What’s in a name? In New York City, where honorable movements rise to rename streets and bridges and other landmarks, a name can be so familiar and so evocative that resistance to change can be pretty stubborn — even when legend and lore presents a solid case for just such a switch.
A wonderful piece in The New Yorker recently by Amanda Petrusich has suggested changing the name of the Williamsburg Bridge to the Sonny Rollins Bridge, after learning that the great jazz tenor saxophone player spent a great amount of time up there from 1959 to 1961, honking alongside a clattering elevated train.
Diehard jazz lovers, and keepers of the Lower East Side’s rich past, may know this about Sonny Rollins. But for some of us out of the loop, these kinds of New York stories only amplify the city’s symphonic history.
Rollins’ Williamsburg Bridge story was recounted in 2015 by the local Lower East Side newspaper, which told how Rollins walked out of his apartment at 400 Grand Street and, seeing the mouth of the Williamsburg in front of him, walked up onto the landmark bridge between the Lower East Side and Brooklyn. The New York Times once asked Rollins about the bridge’s draw.
One day I was on Delancey Street and I walked up the steps to the Williamsburg Bridge and came to this big expanse. Nobody was there, and it was beautiful. I went to the bridge to practice just about every day for two years. I would walk north from Grand Street, two blocks up to Delancey Street, and then from Delancey Street down to the entrance of the bridge… I could have just stayed up there forever.
The New Yorker piece about Rollins and the Williamsburg Bridge make us think about the vagaries of art, the help for addiction. Rollins had just gotten out of heavy-duty heroin rehab. So his withdrawal from his previously furious pace of music-making, along with the mysteries of the human heart, are what sent the genius to the bridge. And not with an upturned cap for coin, either. (Here’s a video of Rollins playing his sax on the bridge.)
Avenue of Americas? C’mon
At first I thought: What a pure and whimsical notion, to name such a prosaic-looking bridge after a tenor sax icon. For two years, Sonny Rollins’ notes were drowned out by the squeals and shrieks of metal on metal, the cacophony of the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corp. (BMT) in our ears. (Rollins is 86 and living up near Woodstock, which says something about that rehab program in Kentucky and the therapeutic powers of wailing high above the East River.)
Then I thought about it some more. The New York area has re-named a lot of landmarks over the years – and purists among us have resisted. Only a rube calls it “Avenue of the Americas.” It’s Sixth Avenue, you idiot. Wanna make something of it?
My grandson, Mister George, caught me referring to the East River Drive — while I was driving on it. Turns out, it was renamed for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. After his death. In 1945. Obviously, true New Yorkers resist change even when the new name honors a legitimate hero.
Interboro or Jackie Robinson Parkway?
In 1997, the powers that be renamed a winding and dangerous parkway that careens along the glacial spine through parkland and cemeteries, from Kew Gardens, Queens, to East New York, Brooklyn. It was the ancient route my father took to get to a place called Ebbets Field; now we take it to the glorious Brooklyn Museum or the Botanical Garden in Prospect Park.
They re-named it Jackie Robinson Parkway, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the debut of the great hero who faced the vicious (and ongoing) American vein of racism; (he also rattled opposing pitchers and catchers.) Robinson was my family hero. The man I met once as a kid at the ballpark and interviewed once as a reporter. But even I resist calling it the Jackie Robinson Parkway. Rather, I continue to call it by its original name, using proper Brooklynese: “The Intaboro.”
More Names, More Resistance
If true New Yorkers resist even the name of Jackie Robinson, imagine the disdain for recent renaming the Triborough Bridge for Robert F. Kennedy? Or the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel for Hugh Carey? Or the Queensboro Bridge for Ed Koch. At least they could have named it for Simon & Garfunkel:
Slow down, you move too fast.
You got to make the morning last.
This is “The 59th St. Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)” – referring to the alternate name of the bridge, where until 2002 you could open the car window in the late evening and inhale the healing aroma of Silvercup Bread, baked in Queens. Feelin’ groovy, indeed.
And Then There Are the Politicians…
We have our standards around these parts. We have our memories. I submit that it is dangerous to name stuff after politicians. Acceptable: renaming the regionally-named Idlewild Airport for John F. Kennedy right after the assassination in 1963. Of course.
LaGuardia Airport, after our feisty little mayor who read the funnies to us over the radio during a newspaper strike. Okay. Just don’t make a habit of honoring politicians.
RFK and Gov. Carey and Mayor Koch were more or less admirable public servants. But you take your chances. Just guessing that nothing relating to transportation is going to be renamed for New Jersey’s Chris Christie, currently Good Old No. 50 among governors, who shot down a rail tunnel and whose office shut down traffic leading to the George Washington Bridge.
What all this means is, well, yes: Names count!
Thousands of New Yorkers have signed petitions to have the name of a certain NYC developer turned U.S. president removed from their apartment buildings. And they usually get it done. Talk about urban renewal.
Names attached to stadiums and arenas might well be written in washable chalk, to keep up with the vicissitudes of corporations with the life span of a mayfly. The Mets’ new ballpark is named for a bank. Who trusts banks? They’re as bad as airlines.
Soon they are going to demolish the wretched Kosciuszko Bridge, linking Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to Greenpoint. The bridge is named after a Polish émigré who served as a general in the Revolutionary War. He’s good. He’s had two centuries and his name is solid. They claim they will keep the honorable name on the new bridge.
But The Sonny Rollins Bridge? Would any of us really stop calling it the Williamsburg Bridge? On that note, Amanda Petrusich has a fallback proposal should the name-change campaign fall short: A plaque near the aerie where he honked his horn. It’s the least we could do for the artists who — with New York as their muse — created work to sustain us.
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