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On The Bridge

January 26, 2014

For the last 15 years New Haven Connecticut has been subjected to a $3,000,000,000 “megaproject” that widened lanes of traffic, altered on/off-ramps and is culminating in the creation of a 515 foot span using  sexy structural hyperbole – all theoretically finished in 2016.

The excruciating traffic consequences have freaked out millions of commuters, truckers and travelers. Almost a generation’s worth of disruption has turned a repair into an era. But I love what I see. The extreme ingenuity in interlacing 2 huge highways (95 & 91) through a complete replacement without closure, detours or rerouting is deeply moving.

Unlike almost all of the other bridge replacements to widen highways, the affected area of this massive undertaking is not a singularity, it is a ganglia of interweaving overpasses, skyways, ramps and parallel highways . North/south/east/west are all simultaneously accommodated. Options are everywhere, there is no “My Way Or The Highway”.

The removal of something intended to be permanent is both elegiac and inspiring. The huge influx of equipment, materials and people make this near 20 year act one of the most human endeavors I can imagine. Concrete, earth and steel pile up, are ripped out, moved and connected – for over a decade. I find this dance human in extremis.

Human in that it’s a make-up call for a critical error in judgment 60 years ago – the original design assumed far too few travelers. Human in that it evidences a triumph of incrementalism over instant gratification. Human in that it spends a wee amount of its huge budget on unnecessary ornamentalism – the “extradosed” concrete and cable structure itself and gold leafed incised lettering on the jauntily capped ovoid piers that collect the cabling.

But the Pearl Harbor Bridge also exquisitely human in its referential symbolism.

The Federal Highway System, implemented by Eisenhower, was a transformational act of engineering that created suburban America. It shaped millions of families, including mine. Bridges like the Pearl Harbor Bridge made connections that were once impossible, but they also isolated people by class, race and separated work from neighborhood, parents from kids.

But more personally in my endless traversing across an ever-evolving bridge the repeated sequence of encounter, ascendance, and landing  never changes – but everything facilitating that act has. Permanence becomes demolished, temporary changes to other mysterious temporaries, and, slowly -slowly-  the next generation of “permanent” accommodations of movement are installed.

At the risk of getting all Hallmark Card on this, we are all on one bridge or another: My younger son is just realizing that about half of his life was spent on the bridge of playing football – he has arrived at the side of that bridge where he will never put on pads again. His older brother is in the middle of a tiny bridge where his singular musical focus on French horn performance ended last year, and the transposition of music to a library science study regimen has yet to begin.

But in the giant stuffed demographic bulge that is Boomer, most of us are ending or beginning a bridge ride. And most of us are either unaware of the transitions, or are not so comfy with them.

I am on the other side of the in-charge parent bridge. I am on the other side of the career bridge – any  new bridge will be an off ramp, not a new highway to somewhere.

We are all somewhere on a bridge that starts at birth and drops off at “the other side” (definition dependant on any number of belief systems employed). The ride is often incoherently unaware of that endpoint. We are on our way. We are moving. We are still above where we could be. I will never be a parent of a dependent little human again, and like my son I will never put on cleats again, but I am not at the other side of where I’m headed – yet.

My grandfather Harry Dickinson, died the year I was born in 1955. Genetically enough, like me he was steeped in building – he was one of two “clerks-of-the-works” for Carlin Construction in New York City. He built many things – Riker’s Island Penitentiary, The Brooklyn Academy of Music, and many (many) subways in Brooklyn between  1910 and 1950.

But the built thing that has unfathomable implications as to his intensity, skill and courage was his role as the Job Captain of the construction of the approaches to the George Washington Bridge. Its extreme utility has recently been highlighted by political idiocy, but it remains the most used bridge in the world.

There are longer, more glamorous spans – more historic, more high-tech, more celebrated (it has no song) – but it is a never ceasing engine of accommodation. The straight shot of the GW Bridge mirrored my hyper-focused grandfather’s life – a white male in construction. My father’s mother died one year after he was born, and he was dispatched to be raised by his aunts in Canada. The straight shot life does not allow for lane changes let alone new routing on different bridges.

My life is more like the Pearl Harbor Bridge – accommodating multiple directions, dealing with error, evolution and any number of destinations. I seem to be happy. I am pretty sure my father was not happy when I knew him.

Pushing ahead is what humans do, getting over obstacles is our modus operandi.  But being aware of options, alternatives and corrections is messy, doubt-filled and involves continuous compromise.

No one wants to jump off the bridge, but some do. My father, and his father, stayed on the bridge till they reached the other side with no detours. My bridge is getting to the other side, but, unlike either patriarch, went to football games and French horn concerts along the way.

Whether it’s better or worse, the changes along the way have forced me to know where I am (and where I am not) before I reach the other side. Inefficient, confusing, often disconcerting – but connected beyond my destination.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Janice Gruendel permalink
    January 26, 2014 9:22 am

    This is wonderful — discerning, feeling and writing. I am so pleased with this process/project and I to traverse the bridge often. Perhaps now, rather than a barrier between the emergingly great City of New Haven and its surrounding towns and people, there will be a free flowing river of people, ideas, resources and new growth. Janice Gruendel, Branford

  2. January 26, 2014 10:03 am

    Good read. Because of you I set up a word press account. I am still trying to figure out when to write my first word.
    I never met you but it seems that you have impacted my professional life in many different ways already.
    I heard your name for first time while I was going to architectural school. I was a third year(1996)transfer/commuting student from CT. During one of my studio’s critic my teacher Colin Carthcart of Kiss &Carthcart thought it might be a good ideas for me to look you up. I might have seen/he probably showed me a housing project that you did in the Bronx. Your name sound a bit weird(I did not know a lot of architects then, I was working in Ridgefield Ct for a small residential practitioner)
    I forgot about you until maybe few years ago when I decided to look u up on linkedin. I have crossed many bridges and I am trying to get to the recovery bridge after those treacherous 5 year-swim. I am trying to build a practice that intertwin Design,Building and Investment, this is my new bridge.
    I hope to drop by your neighbor one of those days.

  3. Jeff Weber permalink
    January 26, 2014 12:08 pm

    Duo, Nice piece. Very soulful reflection. Hard to believe us boomers are heading for the off ramps. Linda retired fr Trinity Jan 1. Now we actually live together. Dangerous stuff. Short break before she starts new chapter at Hopkins. Lets all get together at Your favorite watering spot. Jeff

    Jeff Weber (646) 302-5072

    Sent from my iPhone

  4. sam permalink
    January 27, 2014 9:35 am

    Very nice meditation on the Q, Duo. Thanks. Many years ago I met the daughter of Othmar Ammann, a Swiss engineer who built the GW bridge (6 mos. ahead of schedule and under budget, by the way). He went on to design the Verrazanno, Bayonne, Throgs Neck, Bronx-Whitestone, etc. even the Lincoln Tunnel! His daughter said that from their penthouse apartment in Manhattan he could look out at night and see the lights of his six “daughters” as he called them.
    I like the Q, but am persistently haunted by the idea that crossing the Quinnipiac could have been done so much more simply and directly by a tunnel under the harbor. It seems that Americans are averse to underwater tunnels, generally, pretty much as they are to underground parking garages, which are so prevalent and efficient in Europe.
    The Q project seems like an overdose of $$. For $13 billion, we put a man on the moon in under 10 years and got enormous technological innovations from it. For $3 billion, we’re going to get shorter traffic jams in New Haven? The curve as you come into the view of New haven harbor from the south on 95 still seems to slow folks way down, backing up traffic. I hope they solve that problem.


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