Today was a crazy day. I came off a weekend full of four dance performances feeling like I needed a day of recovery. Generous as always, my boss agreed that I could take the day.
Last week I’d read on Twitter that the Henry Hudson Bridge’s 75th birthday was today, December 12th. Linked from that MTA post was an event, “MTA’s Scenic Hudson River Bridge: Lecture by Bronx Borough Historian Lloyd Ultan.”
It happened that my day off, the birthday, and the talk coincided, so I got off my butt and headed out the door just after two in the afternoon. My destination was the Riverdale branch of the New York Public Library, one of many parts of Riverdale I’d not ever explored before even after living here for over seven years.
I found a parking place on Mosholu Avenue, a little past the library. Behind the iron fence sat the lodge-like building. This thing could be straight out of Twin Peaks. I timidly made my way up the path and through the less-than-welcoming-looking front door.
Inside, the building was an explosion of space. High ceilings and wide, open rooms reached out from the central circulation desk.
But I had hardly time to breathe, much less look around like I wanted to. A woman greeted me almost immediately: “Hi! You’re just in time for a lecture!” I probably somewhat mumbled, a little stunned, “that’s why I’m here…” Our speaker was just ahead of me entering the little conference room where the talk was to occur. I was grateful, at least, to be sure of where I was going. The woman asked if I was “with the professor” and I shook my head no, still a little stunned. She introduced herself to me anyway. I don’t recall her name but she had some sort of public relations title.
Just inside the door stood a colorful table spread of boxed coffee, donut holes, and cookies. I was touched – what a sweet thing to provide at this free event!
I located a desirable seat in the second of four rows of chairs, near one end. I claimed this chair with my coat, hoodie, and scarf; then idled for a minute, looking all around at the other arriving attendees and the dressed-up men and women clustered around the man identified as the speaker. After hesitating (I’d eaten coffee and donuts earlier in the day – did I need more?) I made my way to the refreshments and took a small portion.
Careful not to make a mess, I settled back into my seat and munched my snacks. While I was up, a brown-enveloped packet of materials from the Bronx County Historical Society and a white, folded, card-stock program for the day’s talk had been placed on each chair.
I clutched the materials and, wide-eyed, studied my surroundings: the people and the imagery that made up the exhibits. The crowd that shaped up were a couple of college-age guys (who perhaps knew our speaker from school?) some middle-aged and older women, and the professionals whom I soon learned were representatives from the library and the MTA.
I could find myself shaking nervously as I waited for the talk to begin. This happens while waiting for any excursion to begin and I still don’t know quite why. I tried to calm my nerves, act normal, and hold back tears. Being on the verge of tears is also common for excursions. Again, I’m not entirely sure why, but today it was a combination of caring so much about this bridge, its picture standing before me on the exhibit materials, and the love I was displaying by devoting an hour to learning about its history.
At some point one of the women greeted a young man who identified himself as a member of the press. I wondered where from as I glanced over my shoulder to see him place a voice recorder on one knee, notepad on the other, and pen and camera in his hands.
In another few minutes another colorful table was unfolded for the speaker to place his notes on. After a fast introduction by a library staff member, Professor Ultan pulled these notes out of an envelope, wisecracked about the audience falling asleep during the talk, and began his speech.
It was hard to tell how much he read from his papers and how much he ad-libbed or had memorized. The words flowed out of his mouth smoothly and I listened attentively, smiling sometimes, furrowing my brow in thought sometimes, and taking notes on the back of an envelope. (I’d neglected to bring my notebook and it might be rude to take notes on my smartphone during such an event).
I’ll summarize what I learned: Such a bridge from the upper tip of Manhattan to the northwest Bronx had been conceived of much earlier, 1904. Riverdalians were skeptical of such a plan from the beginning, worrying how their neighborhood would be devalued by such a piece of infrastructure. This reminded me of the plight of the area underneath the Long Island Expressway, as told on my Open House New York Newtown Creek tour (blog entry coming soon).
The earliest bridge design called for tall, masonry columns at each end of the bridge, and matching masonry cladding the surface of the structure itself. Later, an engineering student named David Steinman proposed an alternative, a steel arch bridge, in his PhD thesis.
Robert Moses’ vision of a highway on the west side of upper Manhattan connecting with the existing Saw Mill River Parkway intersected with Steinman’s vision, and Steinman’s firm was hired as architect and engineer for the bridge. Originally two decks had been proposed for the bridge, but a deal was struck with financial backers to start with one, with the possibility of adding a second later.
Two facts about the planning and construction especially surprised me: First, Robert Moses ran the bridge and its same-named parkway through parkland instead of claiming eminent domain on residential properties. Granted, this was fairly early on in his career, and the move saved him money in court fees, so perhaps it should not really be taken as an act of kindness…
Second, the bridge came in under budget, by a huge factor. How unheard of in today’s world!
The bridge opened on December 12, 1936, with a 10 cent toll for each auto to cross it. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Moses cut the ribbon to signal the opening of the bridge, at that time painted a forest green.
In these first few months traffic volume exceeded even Moses’ estimates, and just two years later the second deck was added to deal with this demand. Motorists seemed to love this new way to avoid the steep hill down to Broadway and the congestion on the Broadway Bridge.
After World War II, the bridge helped with the growth of Riverdale – big buildings full of condominiums were built alongside the many existing single-family homes. Soldiers returning from the war bought houses, married, and raised families here.
In 1956, the Major Deegan Expressway (a stretch of I-87 in the Bronx) opened and temporarily took some traffic from the Henry Hudson Parkway and Bridge. But motorists came back to the beautiful bridge to escape truck traffic and congestion that, to this day, are common on the Deegan.
In 1968 the Triboro Bridge and Tunnel Authority, the organization that the bridge had been built under, was merged into the newly formed Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Over the years, the bridge was painted blue, then today’s gray. Starting in 2000 she received a full overhaul at the hands of Steinman’s firm who had originally architected her. The Bridge’s most recent milestone is the advent of gateless EZ-Pass tolling just this year.
The talk was accessible and danced easily between political, aesthetic, engineering, and social factors of the bridge building. All-in-all, a solid overview.
After a few timid questions from the audience, the talk wrapped up. I stood around awkwardly for a few minutes, wondering whether to try to talk to anyone, and visiting the exhibit materials hanging around the room.
I spoke briefly with the MTA PR person and thanked our speaker. I wanted to introduce myself and say more to the library and MTA people, but felt that I didn’t have anything to say or ask. What I really wanted to do was pour my heart out – tell how Henry Hudson was perhaps the first bridge within the five boroughs that I’d traveled over by car, how I spent so much time sitting or standing on the Spuyten Duyvil train platform staring up at it, how much it impacts my life as a Riverdalian, and how I once dreamed of getting a full-back tattoo of the bridge (don’t worry, I would never actually do that). But somehow those sentiments just wouldn’t come out in this formal setting, so I just watched the important people rub elbows with each other and our state assemblyman, who’d also attended.
Right before leaving I did find the courage to approach the press man. I’d heard of his publication, and he told me he was sort of on the infrastructure beat there. I shyly told him a little about my blog.
Slowly and meditatively I made my way out the library’s main doors and down the street to the car.
As so long ago – my first post in fact – I felt the urge to go down to the Spuyten Duyvil station. This time, I just had to see my beloved bridge on her birthday. How could I go listen to such a talk and not see her in person today.
Driving over to the top of the road that curves down to the station, I teared up. As mentioned before, I can’t pinpoint all of the causes. This car ride it was something like a release from my stressful previous week and weekend, the history of 75 years piled heavily on my mind at the sight of the bridge, and all my personal experiences with this location.
No one was around. All was quiet except a rustling of leaves as I walked across the street and wondered as I looked up at my beautiful bridge, tears down my face. She had never been so beautiful to me as on her birthday today.
I slowly walked halfway down the hill to the pedestrian bridge that connects to the train station. I put my sunglasses over my emotional eyes as a train let out and commuters spilled up the hill past me.
I wondered, as I had many times before, what it would be like to be them, to live in one of these mansions or luxury apartment buildings looking out onto the bridge and train station.
As I crossed the overpass to the station above the street, I took in the broad vista of the bridge.
Though I was here to see the bridge and not the trains this time, I couldn’t resist taking a picture of a couple of them passing below as I walked through the enclosed overpass above the tracks.
Through the dirty window of the enclosure, I again gazed at the bridge.
I made the familiar walk down the stairs and out towards the southeast end of the southern platform. The platform was empty except for one businessman sitting on the bench and looking preoccupied with his technology.
The platform narrows at the end. I was careful to not get too near to the “no trespassing” sign where it dead ends. Though the area seemed deserted I didn’t want to arouse any suspicion. I stood and looked, almost straight up, at the bridge so high above me.
It was cold so I didn’t want to stay too long. I knew I’d pass the man on my walk back. As sometimes happens on excursions, I longed to reach out. In my mind I repeated, “you know, it’s the bridge’s birthday today.” Maybe I could find the courage to say that to this man. But no, he seemed still busy on his phone with earbuds in. And anyway, I wouldn’t want to seem like one of those railiens, showering unsuspecting members of the public with unsolicited “fun” facts.
But the man spoke to me. “Some great shots out here, aren’t there?” I breathed an internal sigh of relief. We chatted for a moment. He told me he was trading stocks as the market was closing – what a foreign world to me! But he had lots of artist friends, he said. And this train platform was an intersection of energy, a place of historical importance. We traded quick, somewhat awkward snippets of the history of upper Manhattan and Riverdale that we each knew. He told me he comes to this platform sometimes to just be, think, and look. I said I do too. The stock market closed. We walked up the hill together, me to my car, he to his fancy condo looking out over the vista of the bridge.
Maybe it’s weird or bad to talk to strangers like that. I guess you never know who you might meet and what their motivations might be. But I thank this man for being there, for talking with me about exactly what I wanted to talk about at that moment, for silently overlooking the dried tears on my face, for not being a scary story of stranger danger.
I tried to warm up in the car as I drove up and around the train station loop. On my way back home I passed Henry Hudson Memorial Park. Our lecturer talked about the bridge being a tribute to Hudson’s voyage, and about the long-delayed placement of the statue in that park. I snapped a sloppy picture of Mr. Hudson up on that pedestal as I drove by. Just one in a long series: Hudson, Steinman, Moses, Ultan, the MTA and library folks, and finally the businessman, who changed my world, and this bridge for me, today.