Artvoice 2 April 1999 pp. 10-11, 46

"Don't You Build No Ugly Bridge":
This Week's Meeting of the Super Span Signature Bridge Task Force
 

Mister Mayor
Mayor Masiello's spokesman, Peter K. Cutler, said Mayor Masiello couldn't attend Monday's meeting of the city's Super Span Signature Bridge Task Force because he had a long-scheduled vacation in Florida and his wife would have punished him if he took time out for city business. People smiled politely; it is possible but not likely that someone in the Common Council conference room bought the excuse. We all knew that there are a good number of planes to and from Florida vacation spots every day and that he could probably have flown up for this meeting and been back with the family before dinner. But this was not just a meeting with Senator Charles Schumer, the Task Force, a good number of other area political figures and concerned citizens; it was also a meeting at which someone would almost certainly have asked, "Where and with whom do you stand, Tony?"

Cutler said the mayor wanted all to know that he was not, as has been charged by some, the only elected Buffalo official in favor of the twin span (although he phoned Artvoice on March 16 to go on record as being in favor of the twin span). He wasn't now in favor of twin span OR signature bridge, what he was in favor of was "what's best for the community." In addition, "The mayor is a supporter of the best possible bridge between the two countries." People smiled politely: only a churl could be opposed to that kind of international goodwill.

Then Cutler described a meeting between Mayor Masiello and the executive committee of the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority at which the mayor seems to have proposed a more complex companion bridge, sort of a signature bridge next to the current bridge. Kind of a combination of the two plans. The smiles disappeared and people looked down and at the walls and at pieces of paper, anything except making eye contact with someone else thinking the same thing: is he nuts?

Much later in the meeting, Corporation Counsel Michael B. Risman said that the mayor supported the Common Council's unanimous resolution to file a lawsuit if the Coast Guard doesn't deny the PBA its construction permits. I think, coming after the earlier report of a mayor engaged in deep waffling, Risman's statement stunned many people in the room. This seemed to be a real stand on the issue. There was an immediate burst of enthusiastic applause.

I have the feeling that Masiello is starting to see the handwriting on the wall and is looking for a safe way to avoid being the city's only elected politician on the wrong side of what has become a very popular public issue.

Reports from All Over
Early in the meeting, Committee chairman and Common Council President James Pitts invited representatives of the various groups in attendance to make statements. First all the Common Council members in the room got to speak. Three Councilpersons are on the committee-Pitts, Barbara Miller-Williams and Robert Quintana-but by the time the meeting really got going there were about ten of them there.

The Council statement I remember most was David Franczyk saying he now realized this bridge issue was of international importance so we should "think big" and start looking for an international bridge designer to take over the job. He said he didn't want to disparage the work done by Bruno Freschi (he mispronounced Freschi, as did every single person who uttered it during the entire meeting: the first syllable rhymes with 'desk' not with 'mesh'), but, well, it was an international project and "What's the name of that Spanish guy?" I hope someone tells him that the T. Y. Lin of Freschi-Lin is one of the worlds most honored and experienced bridge engineers.

After they were done, Jeff Belt of New Millennium, presented his group's analysis of the economic and social effects of various plaza configurations and construction plans. It was smart, lucid, and informed. I thought that if the PBA had ever heard it and taken it seriously there was no way it could have insisted on its current bridge and plaza designs. Then I found out Mr. Belt had made a presentation and it had made no impact whatsoever.

He was followed by Dr. Sebastian Ciancio, chair of Periodontology at UB, who reported that he had circulated a petition among 155 people: 150 were in favor of the signature bridge, three were in favor of the twin span, and two said "What bridge?" He urged the politicians present to note the seriousness of the information. I called him the next day to make sure I had the numbers right. He said, "You did as of yesterday. But I got another 26 today. And there was one for the twin span and one who didn't care."

Two Letters
Attorney Kevin Gaughan, a member of the Task Force, asked for a show of hands of people who favored the signature bridge. The only hand I didn't see go up (tv cameras and their operators blocked part of my view) belonged to Natalie Harder, representative of the Greater Niagara Partnership (GNP), which alone among community organizations has been out there opposing the signature bridge. Earlier, Ms. Harder distributed a three-page letter from GNP president and CEO Andrew Rudnick addressed to "Dear Peace Bridge Stakeholder."

(I must digress from this report to tell you this: every time I read or hear that city-planner cliche "stakeholder" I see either a grinning butcher holding up a huge bloody slab of beef, or a nerdy guy holding the tip of a sharply pointed piece of wood to the sleeping vampire's breast while his highly educated employer raises a mallet with which he will momentarily drive the stake home. Neither of those individuals, I presume, is one of the stakeholders Mr. Rudnick had in mind.)

The GNP had investigated the matter thoroughly, Rudnick wrote, so there was no reason for anyone to look into it further; the twin span was the only way to go. I don't remember anyone at the meeting referring to the letter, the GNP, or President and CEO Andrew Rudnick.

The other letter handed out, much shorter, much more eloquent, and more concerned with the community's needs than with ratifying old decisions, was Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan's, who couldn't attend because of a prior commitment in Europe. Moynihan's letter began, "The grand American architect and scholar Daniel Burnham-whose gift to Buffalo was the magnificent Ellicott Square Building-challenged us to 'make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood.'

"The Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority proposal to construct a 'companion span' alongside its existing bridge is indeed a little plan. Should it ever be built, it would stand for decades to come as a bitter reminder of what might have been done in its place."

What I've always liked about Pat Moynihan is the way he immediately goes beyond the trivial and epidermal to the heart of the matter, and how eloquently he speaks and writes. We're going to miss him when he leaves the Senate in two years.

He concluded: "A new bridge over the Niagara could become for Western New York what the Golden Gate has become for San Francisco's Bay Area. A new gateway, a defining moment of entry. To reach Buffalo or Fort Erie over the Authority's dull trestle when one could otherwise soar across on a bold new single-span would be rough justice for anyone who had the opportunity to imagine what could have been. Ada Louise Huxtable said, 'Cities and men get what they deserve.' Surely Buffalo deserves better."

The Junior Senator from New York
During the last election some people in this part of the state worried that Charles Schumer was too much of a Brooklyn boy to take us seriously. If his involvement in the bridge issue is any indication, that worry can be put to rest. He not only takes us seriously, but he does his homework and he listens to what people have to say. Schumer said, "The potential of having a worldwide symbol here is so exciting and could have so many other external benefits that to not even explore it would be a major crime, I think, in terms of the future of Western New York, something I care very much about."

Mr. Pitts' Bumper Sticker
James Pitts is a canny politician, he knows you don't have all this energy mobilized and do nothing with it. He told the group that he proposed (which translated as "here's what we're going to do") that the Task Force and the mayor's office need to meet with the Peace Bridge Authority to work out a way to develop an alternative plan. He said he would ask all the major and minor players to sign the invitation letter: the Task Force, Senators Moynihan and Schumer, the Western New York delegation in the State Assembly and Senate, Mayor Masiello, Energize Buffalo, New Millennium, and others. The purpose of the meeting is "so that we can all encourage the Peace Bridge Authority to take this moment of history and take it seriously."

In one brilliant stroke he mobilizes and coordinates a huge range of community, individual and political interests, and presents them to the PBA not in terms of finding blame but rather in terms of fixing a problem.

Pitts ended the meeting with this story:

I received a bumper sticker last week that said, 'Don't you build no ugly bridge.' I happened to be sitting with my children in Anderson's on Delaware avenue over the weekend, and I believe from their accent there were some Canadians that were there. They were sitting at the table behind us. One, I guess he was the father, he said, 'Well, have you noticed that bumper sticker. It says 'Don't you build no ugly bridge.' And they started to deal with the syntax. And they said, 'Don't you think there should be an exclamation point behind 'Don't you build?' And he says 'No ugly bridge' means-and they were playing with it, so we finally turned around and said, 'We want a signature bridge. We want a beautiful bridge.' And that is American lingo to say, 'Don't you build no ugly bridge.'

So the issue is this: we have an opportunity to gather this moment, we have tremendous support. I haven't seen a groundswell like this in a long time. What we will do is we will get that letter together, all of us will sign it, we will appeal to the Peace Bridge Authority to sit down and stop their recalcitrance and work with us and this community to build a symbol that's going to be indeed great. With that, I'll move to adjourn.

The Secret Army
The second person to arrive for the meeting told me that the day before he'd attended a rally where people had made speeches and had charts and diagrams. He talked about how important this was. After a while I said, "For which bridge?" "The signature bridge, of course," he said. He's a retired high school art teacher. Another man came into the room, maybe 25 or 30 years old. He went on about the foolishness and ugliness of the twin span. I asked what organization he was with. He wasn't with any organization, he said, he was here just because he was interested. He said he lived in Buffalo and the bridge mattered to him. He didn't seem to be a politics freak, he wasn't part of an organization with a complex agenda of which this was just a part, he wasn't someone with a special interest of any kind. He was just a guy who lives here who is insulted that a closeted group answerable to no one wants to force him to live with ugly when there is no need for it. He said that.

There was a lot of speechifying over the next two hours, some of it expectable, some of it absurd, some of it very good stuff indeed, but what that man said more than anything else represented what was going on in Buffalo. I think he, and thousands of people like him, are an army the Public Bridge Authority had no idea was there, and they're the reason the Public Bridge Authority will eventually have to take its public responsibility seriously.
 
 

Bruce Jackson is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen Professor of American Culture at University of Buffalo.
 
copyright 1999 Bruce Jackson

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