Tag Archives: Pulaski Skyway

James Gandolfini

Not many actors get to portray a character so perfectly that they burn themselves into popular culture. James Gandolfini played the conflicted mob boss Tony Soprano so well that not only did he become forever linked to the character, he added the entire Mafia family to the stockpile of things in which New Jerseyans take ironic pride — hey, we got Frank Hague, Nucky Johnson, lotsa Superfund sites and we got Tony Soprano! I felt it when my California in-laws, who had always considered New Jersey something of a practical joke on the rest of the country, suddenly took a keen interest in places like Kearny and the Caldwells.

Shortly after the BBC began airing the show, I was talking on the telephone to a British investment banker with a great toff accent, who idly asked what part of the U.S. I was calling from. When I said “Hoboken” he gasped. “That’s where the Sopranos live!”

“Well, not exactly,” I said. “You know that bridge he drives across in the opening credits . . . “

Another gasp, this one a little louder. “I know that bridge! That’s the New Jersey Turnpike!”

I’ll spare you the details of how I gave a lesson in North Jersey geography to a Tory in the City of London, but I will say that even when the series was at its wobbly, self-indulgent, let’s-see-how-we-can-justify-staying-on-the-HBO-sugar-tit-for-another-season worst, I felt a link to The Sopranos. Partly it was commercial: the appearance of the Pulaski Skyway in the opening credits was an easy hook to use whenever I did author appearances in connection with The Last Three Miles. But it was in large part due to Gandolfini’s artistry.

Like Viggo Mortensen, Gandolfini excelled at conveying the sense of deep currents of thought and emotion going on beneath an impassive exterior. Silvio, Paulie Walnuts and the rest of the mob cast became cartoon characters as the show staggered through its last three seasons, but Tony Soprano stayed real, thanks to Gandolfini’s immensely subtle talent.  During the show’s first season, Gandolfini’s switching between the paternal and the predatory made “College” the most perfectly realized episode in the only perfectly realized season. One of my favorite moments in The Sopranos comes when a dirty cop on the mobster’s payroll complains about how he’s perpetually broke. Tony tells him he should stop gambling because he loses so much. “Yeah, well I got two bills on Rutgers this weekend,” the cop says, and Tony replies, in a tone that shows he can barely keep from rolling his eyes, “That’ll solve all your problems.” Gandolfini may have done booster commercials for the Scarlet Knights, but whenever I hear about the latest ups and downs in my alma mater’s Big Time Football crusade, I think of him delivering that line.

Gandolfini did good and even great work after The Sopranos: as a played-out hit man in Killing Them Softly he gave a much-needed shot of oxygen to a film that really should have worked much better than it did. His performance as the father in Not Fade Away, directed by Sopranos mastermind David Chase, showed he still had talent and artistry to burn. There have been a lot of tributes to Gandolfini in the wake of his untimely death, but I particularly like this one from Glenn Kenny, who explains exactly what made him so great in Not Fade Away. As for Kenny’s closing line, all I can say is yes.

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Inky linky

Yours Truly is interviewed in today’s edition of The Record. The topic is the planned restoration of the Pulaski Skyway in Hudson County. The columnist, John Cichowski, is kind enough to give a mention to The Last Three Miles, for which I thank him as well.

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The highway of the future is a thing of the past

It had to happen sooner or later. The Pulaski Skyway, subject of my book The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway, will closed to eastbound drivers for two years of repair work. The state will close the span early in 2014, following Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife LAST3MILESStadium. Apparently two lanes of outward-bound traffic will remain open throughout the project, but anyone heading for New York City needs another plan.

If you want to prepare for the traffic delays, why not pick up a copy of The Last Three Miles and read about the design flaws and eleventh-hour political interference that made the Hudson County span the rollercoaster of terror it is today? Or marvel at the machinations of political boss Frank Hague, one of the biggest players in the Skyway saga, and the bloody labor war that broke out when one of Hague’s former allies, labor czar Teddy Brandle, clashed with the anti-union contractors building the causeway? It’s also available as an ebook and there’s an audio version capably read by the great Dion Graham, whose other audiobook performances put me in some damn flattering company. (He also played Rupert Bond in the later seasons of The Wire, which I never get tired of bragging about.) 

And while we’re on the subject of Hudson County and the Pulaski Skyway, this is as good a place as any to begin announcing that this coming fall will see the publication of American Dictators: Frank Hague, Nucky Johnson, and the Perfection of the Urban Political Machine, due out from Rutgers University Press. I’ll have a website and Facebook page up for the book later in the year. It’s the cornerstone of what future generations will know as The Year of the Hat Trick, about which more anon.

   

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Museum day

Today’s the day for my little talk at the Hoboken Historical Museum. Tales of murder, corruption, and traffic engineering. All the things that make the world go ’round. I’d want to go even if I weren’t already supposed to be there. 

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Meet me at the museum

The Hoboken Historical Museum, that is. That’s where I’ll be giving a talk on Sunday, June 24, as part of the museum’s program Driving Under the Hudson: A History of the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels. The event is keyed to the 85th anniversary of the opening of the Holland Tunnel, which in turn leads to the Pulaski Skyway and the Route One Extension — the subject of my book The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway. (The book, incidentally, now has its own Facebook page.) The entire project — recognized as America’s first superhighway — was built to carry Holland Tunel traffic out of Jersey City and across the Meadowlands as expeditiously as possible. As the book reveals, things didn’t go quite so smoothly as planned. There was a nasty labor war during the construction of the final stretch through Hudson County, now known as the Pulaski Skyway, that resulted in a murder trial, and the entire design of the Skyway was compromised by political interference and inexperience with the new field of traffic engineering. If you want to know why driving the Skyway offers all the scares of a rollercoaster ride with none of the pleasures, The Last Three Miles will give you the answers. If you want a look into a previously little-known chapter of the career of political boss Frank Hague, The Last Three Miles will open a panoramic view. And if you want a chance to say hellp and talk about the book some more, come to the Hoboken Historical Museum on Sunday, June 24, at 4 p.m.

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Letter from Hong Kong

I get letters from readers every now and then, but this is the first one to cross the international date line:

Dear Steven Hart:                                                                      January 20, 2012

I’ve had an on-and-off interest in public transport, and so occasionally seek books on the subject to read.  Your book isn’t about public transport, but it is in the same section in the library.  That’s how I came across it when I was seeking books on the former.  Since the book was concise and seemed highly readable, I borrowed it.
Having grown up in New York after emigrating there from my native Hong Kong, I knew the book would bring back memories.  The first time I recalled seeing the Pulaski Skyway was 30 years ago when I took the PATH train from Manhattan to Newark for the first time.  After the train left Journal Square, it hit open country (or should I say the some of the grimier parts of Jersey).  When the train crossed a river, I saw a long black bridge some distance away and thought, What an ugly bridge!  I was looking at the Pulaski Skyway.  I tried to find it on the PATH map that I picked up at the World Trade Center Station (the one that gives a 3D bird’s eye view of Lower Manhattan and vicinity.  The skyway is shown, but (if I remember correctly) it didn’t look as ugly on the map.
Later, after I’d learned to drive, my father advised me that if I was heading south on the NJTP, I shouldn’t take the turnpike (Newark Bay) extension, or I-78, right after I exit the Holland Tunnel.  Instead, I should take US1-9 South, which would put me on the skyway, and enter the NJTP at Exit 13A rather than Exit 14, saving a few cents.
Your description of Frank Hague (whom I’d never heard of before picking up your book) and his hardball brand of politics make much of today’s politics look tame.  With union-busting Dems like Hague, who needs Republicans?
I’ve never really visited Jersey City, treating it as a transit point rather than a destination (similar to what you said about the entire state).  But I’ve visited other parts of Jersey, like a family friend’s home in Nutley that my family used to visit every year.  In fact, despite having seen the grimy areas of Jersey as I passed through them on the PATH train, I didn’t regard Jersey as a dump when I was younger.  Instead, I regarded it (at least the parts I visited) as a safe haven away from New York, which I saw as a place to escape from rather than the unofficial capital of the world.
Well, I finally did escape New York, having returned to Hong Kong over ten years ago.  But while you can take me out of America, you can’t take America out of me – at least not entirely.  That’s why I try to keep up with news in New York as best as I can.
A few copies of your book sit on the shelves of Hong Kong’s various libraries.  I wouldn’t be surprised if I was the first to borrow my copy.  I don’t know when I’ll return to New York for a visit, but if I do, I may pencil down a trip to Jersey City on my itinerary.  It’s only a train ride away.  I’m sure it’s doable in a day.

Sincerely,

I find it very cool to think that The Last Three Miles is available to read in Hong Kong libraries.

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Me again

Jersey City magazine has a package of stories on the theme of “Industrial Artistry,” in which Yours Truly can be found talking about the oddly monstrous kind of beauty represented by the Pulaski Skyway. There’s also some neat artwork that I might want to get repro rights on if The Last Three Miles ever gets a revised edition.

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True dat

Undercover Black Man informs us that the DVD editions of my most favoritest TV show, The Wire, are such a hit in the U.K. that the BBC has started rebroadasting all five seasons, five nights a week.
 
My day job frequently has me calling bankers and other executives in London and a number of other time zones. Several years ago, when the Beeb started broadcasting The Sopranos, one London banker practically had an aneurysm when he heard I sat with my back to the Hudson River five days a week. Imagine a thick, slightly nasal toff accent for the banker:
 
BANKER: Where is your office, anyway?
 
ME: Hoboken.
 
BANKER: (Voice rising in pitch) I know that! That’s where the Sopranos live!
 
ME: Uh, well, actually, they’re a little west of here. You know in the opening credits, that bridge Tony drives over . . .   
 
BANKER: (Voice even higher) I know that bridge! That’s the New Jersey Turnpike!
 
It was rather startling to talk to someone who thought of New Jersey as an exotic, interesting place, so I told him that Hoboken is in Hudson County and the Sopranos were more of an Essex County bunch, though they certainly had tentacles extended and bodies buried all through the Meadowlands. I hadn’t finished writing The Last Three Miles, otherwise I’d have talked up the appearance of the Pulaski Skyway in the opening credits. Maybe the investment bank would have bought a couple of cartons for its Christmas party. Oh well. Regrets, I’ve had a few.
 
I wonder how many Baltimore cubicle-slaves will have people with British accents asking them if they know the spot where Stringer Bell bought the farm, or where Omar got arrested, or how close they are to Prezbo’s school. If one of my London phone-buds says “True dat,” I’ll know the show is having an impact.

ADDENDUM: I just remembered the second season episode when Jimmy McNulty, a working-class American cop played by a British actor (Dominic West) doing a pretty damn good Yank accent, poses as an English businessman in order to get access to a private sex club. So the BBC audience is going to get treated to a Brit playing an American doing a Brit with an American’s bad idea of what a British accent sounds like. I don’t know if Dominic West has a Yorkshire accent in his regular speech, but if he does, then British viewers will probably be able to pick it out.

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A bridge too close

There’s a very nice writeup about my book, The Last Three Miles, in the current issue of The Jersey City Independent, a newly launched online newspaper. Topics include the Skyway, Frank Hague’s relationship with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and the New Deal.

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Bathsheba smiles

Bathsheba Monk (one of my Approved Authors for 2008) says some very nice things on about my book The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway on her blog. That’s a treat for a Monday morning. The book is also the subject of an impending article in the recently launched Jersey City Independent, and I’ll post a link as soon as it appears.

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