by Jordan Carleo-Evangelist
It feels a little silly to get weepy over a bridge — especially one as widely reviled as the Tappan Zee.
Its spartan wartime design is utilitarian, lacking the iconic profiles or cultural relevance of the Brooklyn Bridge or Golden Gate. Like so much of America’s aging infrastructure, it’s constantly in need of repair and clogged with more traffic than it was built to handle. It counter-intuitively spans one of the widest points of the Hudson River — at least partly thanks to political wrangling over who would get to keep the toll money — and is an oft-cursed bottleneck in what was once touted as the “world’s greatest highway.”
And with apologies to my hometown, the Tappan Zee doesn’t even connect two places of much note, charming as they both are. The George Washington Bridge to the south is celebrated as a gateway to the Big Apple. South Nyack and Tarrytown are known mostly as the gateways to the TZ and drivers’ last chances to avoid it.
Still, I will be sad to see this misfit go.
I’ve felt this way for a while. Every time I visit home, I gawk at the progress of the TZ’s mammoth replacement, which is among the largest infrastructure projects currently going in North America. It’s an impressive undertaking, and I’m proud that it’s happening in New York. But my child-like fascination with the construction is tempered by the reality that the old bridge’s days are numbered. It’s expected to be demolished starting in either 2017 or 2018.
The inevitability of this tugged at me harder this week when I brought my 2-year-old son down to the riverbank where I spent innumerable hours clambering over slimy rocks as a kid. There, froM the bottom of the street I grew up on, I saw that the view of the TZ is now almost entirely blocked by the hulking skeleton of its successor.
The old TZ’s drab gray frame was eclipsed by the impressive 419-foot angular towers of the new bridge and the bright blue girders of its twin spans, and it dawned on me that this view that I’ve seen so many thousands of times will never be the same again.
It’s how I imagine the people of Seattle might feel if they walked outside one morning to discover that Mount Rainier had been replaced by a newer, bigger mountain. It’s not that the new mountain isn’t perfectly nice — more beautiful even. It’s just not the mountain that I’m used to.
The Tappan Zee was the backdrop to my childhood — a serpentine dinosaur on the horizon while my friends and I combed the beach for sea glass, chatted with fishermen while they smoked cigarettes and drank Budweiser, sank the bottles they left behind with rocks, chased creatures through gross-smelling tide pools and built all manner of unseaworthy craft.
Lying down in the back of our Plymouth Voyager, I knew the green lights framing the bridge’s main span meant we were almost home from my grandparents’ in the Bronx. Or that we were on our way to Yankee Stadium, my dad’s office in Westchester, my mom’s school, or Cape Cod.
I was awed by the bridge’s scale — and all that rust — from my vantage in 15-foot boat one summer in sailing camp. I can clearly recall the echo-y woosh of traffic (and vaguely unsettling metal clanging) that would greet us as we rode our bikes beneath it on Piermont Avenue. The debut of the zipper machine that moved the heavy center barrier ahead of rush hour, at the time, seemed like a modern marvel.
On my 10th birthday, a tractor-trailer careened over the railing and into the river. Eleven years later, during the massive 2003 blackout, my black Honda Civic limped across the main span on fumes while I sweated about what I’d do if my car crapped out in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that my son will probably have no memory of this thing that was such a major part of the landscape of my childhood.
These things happen, of course. Landscapes — natural and built — change all the time. And thirty-somethings get the sniffles about these changes because they accompany the unnerving realization that the place you’re from will not always be the same place it was when you were nine. The new Tappan Zee Bridge is just a $4 billion version of the bar that replaced the comic book store on Main Street.
My late father, who grew up in and around Nyack, was 16 by the time the first Tappan Zee Bridge was completed in 1955. That’s the same age I was when the Palisades Center mall opened across Route 59 from where his uncle once owned a go-kart track. The site is now a Dunkin’ Donuts and a car wash. My dad’s view of the river from the end of our street, if he ever stood there as a kid, would have looked nothing like the one I grew up with. I wish I had thought to ask whether that was weird to him.
Sure, it’s easy for me to be sentimental about the TZ because I don’t have to deal with it every day. I’m not commuting across it like my parents did for so many years. It’s not my job to keep it safe or to ensure traffic moves smoothly.
None of these things are reasons not to replace it.
Albany has a love-hate relationship with Empire State Plaza.
I live in Albany now, a city that loves to hate its own defining piece of infrastructure, the $2 billion Empire State Plaza that dominates the downtown skyline. If you don’t have an opinion on it, you must not have been here very long.
Albanians rail about the plaza’s cold, brutalist architecture and lament the loss of the vibrant neighborhood bulldozed to build it — supposedly to salve the bruised ego of then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. (Coincidentally, the TZ is officially named the Gov. Malcolm Wilson Tappan Zee Bridge after Rockefeller’s successor and longtime second-in-command.)
In some ways, the scorn directed at Empire State Plaza rings a lot like the insults hurled by many Rocklanders at the TZ.
For better or worse, though, Empire State Plaza is part of Albany’s landscape now — and not going anywhere soon. My son will grow up with The Egg as one of those things that’s just quietly looming in the background and always has been.
Until, maybe, one day it isn’t.
Jordan Carleo-Evangelist, a former newspaper guy who now works in public higher education, grew up in South Nyack, graduated from Nyack High School and now lives in Albany, NY.