The Queensboro Bridge turned 100 years old March 31, and if the old steel span could speak it would surely agree there is no better party host than "Gridlock" Sam Schwartz.
These days Schwartz, the former city Traffic Commissioner and renowned urban planner, is president of the New York City Bridge Centennial Commission, a non-profit organization dedicated to the centennial commemoration of some of New York's most important bridges. (As it happens the Queensboro shares its birthday with the Manhattan Bridge and several smaller bridges across the city).
In an interview, Schwartz spoke of the impact the Queensboro has had on the development of Queens and the many changes the bridge has undergone since it was first opened for business to rail and trolley cars in March 31, 1909.
"The Queensboro Bridge launched Queens as a place where people could travel to by rail," said Schwartz, a veritable encyclopedia of city transportation history.
When the bridge was built, between 1901 and 1909, the Midtown Manhattan business district was just beginning to compete with the much older, well-established financial district, said Schwartz. As the bridge rose to span the East River, providing Queens residents with easy access to the city for the first time, so too rose the Midtown skyline.
"The importance of the Queensboro Bridge was matched by the skyline that grew up on the Manhattan end," said Schwartz, at the very time the city was increasingly interconnected with new transportation technology such as modern bridges and subway lines. City builders decided to "knit the city together," Schwartz said, "and that's what our forebears did with a string of bridges."
Though the Queensboro may not be the most iconic of the four major East River bridges (that title is firmly held by the Brooklyn Bridge), it has become the most useful. Today, roughly 200,000 vehicles cross it daily, making the bridge the most heavily used in the city, though it lost its rail lines a long time ago.
The bridge owes its current prosperity - its old age, even - to none other than Schwartz. As Traffic Commissioner during the mid 1980's, Schwartz began what would become a 20-year process of reconstructing the bridge, and others across the city, to prepare them for the 21st century.
After several years out of office, Schwartz, who has won several major engineering and urban planning awards, is back in the spotlight as president of the Bridge Centennial Commission (BCC). The group is finishing a fundraising drive in preparation for the hosting of a weeklong 100th anniversary celebration for the Queensboro Bridge starting May 31. Schwartz said the anniversary is a testament to a great era in city building and the generations of New Yorkers since then who have worked to preserve and improve the city's infrastructure.
"I would hope people will celebrate so we begin to think about what our legacy is," said Schwartz. "I'm really proud of the fact that we protected our history."