Chris Christie's #Bridgegate in Historical Perspective

In September 2013, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey closed down two of three lanes of traffic to do maintenance on the road leading to the George Washington Bridge, causing an enormous traffic jam, reportedly the worst since 9/11. Soon after NJ Governor Chris Christie was re-elected, Democrats began to allege that the lane closures were politically-motivated, that members of the Christie administration had closed the lanes to get back at Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat who wasn't a "Christiecrat" and instead backed Christie's opponent in the election. Last week, emails were released showing high-level staff members within Christie's administration ordered the lane closures, if Christie didn't himself, and Christie fired several of them, including his Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly.

So far, discussions of what has become known as "Bridgegate" have focused on whether Christie knew about—or even ordered—the lane closures and whether it will damage his aspirations to become the President of the United States. But I'd like to offer a slightly different take by placing Christie's actions in historical context. I'm first going to consider the broader (nasty) politics of bridges and roads in the New Jersey and New York area before looping around to talk about where Christie fits in all of this.

My fascination with the politics of New Jersey roadways began not with the George Washington Bridge but with a different bridge altogether, and it began late last summer, when my wife and I moved to the New Jersey town of Maplewood. When I needed to drive into my work in Hoboken, I would head down I-78 until it connected to U.S. Route 1-9, which takes you right over the Pulaski Skyway. 

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Sometimes I see the bridge as the Eiffel Tower turned on its side and stretched over three and a half miles. For all of its decrepitude and disrepair, it's a beautiful thing.

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But my fondness for the industrial hulk took a turn when I was stuck in traffic on it one day. (The bridge is reportedly one of the least dependable roads in the United States, traffic-wise.) I looked up and saw a plaque on one of the Skyway's steel beams. On it, I could make out the name, H. Otto Wittpenn. Minutes earlier, while working at home on my book on the history of auto regulation in the United States, I had been reading a document from the 1920s from a national conference on highway safety, in which Wittpenn was a participant.

  Look up when driving past this plaque on the Pulaski Skyway and say, "Hey, Otto Wittpenn. How's it going, man?"

Look up when driving past this plaque on the Pulaski Skyway and say, "Hey, Otto Wittpenn. How's it going, man?"

I understood where Wittpenn fit within the context of the history of auto safety politics, but what were the politics of the Pulaski Skyway?

(I realize that this is not the kind of thing most people think about. I'm a nerd. What can I tell you?)

Luckily, I didn't have to wait long to find out some answers. A couple quick searches and I'd found Steven Hart's The Last Three Miles, which examines the fraught construction of this stretch of road.

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When it was constructed, the Pulaski Skyway was a symbol of a changing world. Hart opens The Last Three Miles with an epigraph, a quotation from an engineer, D. P. Krynine, who in 1931 wrote, "The construction of Route 25 [Pulaski Skyway] in New Jersey is an introduction into the transportation system of a new kind of link that is something between 'highway' and 'railway.' This new member of the transportation family may be called 'superhighway.'" The roadway marked a transition from a period when the great engineering achievements were dedicated to the railway to a time dominated by the automobile.

(New Jersey was also, in 1929, the birthplace of the first cloverleaf highway interchange, so it was a real leader in the automotive field during this period.)

I don't want to give too much about Hart's story away. A book with a subtitle that includes the words "politics" and "murder" deserves to be read as the thriller it is. But I'll say a little. It turns out that Wittpenn was the mayor of Jersey City, New Jersey, from 1908 to 1913, when he lost an election to Frank Hague, the infamous political boss who ruled Jersey City until 1947. By the 1920s, Wittpenn was a member of the New Jersey State Highway Commission, which is why his name is on the Pulaski Skyway. But it was Hague for whom the bridge was a real headache. Known as a friend to labor unions during the early part of his mayorship (and a friend to organized crime throughout it), Hague turned violently against unions when labor representatives tried to organize the bridge's construction. Skirmishes between the roving gangs for and against unionization eventually led to the murder of Hart's subtitle. The struggle became known as "the war of the meadows" in local lore. (The bridge goes through part of New Jersey's famed meadowlands.)

Although the Pulaski Bridge was an icon of modernity and technological achievement, it had to fit, literally, into the local politics. The politics of the Pulaski Bridge were the nasty kind that many people associate with the Tammany Hall-esque political machines of the late-19th and early-20th century, but which those of us in New Jersey just call "Hudson County Politics" or associate with Newark, birthplace of Mr. Chris Christie. Indeed, this observation about technologies and localities is a general finding of science and  technology studies: all technologies, even ones as seemingly general and uniform as roads and bridges, are entrenched in their local contexts.

Of course, the Pulaski Skyway and the George Washington Bridge are not the only stretches of road that have been or are political. On some level, they all are. We've all heard of "The Bridge to Nowhere," and highways were a classic tool for breaking up poor, mostly black, urban neighborhoods during the heyday of "urban renewal" in the 1950s and 1960s. In nearly all of the classes I teach, I have students read Langdon Winner's essay, "Do Artifacts Have Politics?" In that essay, Winner famously recalls a story involving Robert Moses, the urban planner and "Master Builder" who designed many of the public parks and roadways in the New York City metro region. According to Moses's biographer Robert Caro, when Moses was designing Jones Beach in Long Island, he wanted to keep poor people and racial minorities off of the gorgeous sandy shores he was envisioning. So, because poor people tended not to own cars but rather to take public transportation, Moses designed the bridges of the Wantagh Parkway, which leads to the beach, to be so low that buses could not pass through them.

  A low, bus-forbidding bridge on the Wantagh Parkway

A low, bus-forbidding bridge on the Wantagh Parkway

Some people have questioned the truth of this interpretation of Moses's parkway bridges, but as a fable, Winner's account of Moses's bridges has stuck, and the lesson of that fable is this: people sometimes build politics into things, so that the politics become implicit, even invisible. So . . . with all of this in mind, we can say that roads and bridges are often political; they can be racist; they are sometimes examples of graft and corruption and pork; they can be zones of controversy and contention.

This brings us finally to the GWB, the George Washington Bridge, to Chris Christie's Bridgegate, or what progressives have jokingly taken to calling Bridgeghazi.

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Interestingly, all of the stories that I have gestured towards so far in this post—whether its about the politics of the Pulaski Skyway, or the tearing up of black neighborhoods to "renew" cities, or Robert Moses's racist bridges—are focused on the politics of building roads and bridges. What I had not considered before the dawning of Bridgegate is how the maintaining of roads and bridges might be political. But, like, duh!

First of all, we should recognize that the de facto politics of maintenance in the United States is that we don't do it.  In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave US infrastructure a D+ in its periodically-updated report card. Hey, there's some good news. Solid waste treatment got a B- and bridges got a C+, though many remain troubled. Indeed, the Pulaski Bridge is graded as "structurally deficient," and controversial repairs are set to begin on it soon after the Super Bowl is played here in New Jersey. But ASCE gave many American infrastructural systems, including roads, a D. With the culturally-suicidal Tea Party and other anti-government groups still holding some power, we can imagine that our infrastructure will only further erode.

Still, beyond these de facto politics, who would have thought of using road maintenance as a weapon? Well, New Jersey politicians, of course. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that this road-closure-via-maintenance routine has been a political dirty trick forever in these parts. Just as the politics of road and bridge construction can become invisible because the objects become everyday and mundane to us and we forget that, for instance, there used to be a slum where the road now is, road maintenance can be an effective weapon because it seems so very ordinary . . . except for when it doesn't seem that way, as in the case of the GWB.

That these lane closures amount to a politics of technology is nicely captured in this graphic from the New Yorker, I think:

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Remember, all politics (of technologies) are local. So what are the local politics of the George Washington Bridge? According to many, many accounts, Chris Christie is and always has been a bully who has fostered a culture of bullying in his administration, including the use of dirty tricks. If these accounts are even close to being right, we don't need him to be our president, both because we don't need more bullies, like Lyndon Baines Johnson, or more leaders prone to dirty tricks, like Tricky Dick Nixon. While there is lots of fun to be had with Bridgegate, its also very serious, deadly serious if reports are true of 91-year old Florence Genova dying because her ambulance was delayed by the traffic.

Some have portrayed Christie's Bridgegate as a result of ego-mania:

  An image Tweeted (perhaps re-Tweeted) by @AmyHamnerWalker with the message, "I guess #ChrisChristie got too big for his bridges."

An image Tweeted (perhaps re-Tweeted) by @AmyHamnerWalker with the message, "I guess #ChrisChristie got too big for his bridges."

But perhaps it is better to remember him this way, as the cover of the newest New Yorker casts him, as an irresponsible child who held up the world when he didn't get his way:

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