In 1524, Giovanni da Verrazzano became the first European to enter New York Harbor. Today, across the Narrows entrance to this harbor, stands a monumental bridge named in honor of the Italian explorer. It is the longest suspension bridge in all of the Americas, longer than the Golden Gate Bridge. Most Americans know it well.
While this bridge should be a source of pride to all Italian-Americans, it has become, instead, a grating annoyance to many – a “bridgegrate.” Since its opening in 1964, the name of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge has displayed a dreadful spelling error. Verrazzano is properly spelled with two z’s.
Earlier this month, a young and proud Italian-American, Robert Nash, was the latest calling attention to this error. He instituted a petition (at GoPetition.com) to the Metropolitan Transit Authority Bridge and Tunnels asking for rectification of the matter. His effort is garnering media and popular support, including that of MTA Commissioner Allen Cappelli.
But the MTA says the process of correcting relevant signage and documents is too costly and there will be no change. So, following this logic, will there never again be a street, bridge, park, roadway or other public place that can undergo a name change? I hardly think so, especially with so much historical revision and reconsideration occurring.
Just to add a note of befuddling irony here, there are two other bridges named after the Italian explorer. One, the Verrazzano-Jamestown Bridge in Rhode Island, is correctly spelled. The other, in Maryland, connecting Assateague Island with the mainland, is spelled a la New York.
So really, what’s the fuss? Well, to begin with, understanding the history and context of naming the bridge will provide insight. When the bridge was first planned, Robert Moses, the 20th century master urban planner, opposed naming it for the Italian navigator. Moses felt that Verrazzano was only a minor historical figure and the name was too difficult to pronounce anyway.
Fortunately, the Italian Historical Society lobbied Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and he had the final word – if not the correct spelling, for early on in the typed documents one of the z’s was dropped and lost to future documentation. Yes, some have noticed the error, but to the present day, nothing has been done about it.
Apart from the problem of historical and literary accuracy, the erroneous spelling should be unacceptable in today’s era of political correctness and identity politics. Everything is scrutinized relating to ethnic, national and racial groups, from pronunciation of names to spelling of tribal names for which no indigenous alphabet exists. And spell-check compounds the problem, eliminating the need to know any spelling, despite the program’s inability to efficiently recognize proper and place names.
Now it is one thing to endure misspellings and mispronunciations of names. Most of us have experienced this. But it is quite another thing to have misspellings on important documents.
To give two personal examples, one of my honorary degrees has my name misspelled; a first run of one of my books also had an error in the spelling of my name. Perhaps this doesn’t compare to the character in “The Godfather” whose surname was changed from Andolini to Corleone by an immigration officer. But what would the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles or the U.S. State Department say to alternate versions of your name?
Finally, Italian-Americans have grown too silent in the rowdy arena of policy and politics. They should be active on this issue. With 17 million people in the United States, Italian-Americans can be a potent force. New York is the epicenter of Italian-America – 13 percent of the state’s population (2.6 million souls).
According to the latest National Italian American Foundation figures, Staten Island is 37 percent Italian-American – mamma mia! Locally, the Buffalo area hosts impressive percentages of Italian-American residents: Niagara County, 18.5 percent or 40,000 people; Erie County, 15.7 percent or 150,000 people.
Clearly, the spelling error has to be addressed, and in this age of electronics, the best way to correct historical errors and oversights is to bring them to public attention in media outlets and internet-based petitions. To all who join in, “forza!”
Silvio Laccetti is a columnist and a retired professor of history at Stevens Institute of Technology.