National News

How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Verrazano? With an Extra Z

Posted June 7, 2018 7:11 p.m. EDT

ALBANY, N.Y. — The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge: A colossal expanse linking Brooklyn and Staten Island, once the longest suspension bridge in the world and a proud symbol of New York City’s history and urban geography.

Language of origin: Italian. Part of speech: noun.

Spelling: Wrong.

The iconic bridge, with one Z, was christened in 1960 in honor of the 16th-century explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano, with two Zs. After the better part of a century of wrangling over the spelling of the name, the state seems poised to finally rectify what is possibly the biggest unintentional slight in the annals of American public architecture.

“It does a justice for the injustice that has been done over the years,” said Sen. Martin J. Golden, a Republican who represents parts of Brooklyn and is the sponsor of a bill, unanimously passed in the Senate, that would add a long-truant Z to the bridge’s name. “Verrazzano was a great discoverer, a great explorer,” Golden said. To have the name misspelled all these years — “It’s shameful,” he said.

The orthographic debate the bill seeks to settle is older than the bridge itself. Even before construction on the structure began, city and state leaders were squabbling over the spelling, with Gov. W. Averell Harriman stumping for two Zs, and the aides of his successor, Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, championing just one. The war pitted zealous One-Zers against Two-Zers, encyclopedists against museum officials, historians against the Italian ambassador. In 1959, at the zenith of the dispute, officials en route to a groundbreaking ceremony for the planned Verrazano-Narrows Bridge found themselves in a boat called the “Verrazzano.”

The One-Zers carried the day, and the bridge as currently named — two Rs, one Z, one N, and more than a few angry Italian-Americans — was born.

Jon Weinstein, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the bridge, said a spelling fix would cost the agency roughly $350,000 to replace “96 signs of varying sizes.”

That is a pittance compared to past renaming endeavors — the state put the cost of renaming the Triborough Bridge after Robert F. Kennedy at $4 million — but perhaps still no insignificant sum for an agency bedeviled by arguably bigger problems than nomenclature. (Golden later said the bill would be amended, presumably to minimize costs: Only two signs would need to be immediately changed, one on each side of the bridge; others could be fixed in the course of normal replacement.)

Advocates of the change say it’s the message, not the price, that matters.

“I understand that there’s a cost involved in doing these things, but I think the cost over time is minuscule compared to the psychological and emotional effect that it has on people,” Joseph V. Scelsa, president of the Italian American Museum in lower Manhattan, said. “It’s important that we make it up in this country, not only for Italian names but all names.”

The true difficulty may not be so much cost as past practice. Since its opening in 1964, the bridge has become a fixture of the city’s literature, and the paper trail left by that lone, controversial Z is long. One of New York’s most venerated writers, Gay Talese, wrote an entire book about the bridge, one Z. Opinion pieces have denounced its infamous $17 one-way toll. Local businesses bear its name.

“That’s the name, and that is the norm,” said Tomas Kim, the owner of Verrazano Bicycle Shop in Brooklyn, who said he does not plan to change his store’s name. “It was a mistake from the beginning, but it’s the name of the area.”

“We’re not changing our name,” said John Miraglia, manager of Verrazano Motorworks on Staten Island, said. “I mean, I’m Italian. A lot of our names got changed when we came here. It’s not really a big deal.” The bill zipped through the Senate on Wednesday, and will now go to the Assembly. If passed there, it would then be put to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who has his own history of bridge-naming tussles.

As for the other bills, on topics from reproductive rights to speed safety cameras, still pending before the Senate, which has been locked in a political stalemate for days?

Zero, zip, zilch.