Today in NYC History: The 59th Street Bridge Renamed for Edward I. Koch

Photo by Wall Street Journal.

Photo by Wall Street Journal.

If you’ve ever seen Koch, the movie, you’ll recall the scenes were Ed Koch delightfully waves at drivers crossing “my new bridge!” The scene was filmed shortly after the 59th Street/Queensboro Bridge was renamed the Edward I. Koch Bridge on March 23, 2011.

Mayor Bloomberg had announced the idea at Ed Koch’s 86th birthday party, and the City Council…well we know what the City Council did during the Bloomberg era. What was that rubber stamp quote we just learned yesterday? Not all were happy about the Ed Koch Bridge, with 64% of city voters and 70% of Queens voters opposing.

As for the bridge, it was built in 1909, carries 180,000 vehicles a day, and got its 15 minutes of fame in The Great Gatsby:

The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.”

On the other hand, if you’re using it to enter Queens from Manhattan for the first time, you better know what you’re doing, because you will almost certainly get lost, and then fall into a slow shock as you deal with the Queens opposite-of-grid system. The plus side is that you don’t pay a dime for your troubles, as the Queensboro/Ed Koch Bridge remains, for now, one of the city’s major remaining free bridges. If they toll the 59th Street Bridge, they should spend some money on improving signage.

Personally, I didn’t hate the renaming. Ed Koch meant more to me and most current and future New Yorkers than, say, Pulaski or Kosciuszko, 18th century Polish war heroes who got their bridges because they flowed into Polish Greenpoint. The real blown call was RFK, whose ties to New York were too tenuous to warrant renaming the Triborough Bridge after him. (And this is coming from someone who idolized him in college.)

I also don’t have any problem with the city renaming a bridge for Koch while he was still alive. (He died in 2013.) Why be so morbid, rather than letting an old man celebrate his last days with an honor like that?

That said, I have three problems with the Ed Koch Bridge. The first is a big problem, because it requires me to agree with former Councilmember Peter Vallone, Jr., but on this one he is right: It’s insulting to Queens to rename a bridge named after the borough. No one would think of renaming the Brooklyn Bridge.

Second, Koch has no particular ties to Queens, having grown up in the Bronx and New Jersey, and spent his career in lower Manhattan before he became mayor. After the naming announcement was made, the best Koch could boast was that he liked going to Telly’s Taverna in Astoria for Greek food.

Third, and most importantly, if we’re going to rename things, we should probably focus on women and minority men, who outside of playgrounds and a few strips in Harlem have few namesakes in the city. If we’re going to name the 59th Street Bridge after a white guy, it should at least be Paul Simon, the city’s greatest living songwriter, who is from Queens and wrote 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy). What a great song to put you at ease.

The future of the Ed Koch Bridge, to quote another weekend post, is unwritten. Who knows whether the bridge will remain free or become tolled, whether Queens will become the new Brooklyn, whether Koch’s 12 years of ruling New York like a wild zoo will be looked upon dismally or recalled with fond nostalgia? Until flying cars make the whole debate moot.

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