecting Brooklyn to Staten Island, officially opened for business. Despite the cold, the mood was celebratory. Robert Moses, Mayor Wagner, Cardinal Spellman, Governor Rockefeller, and the borough presidents of Brooklyn and Staten Island cut a ribbon on the Brooklyn side, then crossed the span in limousines.

The celebration on the other side of the bridge—going from Staten Island to Brooklyn—was more irreverent. Seven young men in rented tuxedos, all Staten Islanders, rode a pale blue Cadillac convertible over the span. They had parked the car all week behind the Staten Island toll gate to ensure that they would be the first to cross in that direction. A few hours before that, a few thousand teenagers from various high schools on Staten Island had marched across the bridge; my mother, Jane Lebitz, then a sophomore at Countess Moore, a newly opened all girls Catholic school, was one of them.

Her parents had moved to Staten Island from Brooklyn in 1950 when the Todt Hill Housing projects opened. Todt Hill, a little east of center on the Island, is one of the few affluent neighborhoods on the Rock, but the projects, located at the bottom of the hill, quickly filled with working-class families—mostly Italian and Irish, a few Puerto Rican, a handful of Jews and blacks. My grandfather, Alex Lebitz, was a World War II veteran and a New York City cop. His parents were both born in Russia, and he spoke Russian fluently; he worked as a translator during the war. He was also Muslim. My grandmother, Mary Krane, was from an Irish Catholic family in Brooklyn. She had four older brothers who’d all served during World War II.

My grandparents divorced before I was born. Alex Lebitz moved to New Jersey and remarried, exiting the story before I entered. Out of loyalty to my grandmother, I never learned much about him. I don’t know how an Irish Catholic girl and a Russian Muslim ended up together in the 1940s. I only know that they met, got married, and, seven months later, my mother was born. Four more daughters followed. The youngest, my aunt Mary Beth, arrived two years before my mother walked across the Verrazano.

My father grew up in Bay Ridge, the neighborhood where the bridge is anchored in Brooklyn. He met my mother at a fraternity party on the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University. When they were dating, he would take a bus over the Verrazano several times a week to see her. After he got drafted, in 1969, they got engaged. My father served almost two years in the Infantry, some of it in Vietnam, some of it in Hawaii. (He liked Hawaii better.) When he got home, my Aunt Linda drove my mother out to JFK to pick him up. On the way back to Staten Island, Linda’s white Volkswagen Beetle, festooned with peace signs and other hippy paraphernalia, broke down in the middle of the Verrazano Bridge. My father, still wearing his Army fatigues, got out and pushed the Beetle to the toll booth on the Staten Island side. Despite the car’s condition and my father’s uniform, they still had to pay the toll, which was seventy-five cents at the time.

I grew up in Tottenville, a town all the way out on the southern end of Staten Island. It’s as far away as you can get from the Verrazano and still be on the Island. In the 19th century, while Manhattan was starting to urbanize, Staten Island was still a series of discrete little towns. Tottenville was among the most prosperous, home to a host of maritime industries. Tottenville oysters were well known for their quality. When people still relied on horses for transportation, Tottenville served as an important way station on the road from Philadelphia to Manhattan; there was a ferry crossing over the Arthur Kill from Perth Amboy, New Jersey, to Tottenville. A shipyard industry developed. Later, a few small factories opened along the water.

The prosperity didn’t last. In the 1920s, the Staten Island oyster industry, which had been teetering, collapsed. Tottenville oysters were deemed unsafe to eat by the NYC Health Department—it existed even then!—after sewage-contaminated oysters from the Raritan Bay caused a series of typhoid outbreaks. In 1928, the Outerbridge Crossing, connecting Staten Island to New Jersey, was finished, diminishing the need for a ferry. People started using steel to make ships, instead of wood. The world moved on. Tottenville slid into irrelevance and then obscurity. By the time my parents moved there, in 1974, it was just a quiet, slightly run-down town on the southern end of a little-known borough of New York City, which itself was going bankrupt.

My parents bought an old, rickety Victorian on Manhattan Street. They also bought two adjacent, undeveloped, fifty-by-one-hundred-foot lots because my mother wanted a yard for her kids. The house cost $30,000; the lots cost $1000 each. They put all their savings toward the down payment. We later learned that the lots had served at some point in the past as a bottle repository; basically, people tossed their empty glass bottles there. Upon figuring this out, my father spent one summer conducting a quixotic Indiana Jones–type excavation in the backyard in the hopes of finding valuable glass bottle antiques. He did find one: a translucent, brown bottle for something called Murphy’s Kidney and Liver Cure, valued at $140. Mostly, what he found were the fragments of oyster shells.

Tottenville was a lovely place to grow up. What it lacked in prosperity it made up for in open spaces and a quaintness not usually associated with New York City. In addition to our large oyster shell–strewn backyard, there were plenty of places to explore: woods, beach-side bluffs, a ferry graveyard. There were lots of other kids to play with. I walked to school through the eighth grade.

In the same way that Staten Island was isolated from the rest of New York City, Tottenville was cut off from the rest of Staten Island. The North Shore of the Island has always been more densely populated. The neighborhoods near the ferry terminal—St. George, Tompkinsville and Stapleton—are relatively urban. Other North Shore neighborhoods—West Brighton, Westerleigh, Rosebank, Castleton Corners—vary in terms of architecture and demographics but are mostly well-established middle-class enclaves like you might find on parts of Long Island. As you moved farther south, though, the neighborhoods—Great Kills, Eltingville, Annadale—were spaced further apart, separated by a copse of woods or a stretch of marsh. Tottenville was “all the way out,” in the local parlance, a peninsula, past even the Outerbridge. When I was growing up, if you told someone from the North Shore that you were from Tottenville, they’d hum the banjo theme from Deliverance.

Shortly after my younger sister, Kristen, was born, my father and a friend bought a bar together back in Bay Ridge. Running the bar was my father’s principal job, though sometimes not his only job, for the entirety of our childhoods. Once again, my father crossed the Verrazano almost every day, sometimes twice a day, weekends included. When I was a kid, I loved going to the bar with him. He had pinball machines and, later, video games. The bartenders made me Shirley Temples. On the drive over the bridge, he usually took the lower ramp and I always hoped he would take the lane on the far right because if he did, I might catch a glimpse of a tank at Fort Wadsworth, which sits below the bridge. For some reason, I never voiced my desire. Sometimes he ended up in that lane, sometimes he didn’t.

For a period in the late eighties, my father’s mother and one of his bachelor uncles needed daily assistance. Both were elderly, both still lived on their own in Bay Ridge. During this time, my father, distracted and not the best driver to begin with, got into a ridiculous amount of fender-benders, something like 11 in the space of three years. He even managed to rear-end a city bus on the Verrazano itself. No one was hurt during any of these accidents, but they caused tension; every time my father was late for dinner, we all started worrying that he’d crashed again. An entry from my sister’s diary at the time is instructive: Dear Diary, Well, guess what, Mom and Dad are fighting again. Dad got into another car accident. Mom says the insurance is going to drop us. Are we poor? Help! Love, Kristen. My brother actually read this entry at my sister’s wedding and brought the house down. My father took the jab in stride but later pointed out that he’s only been in a handful of accidents since then.

My father’s mother passed away in 1996. When she died, she was still living in the same apartment that my father grew up in, on 86th Street in Bay Ridge. She didn’t want to move so she spent the last fifty-two years of her life in a one-bedroom apartment on a major commercial thoroughfare. My father inherited his mother’s geographic intransigence. Though he lived on Staten Island for thirty years, I’m not sure his heart ever left Bay Ridge. He still owns the bar, still shoots the bull with the old-timers who come in for cheap draft beer.

My father’s bar is a neighborhood joint. But the neighborhood has changed. Once largely Irish, Italian, and Scandinavian, Bay Ridge has seen a large influx of Arab Americans in the past three decades. Lately, Brooklyn’s Chinatown has started to crowd in on Bay Ridge as well. In my father’s experience, the Chinese and the Arabs don’t drink like the Irish or the Scandinavians. And running a bar has become more difficult: if you want a cigarette, you have to go outside, and you can’t take your drink with you. On the other hand, it must be said, you will have a great view of the Verrazano down Third Avenue.

One weekend afternoon, while driving over the bridge to come home, my father saw a car pulled over and a man out on one of the stanchions that harness the bridge’s cables, looking as though he were going to jump. My father pulled over in front of the man’s car and pleaded with him not to do it. The man was despondent, possibly drunk; his wife had recently left him, taking their kids. All he had left was his dog, which was sitting in the backseat of his car. My father focused on the dog. What will happen to it? he asked the man. You take it, the man replied. I can’t, my kids are allergic, my father lied. And so it went for a while, the man threatening to jump and my father asking him to think about the dog. Eventually, the police showed up and asked my father to keep talking to the man, as he’d established a rapport of some kind. So my father stayed. After a while, the man came back on to the bridge and into police custody. My father got back in his car and continued home. When he came inside the house, he broke down and started sobbing.

If you jump off the Verrazano, you probably aren’t harboring any doubts; it is a 230-foot fall from the upper deck to the water, and the chances of survival are extremely slim. The deck of Brooklyn Bridge, by way of contrast, is only 120 feet from the water at its highest point. The reason the Verrazano is so much higher is the Narrows: a deep and, well, narrow strip of sea between Staten Island and Brooklyn through which all ships must pass in order to enter New York Harbor. Those ships full of immigrants gazing up at the Statute of Liberty? Those enormous cruise ships that carry people off for a week or two of eating and drinking in the Caribbean? They all pass through the Narrows, and some of those ships are very tall. (The Queen Mary 2, a massive transatlantic ocean liner, had to be designed with a smaller funnel so that it could fit under the Verrazano; still, the clearance at high tide is just thirteen feet.) Giovanni da Verrazano, way back in 1524, also came through the Narrows. The Narrows is the entryway to New York City, but its narrowness also makes it a natural harbor, easily protected from unfriendly ships; stick a fort on either side of the Narrows, and you’re basically impenetrable. And that’s exactly what was done. On the Staten Island side, you have Fort Wadsworth, established before the Revolutionary War. Fort Hamilton, on the Brooklyn side, was built after the War of 1812. Since then, the city has never been taken.

The full name of the bridge is the Verrazano-Narrows but most people I know call it by its nickname: the guinea gangplank. Why do they call it that? There’s the most literal explanation: Verrazano was an Italian explorer and a gangplank is a bridge of sorts. It could also stem from the urban legend that mafiosi are fond of throwing their victims off the bridge. This has always seemed to me a much too public way for the Mob to kill a person, but if it makes your beer taste better, I see no harm.

The other possible source of the nickname is more complicated. The idea is this: the bridge’s construction exposed bucolic, quiet Staten Island to the uncouth hordes from Brooklyn, many of whom were Italian. Not old-school, respectable Staten Island Italians — even before the bridge opened, the Island had a large Italian population — but low-class, chain-wearing, ignorant, thuggish guidos. The kind of people who’ve drawn attention to Staten Island for all the wrong reasons. Like Big Paul Castellano, the head of the Gambino crime family, who in the early ’80s built an ostentatious mansion, the so-called White House, on respectable Todt Hill. Or Gus Farace, a low-evel Mafia associate who murdered a DEA agent on Staten Island in 1989 and became the target of a nationwide man hunt by the FBI. (Both Castellano and Farace ended up getting murdered by their own people, though neither of these murders actually took place on Staten Island.) These kind of Staten Islanders now populate reality TV shows like the Jersey Shore, Mob Wives, Big Ang. The newcomers overdeveloped every possible square inch of land, knocked down every tree and put ridiculous, Roman-columned McMansions on top of each other. They came over that cursed bridge and they ruined Staten Island. Hence, the guinea gangplank.

The bridge ruined Staten Island; it was a very different place before the bridge. This sentiment was frequently expressed during my childhood. By my mother, by her friends, by our neighbors in Tottenville. Even by my father, who was born in Brooklyn and came over on that bridge himself. The phrase itself—before the bridge—has special connotation on the Island; it’s used the same way other people might say in my day or during the war or more locally, when the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn. In the way of all nostalgia, there’s a certain exclusive element, at least to those of us who weren’t there. You missed it, in other words, and it ain’t coming back. The Dodgers aren’t moving back to Brooklyn. The Verrazano Bridge isn’t going to miraculously disassemble overnight. And even if it did, the damage, so to speak, has been done.

The population of Staten Island was just under two hundred thousand when my grandparents moved there in 1950. Today, it is close to a half a million. The Island’s population has doubled in the fifty years since the bridge opened. Most of that population growth occurred on the South Shore. Tottenville, by dint of its location, was one of the last towns on Staten Island to experience the population boom caused by the bridge’s construction. All that open space I explored as a kid? It didn’t go unnoticed forever. While I was growing up, Tottenville was building up. In 1980, there were about 6,800 people living there. Today, it’s just under 13,500. Most communities on the South Shore experienced a similar population boom.

Most of these people came from Brooklyn, taking part in the historic migration of peoples known as “white flight.” Many of these migrants were, in fact, Italian. Nearly 35 percent of Island residents claim Italian ancestry, making it the most heavily Italian-American county in the country. Another 15 percent are Irish. An old joke is that everyone who lives on Staten Island has a last name that starts with a vowel (O’Toole) or ends with one (Palmese). By moving to Staten Island, they were able to leave the city without actually leaving the city; unlike its sister boroughs, Staten Island is predominately white, about 65 percent. African Americans make up only 11 percent of the population, and the majority are clustered in a few neighborhoods on the North Shore of the Island: Port Richmond, Mariner’s Harbor, Park Hill, Stapleton. These last two neighborhoods produced most members of the Wu-Tang Clan.

Shaolin, as the Wu-Tang has dubbed it, is the only borough in the city that leans Republican, though not as heavily as it used to. Yes, Republican Congressman Michael Grimm—who is under federal indictment and who threatened to throw a reporter off the rotunda in the Capitol building while the camera was rolling—was re-elected this month. And yes, most elected officials on Staten Island—Congressmen, borough presidents, district attorneys, state senators—are Republican. But in 2012, 51% of Staten Islanders voted for Barack Obama. The Democratic nominees for President also took the Island in 2000 and 1996, albeit by equally slender margins. As the demographics of the island change further, with growing communities of Liberians, Sri Lankans, Russians, and even hipsters all getting priced out of Brooklyn and coming over the Bridge to the Rock, Republican dominance may start to fade.

The effects of the rise in population density were exacerbated by a lack of zoning laws and the suburban sensibilities of Staten Island residents. They’d moved to Staten Island for space and comfort and affordability. They didn’t want to take public transportation; they wanted to drive! And who could blame them? They finally had a driveway. But more cars meant more traffic. Bigger houses meant fewer trees, fewer open spaces. The place you moved to starts to resemble the place you moved from.

The house I grew up in—the old, rickety Victorian on Manhattan St.—is gone. After years of having contractors literally knocking on their door to make offers on the house and adjacent lots, my parents finally got an offer that was too good to turn down. At the time, my siblings and I were all in college or beyond. My parents didn’t need the space. They sold the house and the lots for nearly half a million dollars; though they never intended it as such, it was the best investment they ever made. They used some of the money to buy a small summer home up in New Hampshire; they also rented an apartment for a few years in Tottenville before moving back across the Verrazano to Bay Ridge. Whoever bought our house knocked it down and put three houses in its stead.

In 2012, the entire eastern shoreline of the Island got slammed by Hurricane Sandy, Tottenville included. Twenty-three people died, and the property damage was catastrophic; FEMA disbursed over 100 million dollars to Staten Island residents. Since then, Governor Cuomo has spearheaded a 400-million-dollar buyout program designed to transform formerly residential neighborhoods into coastal buffer zones. The city also has a plan to help people rebuild or relocate. Many people are moving. Some are staying, either because they don’t want to leave or because they’re not eligible for either program. A few people seem to think this was a one-time event, unlikely to recur, but most people have their eye on the next storm. There’s even a plan to put a wall of oysters in place off the shores of Staten Island: they think it could help in future storms by reducing water velocity and breaking up waves. The Health Department won’t let you eat them but there will be oysters off the shores of Tottenville again.

I don’t live on Staten Island anymore, but I go back frequently: to take my kids to the Staten Island Zoo, to play a round of golf, to visit friends, to buy ravioli, to eat pizza. Most of the time, I drive over the Verrazano bridge.

If I don’t need the car, I prefer to take the Staten Island Ferry. For starters, the ferry is free, whereas the bridge will cost you $15 bucks. But the ferry also provides its passengers with excellent views of the landmarks of New York harbor: the Statute of Liberty, downtown Manhattan, and, of course, the Verrazano bridge. Seats are usually available on the side of the ferry that faces the bridge—the tourists all want to see lady Liberty—so you can sit, somewhat peacefully, and take in the view. The legend is that you can see the curvature of the earth by seeing the bridge from that angle. That’s actually not true—the bridge is so long that in building it, the earth’s curvature had to be taken into account so that the towers are slightly further apart at their tops than at their bases—but it’s not entirely untrue either. It’s a bastardized fact, which turns out to be kind of a specialty on Staten Island.

Anyway, enjoy the view. And when the ferry docks, don’t just get back on an outgoing ferry like all the tourists. Stay a while and take a look around. There’s a lot to see, and it’s changing all the time.

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