200,000 Walk the Zakim Bridge

in Mother’s Day Event


by Susie Davidson

Advocate Correspondent


BOSTON - This past Sunday, 200,000 people took advantage of the Mother’s Day invitation for the public to set foot upon the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge. The spendorous, $14.6 billion, architectural crown jewel of the Big Dig was made accessible to any who desired to walk the widest cable-stayed bridge in the world, named for a memorable community leader and the noble message of tolerance that he promoted in his too-short life.

Zakim, who was the Executive Director of the Boston chapter of the ADL, was responsible for several grand initiatives including the No Place for Hate campaign, the Black-Jewish Seder, A World of Difference, where inner city youth took part in basketball events at the nearby Fleet Center, and an interfaith pilgrimage to the Holy Land with various religious leaders, which occurred shortly before his death following a four-year battle with cancer.

The cable suspension bridge, which will span 1,457 feet at its completion, will have six northbound and four southbound lanes when it is opens this December to northbound traffic, and a year later, to southbound, and will serve as the northern gateway to downtown Boston. Rising from the underground Central Artery at Causeway Steet by the Fleet Center, it will replace its existing six-lane upper and lower decks. Its obelisks, atop two inverted Y-shaped towers, each 266 feet above the bridge deck, were built in the form of adjacent Charlestown’s cherished Bunker Hill Monument.

Its 246 floodlights will change colors for different occasions. 116 cables will highlight the bridge’s design, with 24 on each backspan and two tent-shaped planes of 34 cables each on the mainspan.

The Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel Project will ultimately move two miles of elevated Interstate 93 underneath the city. Drivers will also be able to go right from the Massachusetts Turnpike into Logan International Airport.

Sunday’s visitors, who far exceeded expectations (35 to 40,000 people were anticipated), mixed with Celtics’ playoff game traffic in a truly bustling, sometimes chaotic sea of pedestrians. A triple snaking of the bridge line took up much of the area; as a result, nearly half of the fans were prevented from making the 3 p.m. start time against the Detroit Pistons.

A two hour wait and steady rainfall didn’t affect the spirits and enthusiasm of the crowd. However, some were disappointed that the only entertainment was the brass band playing in the lower area, and that nothing was on the bridge itself. Empty chairs stood where a band might have played before the rain began, yet a tent could have been erected.  Exhibits could have also added to the depth of the once-in-a-lifetime experience. And especially disconcerting at the very least was the fact that the only T shirt vendor there (in fact, aside from free postcards handed out by Walk Boston, the only souvenir stand seen at all) offered T shirts printed with "The Bunker Hill Bridge".  (Next to the T shirts was a large sign which proclaimed "'Bunker Hill Bridge' T shirts for sale.") Several people in line, when informed that it was not the correct name of the bridge, declined to buy them. Others voiced their support, assuming it was an exclusionary, at best, action on the vendor’s part. When asked why Leonard P. Zakim’s name had been omitted, the response was that they had "printed them before the name was chosen.”

However the name, chosen well over a year ago, was actually the first proposed name; the Bunker Hill Bridge by itself was never even an officially chosen name during that very unfortunate, embarrassing time of local controversy last year. 

At that time, Charlestown residents protested the naming of the bridge after Zakim, saying it should be called simply the Bunker Hill Bridge because "no Jews had fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill".  One resident notoriously remarked "let's face it, most people in Charlestown just don't like Jews," a statement that was subsequently hotly contested, to many citizens of Boston's great credit.

Later, it was revealed that not only had Jews indeed fought in the battle, had even filled out applications to do so in Hebrew, but the chief financier of the monument itself turned out to be a Jew. 

In 1839, after lying unfinished for 14 years, Judah Touro, a Jewish philanthropist from New Orleans, contributed the necessary $10,000 to finish the monument (Boston industrialist Amos Lawrence had put up the first $10,000 needed).  In fact, the inscription at the tower's base states: "Christian and Jew, they carry out one plan. For though of different faith, each is in heart a man."

Whoever was responsible for the licensing or admission of vendors at the event should explain. Obviously, although the T shirt vendor was officially sanctioned, the T shirts were not screened, and if they were, then explanation should be made mandatory.

Nonetheless, it was a spectacular opportunity to experience first-hand a marvel of modern technology and a tribute to a cherished  community leader.