The Kosciuszko Bridge and Me
by John Delach
My neighborhood friends, like me, weren’t very adventurous. This prevented us from doing things that could lead us into serious trouble but it did limit our new experiences. An exception happened during our biking years roughly ten to twelve when we enjoyed a bit of freedom to ride outside our neighborhood. Usually we limited these trips to Hyland and Forest Parks both within reasonable range in fairly safe areas. But one day, a pal related an adventure he made with his older brother when they rode their bikes up to the top of the Kosciuszko Bridge and flew down the bridge and onto the local streets. His excitement was contagious.
The bridge was named after Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a Polish-Lithuanian military engineer and leader who fought for America during the revolution and oversaw construction of fortifications including those at West Point. Back then, we pronounced the general’s name: kos-ke-os-co, but today it is generally pronounced: Kos-Ku-Shoe, and you spit it rather than say it.
The Kosciuszko Bridge was located less than four miles from our homes in Ridgewood. The bridge spanned Newtown Creek connecting Greenpoint, Brooklyn to West Maspeth, Queens. But the difference in those four miles from our home was night and day. Ridgewood was a residential community consisting of multi-family two and three-story houses. Northern Greenpoint and West Maspeth were heavily industrialized at that time. Greenpoint even hosted a working Mobil refinery, gas flare stack and all. A large Phelps Dodge smelter was located in West Maspeth that stretched over a half mile along Newtown Creek. Maspeth was also home to Bohack Square, a large warehouse and distribution point for the Bohack supermarket chain. An annex of the Brooklyn Navy Yard was also located in Maspeth along Newtown Creek where launches, lifeboats, anchors and anchor chains were fabricated for the new ships being built in the main yard. Long Island Railroad yard engines shuttled freight cars to different industries along railroad tracks that radiated in every direction.
Newtown Creek was completely polluted with oil, chemicals, sewage and hazardous waste defying description and the whole area reeked of the pungent odors of heavy, dirty industry.
Our pal continued to re-tell his tale and excitement gradually trumped fear. Five of us decided to accompany him one afternoon as he led us deeper and deeper into this dark and dangerous realm of unfamiliar streets. We dodged dump trucks, cement mixers, box trucks, panel trucks and 40-foot trailers. We didn’t falter and rode next to the creek as the bridge rose above us towering 125-feet above the creek.
The bridge opened in August 1939 and less than one year later, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, renamed it after General Kosciuszko. Over 15,000 New Yorkers attended the festivities, mostly Polish residents from their strongholds of Greenpoint and Maspeth. LaGuardia noted in his remarks that Poland and been subjugated by the Nazis and Soviets the previous September, “I am confident that Poland will live again. Any land that breeds such lovers of freedom can never be enslaved. The Polish people may be captive, but the flaming spirit of Polish liberty will never be destroyed.”
We rode alongside the smelter- a scary site indeed. Just when it seemed the bridge would overwhelm us, our leader turned right and we followed peddling hard along a street uphill. This street paralleled the descending bridge and met it at an entrance to a walkway. We rode our bikes up the walkway to the center of the span where we stopped high over Newtown Creek. We could see Ridgewood in the distance. Two landmarks stood out, the rather large sandstone buildings of Grover Cleveland High School and the tall clock towers of St. Aloysius, my neighborhood parish. The smelter looked just as scary from above as it did from street level.
Fear of an unpleasant encounter with local thugs began to poison the mood reminding us it was time to leave. Re-mounted, we were off increasing speed as we descended. “Don’t brake, don’t brake,” we shouted to each other as we tried hard not to brake. A U-turn at the end of the bridge taking us back on the city street required braking but we quickly regained speed as we rode downhill toward the creek. We were able to negotiate a sweeping left turn at speed and it was wonderful, a true joy. We were flying.
We were hooked on the experience and returned for as long as we biked. Speed increased as we grew more proficient and less fearful. Perhaps it was dumb luck but we never crashed or encountered trouble. We did remain cautious and never rode into Brooklyn and the streets of Greenpoint. That place was alien to us and would have forced us to bike through Williamsburg and Bushwick, both neighborhoods then in transition and not for the better.
Today, all that industry is long gone. Greenpoint, Williamsburg and Bushwick have been gentrified and Newtown Creek is as clean as it ever will be. The 1939 truss bridge wore out and a brand new cable-stayed span replaced it in late April. This is the first of two like spans that will constitute the new Kosciuszko Bridge. Late this summer, the old bridge will be dismantled and hauled away. The second span will rise in its place. When it opens in 2020, it will include a walkway. Unfortunately, I fear today’s safety regulations will probably prohibit flying bikes down the new bridge. But perhaps some boys will be daredevil enough to try their luck as we did so many years ago.