Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Last Three Miles

Steven Hart, The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America's First Superhighway (2007)

If you want to read a book on bridge design & construction, this ain't it. Steven Hart tells us what is necessary to the tale. But the Pulaski Skyway - obsolete from the day it opened to traffic in 1932 - provides Hart with an iconic landmark on which to base a superb, unflinching, unsentimental look at the long, harsh reign of Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague.

Past Jersey political bosses like Enoch "Nucky" Johnson of Atlantic City & Frank Hague of Jersey City are too often recalled with humor, nostalgia, & even affection. But their power was maintained through fear & brutality. They were gangsters. Johnson even felt it beneath him to run for office, preferring to control his city from a palatial suite in the Ritz-Carlton.* Where the affable & personally generous Johnson ran a wide-open island resort town - its sole business was entertainment - that offered every conceivable vice, for a price, & cops directed visitors to whorehouses & gambling joints, Hague's Jersey City was a large, tough railroad & port city, dissent suppressed by a fascistic police force & a network of spies & informers. Hague's roots were in the puritanical Jansenist Catholicism of poor Irish immigrants. What the two men had in common were a taste for expensive suits & a will to crush opponents by any means necessary. Hart reminds us that the "good works" Hague did were for power & profit, not the gestures of a progressive Rooseveltian Democrat.

The Last Three Miles is also the story of every major highway in Jersey; the Turnpike, Parkway, Expressway, the interstates, bulldozing through working class neighborhoods, splitting towns in half, destroying farms, woods, & wetlands, endlessly widening, enriching politically connected construction companies, banks, & large landowners. The never to be completed Route 18 extension in New Brunswick is currently filling the pockets of its planners' grandchildren, perhaps the most successful pork barrel highway project in Jersey history. The Skyway was the prototype. Accidentally inadequate due to the limited railroad experience of the designers - they had no other model, the Skyway demonstrated that a closed design without room for "improvement," was bad for future business.

The labor war that poisoned the building of the Skyway was waged on twisted principle; the added expense for union labor was nominal compared to what the builders spent to secure the construction sites for scab workers. Hague was anti-union - if he didn't control the union. But the Ironworkers boss, Teddy Brandle, was a power-hungry wheeler-dealer who predicted the style of the management-friendly fatcat union leaders to come after World War II, the ones who negotiated deals on country club golf courses.

Long ago, my rock & roll garage band was driving home from Hoboken, where we'd gone to eat the famous pizza & cruise the hundreds of pretty Italian girls on Washington St. We'd missed the Turnpike entrance & were on the Pulaski, five of us, all 17 or 18 years old, our lead guitarist driving his beloved Chevy. We were teenage rowdy, not drunk. Suddenly, the bass player sitting in a backseat threw his jacket over the driver's head. Why he did this is unexplainable. I was also in a backseat. As the driver yelled & struggled to remove the jacket, the car drifted to the right, then the left, across two narrow lanes, other cars swerving & honking. I was terrified. Two days later we had a band meeting & kicked out the bassist. He had been my friend since 2nd grade. His sin was that serious, tempting death on "Death Avenue."

Two quibbles: A map would have been helpful. & this baffling sentence gave me pause in the middle of the book: "As to which player had the best interests of the men at heart - Teddy Brandle or his National Erectors' Association opponents - that is a question for posterity." 75 years later is posterity. & the answer is Brandle, even though the best interests he had for his men were incidental to those he had for himself.

* Dean Martin would hustle the Gin Rummy crowd on the Ritz-Carlton patio when he & Jerry Lewis needed pocket money during their early 500 Club gigs.

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I love taking my out-of-state friends for a ride across the Skyway at 75 mph...AT NIGHT when all of the street lights are malfunctioning.

You'd also enjoy "Looking for America on the New Jersey Turnpike" by Michael Aaron Rockland. The book was released about 15 years ago, and I think the Rahway Library has a copy.
You're the second person to say that, about taking friends for the scary ride.
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