On Monday, the Henry Hudson Bridge – that triumphalist crossing over the Harlem River, a steel archway slicing through a verdant vista of water, trees and cliffs – celebrates its diamond anniversary, the 75th. And like many older citizens of New York City, the bridge has had its share of wear-and-tear.
It is one of the least-used bridges in the region’s arsenal, but its operations have piled up over the years, closing lanes and upsetting commuters bound for the many gilded Westchester County suburbs it serves.
One Manhattan-bound lane was shut down for a 43-month period that ended in June 2010, during which the entire Depression-era lower deck was replaced. Eleven months later, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority began a new rehabilitation, this time to replace the steel support ropes, which will require a round-the-clock shutdown of a Bronx-bound lane for the next three years.
In fact, the bridge has been, more or less, continually under construction since 2000, at a cost of around $160 million, twice the inflation-adjusted price tag of the original bridge.
“As you would expect, a 75-year-old span needs to be maintained,” said Judie Glave, a spokeswoman at the transportation authority. The reality is that much of New York’s crucial infrastructure is increasingly in need of expensive upkeep. The Henry Hudson Parkway was created as a picturesque thoroughfare for weekend riders (and a few Riverdale commuters), and, at the time, about 9,000 cars traversed the crossing daily. This year, that number reached 63,000.
No tolls were charged for the bridge’s first two days of operation, and at 12:01 a.m. on Dec. 14, 1936, when a small white truck became the first vehicle to pay for the privilege of enjoying the bridge’s sweeping views, the charge was a mere dime. But the bridge’s health care costs, and a lack of infrastructure financing from state legislators, can add up: the toll has risen from a dime to the $2.20 charge levied on E-ZPass users today. (The bridge is also the crossing where the transportation authority started using gateless tolls.)
A lodestar of the era of automobile expansionism, and only the second of Robert Moses’ major crossings to be completed, the Henry Hudson Bridge was nevertheless unveiled without pomp, in a quiet ceremony on the foggy afternoon of Dec. 11, 1936.
In an uncharacteristically selfless statement, Moses doffed his hat to the “scores of citizens, distinguished and nameless” who had helped plan the redevelopment of Manhattan’s then-moribund West Side, an inhospitable stretch of shipyards, train tracks and swampland, which he hoped would be revitalized by its new link to the Bronx and Westchester County.
But the master planner did not skimp on taking credit.
“If we make any claim,” Moses said, “it is that we have had the gumption to translate plan into reality. It cannot be said too often that what New York needs today is not vision, with which we have always been plentifully endowed in the past, but elbow grease.”
What Moses omitted in his brief remarks were the fraught origins of a bridge that cut through the previously isolated and untouched parkland of northern Manhattan and the western Bronx. Inwood Hill Park, with its pastoral overlooks onto the Hudson River, was considered “virgin forest,” as one report put it at the time, a last bastion of “wild Manhattan.”
Moses, of course, was rarely known to let sentiment stand in the way of cold pragmatism. Earlier plans for a bridge at the site had been nixed by environmental groups, and one proposal in the 1930s called for the route to curve east, around Fort Tryon and Inwood Hill Parks, and cross the Harlem River at grade level, bypassing the forested area.
But building directly through the park had a distinct advantage in Moses’ eyes: it would allow him access to the vast federal subsidies available at the time for “park access roads.” The government would pay for a significant portion of the project, as long as it bisected Inwood Hill. If the highway remained on the city’s streets, the plan would cost far more and require an onerous process of eminent domain.
As he would time and again, Moses had his way. The New York Times, in its coverage at the time, did not ignore the autocratic tendencies of the man who brought the bridge to fruition: it noted archly that Moses “is also the one-man Henry Hudson Parkway Authority.”
But The Times’s editorial writers also offered a measured endorsement of Moses’ controversial methods. One man, the paper wrote, had been handed “the job of creating a unified park, parkway and arterial highway system for the entire city.”
“In this instance,” the paper continued, “the end has gloriously justified the means.”
News of the new link to the Bronx was overshadowed by a surprising announcement from England: King Edward VIII had decided to abdicate. A radio set was wheeled into the Fort Tryon Park restaurant where dignitaries, including Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia, were enjoying a buffet dinner in honor of the bridge.
“The mayor nodded in agreement when Edward declared that he could not continue ‘without the help and support of the woman I love,’ and applauded loudly at the end of the speech,” The Times wrote. “It was a beautiful speech, a beautiful speech,” La Guardia said.
Our transit reporter, Michael M. Grynbaum, advises you on the latest chatter from the city’s roads and rails. Check back every Monday. Got a tip? He can be reached at [email protected]