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Span of time

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The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge turned 50 on Nov. 21, and after half a century connecting Brooklyn and Staten Island, practically everybody has a story about the span.

Folks old enough to grasp the project’s enormity during construction in the 1960s are fewer every year, but their stories are timeless tales of loss, renewal, and a job well done.

For one Ridge family that lived in the shadow of the bridge, construction took the roof from over their head, but then also put food on the table.

“My mother’s family rented an apartment on 86th street and Seventh Avenue-ish and had to move because of the bridge — then her father helped build it,” said Ridge wordsmith Henry Stewart.

The city razed 800 homes and businesses under eminent domain to build the ramps up to the bridge, and Robin Stewart was just 2 years old when her family had to pack up and leave their apartment, she said. Her father was a dock-builder who helped pour concrete for the bridge’s tower foundations, she said. And the urban legend that a worker is trapped in the bridge’s cement has some roots in reality, she said.

“At least one person fell in the concrete pour,” she said, adding that he was quickly rescued. “My dad was there, and as you would expect, was very upset by it.”

Water under the bridge

When news hit Bay Ridge that the construction would push scores of people out of their homes, the neighborhood was incensed. The Bay Ridge Community Council formed in part to galvanize opposition to the span, said Bob Kassenbrock, a board member whose father and uncle founded the organization in 1951.

But now local ire is focused on skyrocketing tolls rather than the 50-year-old move-along the city gave residents, said Kassenbrock, adding that the group eventually adopted the iconic bridge as its symbol.

“The Brooklyn Tower is on the Community Council’s flag,” he said, laughing at the irony.

A bridge not too far

One of the first people to cross the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge was a Brooklynite, who drove from Flatbush to Staten Island in a borrowed car to be part of history.

“We came from the Brooklyn College area,” said Mark Schaier, who was 19 at the time and now lives on Long Island. “I borrowed my dad’s 1961 silver Plymouth Fury, and we drove to Staten Island. Took the ferry from 69th Street and then the Manhattan Ferry, which dropped you off around St. George.”

Schaier’s wasn’t the first car to cross the span, but he remembers the toll plaza’s first-day foibles.

“We got to the entrance in the plaza with a few cars ahead of us,” he said. “I dropped my change in the bucket and waited for the light to turn green, but it didn’t, so I said to ‘Hell with it,’ ” Schaier said, pantomiming stomping on a gas pedal.

He may not have been the first to cross, but Schaier contends he was the first to get off the new expressway in Bay Ridge. Before crossing, Schaier picked up a brother and sister looking for a lift over the bridge.

“We got off at 92nd street to drop them off,” he said. “We were the first to use that exit.”

Casting a long shadow

For many locals, the Bridge has overshadowed their entire lives. Many can’t remember a time without the span, and most have seen it from every conceivable angle — except one, according to an ironworker who built the span.

“I’ve been to the Cliffs over Moher, the Grand Canyon, and Niagra Falls — nothing compares to the view from that tower,” said Eddie Johnson, who worked hundreds of feet in the air spinning support cables between the bridge’s 693-foot towers from April to September 1963. “Nobody else has had that thrill.”

The cable-spinner lived in Manhattan while working on the span and now lives in Queens, but he said the bridge casts a long shadow.

“This bridge is in my blood — when I see rust on that bridge, it’s rust on my arm.”

Reach reporter Max Jaeger at mjaeger@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–8303. Follow him on Twitter @JustTheMax.
Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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