In Wave of Political Vanity, a Cherished Governor Becomes a Tunnel

The Hugh L. Carey Tunnel was officially opened on Monday. If you haven’t a clue where it is, don’t feel bad. It may mean that you don’t regularly drive into Manhattan, and that’s a good thing. There are too many cars in Manhattan as it is.

The Day

Clyde Haberman offers his take on the news.

You probably recognize a different name for the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel, or the Hugh L Carey Tunnel as a giant new sign has it, with the period oddly missing after the L (for Leo). It used to be called the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. It went by Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel for six decades. Whatever that name lacked in lyricism, it made up for in geographic clarity. The tunnel connects Brooklyn and the Battery. What more did you need to know?

Now it bears the name of Mr. Carey, a widely cherished former governor of this state, who died last year at age 92. You can’t help but wonder, though, why anyone thought that a tunnel was the right place for him.

O.K., he had his dark moments, like a tunnel. But he also had gusts of exuberance. He was partial, for example, to belting out the signature song from the Broadway musical “Annie,” a popular show during much of his governorship, which lasted from 1975 to 1982. “The sun will come out tomorrow,” Mr. Carey would sing. “Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow there’ll be sun.”

Is a tunnel quite right for a fellow who extolled the sun? Sounds like something more suited to an admirer of “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” the Bob Dylan song.

In any event, the name change had been approved by the State Legislature back in 2010, with enthusiastic support from the governor at the time, David A. Paterson. It took a while to get various moving parts together for a formal dedication, but the gears finally meshed Monday at the Manhattan end of the – of the what? It’s hard to predict what New Yorkers will wind up calling it. Maybe the Hughie? Can’t you just hear a woman asking her mate as they near the tunnel, “Do we take the Hughie, Louie?”

Lt. Gov. Robert J. Duffy, who presided over the ceremony, had his own take. “It’s more than just a tunnel,” he said. “It’s about life. It’s about connectivity.”

That’s one way to look at it. Another is that, one by one, names that described in plain language the essence of major structures in this city are disappearing under the relentless bulldozer of political vanity. The phenomenon isn’t new. The East River Drive — guess which river it runs along? — added Franklin D. Roosevelt to its name long ago. But in recent years, this method of honoring one another has acquired new popularity among the politicians.

In 2008 the Triborough Bridge became the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, even though the murdered Mr. Kennedy’s relationship with the city was brief and tenuous. Years earlier, a stretch of the West Side Highway was named for Joe DiMaggio at the behest of former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who foisted his enthusiasm for the Yankees on the entire city. Before that, the Interboro Parkway morphed into the Jackie Robinson Parkway.

And last year the Queensboro Bridge, a k a the 59th Street Bridge of Simon and Garfunkel fame, took on former Mayor Edward I. Koch as a partner. While the original name didn’t disappear, it was eclipsed. The structure is officially called the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge.

You have to ask yourself where this trend will end, or even if it will end.

Will the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, its name unglamorous but straightforward, give way to Mr. Giuliani, or perhaps to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg or Mr. Paterson or former Gov. George E. Pataki or former Mayor David N. Dinkins? We suspect that former Gov. Eliot Spitzer is not destined to become a bridge or tunnel any time soon. Former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo could be. But he already has a pretty good deal. He got his name attached to the present governor, his son.

A case could be made that the living ought not have anything named for them. (Remember the Bernard B. Kerik Complex, the appellation that Mr. Giuliani and the future jailbird who was then his police commissioner vaingloriously slapped on the detention center in Lower Manhattan? Mercifully, that embarrassment didn’t last.) Perhaps it would be better as a general rule to let history, not political expediency, determine who deserves to be immortalized.

It must be said, though, that no one lucked out more than Mr. Koch. He is still with us, still able to haul out with justifiable pride this passage from “The Great Gatsby,” Chapter 4: “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.”

Poor Hugh Carey. Who is ever going to rhapsodize so elegantly about the sights that greet one upon emerging from his tunnel?


E-mail Clyde Haberman: [email protected]

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