Verrazano Narrows! Forget the mad dash and give the Italian his due

A blog commenter’s instinctive back-formation “error” leads to a logical renaming.

The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which opened 50 years ago in 1964, was one of the last of Robert Moses’ many enormous projects aimed at remaking New York for an automobile verrazminsociety. The central span is 1300 meters long and it was the longest suspension bridge in the world at that time. It would whisk motorists (pedestrians, cyclists and proletarian subway riders keep your distance!) between Brooklyn and Staten Island, thus connecting all the city boroughs and by extension, linking Long Island and New Jersey (to the extent that anyone in those places noticed). It had everything a bridge could want: a spectacular position, an important function, superlative construction, except for one thing: a great name. The working name, the “Narrows Bridge” was so generic, it seemed to beg for improvement. John LaCorte, the president of the Italian Historical Society in Brooklyn, had a bright idea early on, in 1954 he proposed naming it for Giovanni Verrazano, the first European to sail through these waters in 1524. Robert Moses resisted, saying the name was too long and obscure. Perhaps RM, a man at the end of a long career, was holding out for a “Robert Moses Memorial Bridge” renaming in the future? But after an epic campaign lasting many years, LaCorte’s proposal to name it after Verrazano gained resonance in the political calculus of the time, and the name Verrazano-Narrows was adopted.

That was a while ago, a half century or more. On the comments thread of a blogpost recently I read where someone (probably born much later) refered to the Narrows as “the Verrazano Narrows” an apparent back formation rechristening the body of water with the bridge’s name. Predictably, there was an immediate response from someone else, indignantly correcting the uninformed writer. But I was intrigued by the apparent error and inspired to think of that water as, indeed, the Verazzano Narrows. It makes perfect sense, and back formation, be it of grammar forms or name references, is a form of language growth with a long pedigree.

Italian Americans are comparative latecomers to North America and have had few opportunities to contribute to the naming of our geographical entities. This small and logical concession of a name at the entrance to New York harbor would be very easy, merely to accept an already existing tendency to connect Verazzano with the waterway he “discovered.” And it is particularly apt here, where Italian Americans are a considerable segment of the communities that line the shores on both sides of the narrows. There are Bay Ridge, Bath Beach and Bensonhurst in Brooklyn and Rosebank and South Beach on Staten Island, all to some extent characterized by their history of Italian American settlement. Moreover, the bridge was so instrumental in bringing over a large number of us Italian American Brooklynites to new homes on Staten Island, presumably with our gold chains and garden Madonnas, that many resentful native born Staten Islanders gave the bridge a nickname of their own, “the guinea gangplank”!

So from now on, I will be calling it the Verrazano Narrows whenever I can get away with it. Both water and bridge. I am sure many typists writing about the bridge would agree with that, who needs that annoying dash anyway? .. now how many r’s, how many z’s, how many n’s was that? Two r’s one z and one n. The Verrazano Narrows Bridge, i.e., a bridge spanning the Verrazano Narrows. Problem solved! And thanks to John LaCorte for getting the ball rolling.