On The Bridge
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.