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Eternal City

So Who the Hell Is Major Deegan?

A new book tells us of the sometimes extremely unremarkable men that our roads, bridges, and tunnels are named after.

(Wikimedia Commons)

New York City's highway signs are light on numbers, and heavy on names. But what's behind those names? Who was Major Deegan, aside from the bane of our existence? Who is the "Hutch" named after?

Instead of letting our imaginations run rampant as we're stuck in yet another crushing line of traffic, cursing whoever Van Wyck was, CUNY Law professor Rebecca Bratspies decided to actually do the research and find out what's behind the names of our hated roadways. 

In her new book, "Naming Gotham: The Villains, Rogues & Heroes Behind New York's Place Names," Bratspies runs through the namesakes behind some of our most celebrated locations—Bryant Park, Lenox Hill, Jackson Heights, and others, while also diving into the history of our decrepit and jam-packed infrastructure. The Major Deegan, but also the Outerbridge Crossing (because Outerbridge Bridge would sound ridiculous), the Holland Tunnel (not named after the Dutch!), and the soaring, brand-new Kosciuszko Bridge. 

What did Bratspies find? A lot of seemingly unremarkable men who happened to be friends with Robert Moses. But as always in New York, there's much more to the story than that. 

Hell Gate spoke to Bratspies about New York's roads, bridges, and an aptly named island in the East River. 

This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.

OK, so just who the hell was Major Deegan? Was he really the inspiration for the book?

Who was Major Deegan? It's a question we ask while we're stuck in traffic—which is the origin story of this book. My parents live in Pennsylvania, and before my husband and I figured out it was way easier to take the Harlem River Drive to the GWB, we used to take the Major Deegan—which meant we were always, always stuck in traffic, and I'd be fuming. And asking, "Who was that damn Major Deegan anyway? It's all his fault!" My husband got sick of me whining and said, "Why don't you just find out?" And so I did, and it turned out that he was just way less impressive than you would think for someone with a very significant road named after him.

[Deegan] was an architect. He served in the Army Corps of Engineers during World War I. He never saw the battlefield, spent the entire war in New York building fortifications, under the supervision of General Goethals, who also never saw a day in combat! You usually think when something is named after a military figure, they're some sort of hero in battle or died in combat, but he did neither.

But what he did do, is help start the American Legion. He ran for national leader of the American Legion on the platform that the Veterans Department should fire all married women and replace them with war widows or injured men. Strangely enough, that wasn't the most compelling campaign platform. He didn't win.

And then I was going, who was Bruckner? Who was Sheridan? Who was Kosciuszko? Who were these people?

And the more I researched, the more I found that the inspiration for what things were named for was a manifestation of a very particular time in New York history, particularly the mayoralties of Jimmy Walker and [Fiorello] La Guardia, and so much of it went back to Robert Moses. Major Deegan, [Henry] Bruckner, and [Arthur] Sheridan had things named after them, not because they were particularly impressive people, but because they worked closely with Robert Moses, and they died while he was building something.

And we've taken their names and created this radio traffic report nomenclature—it's not the Hutchison, it's the Hutch. It's not the Bruckner, it's the Bruck, like we're all on 1010 WINS.

And what's so interesting in New York is that nobody uses the numbers! Even the Grand Central Parkway, not named after a person, it definitely has a number—but we don't use it. On the West Coast and Midwest, the roads are just numbers. But here, they've been personalized.

Speaking of personalization, I just think of the Van Wyck as evil. Maybe Wyck and "wicked" have a part to play in it, but I think it's just demonic.

He was evil! He was more of a rogue, really, than a villain, but he was very corrupt. He was a Tammany Hall creation. When he was elected mayor, [people] marched through the streets saying, "Well well well, reform has gone to hell." And he oversaw what the New York Times called in his obituary "the most corrupt mayoralty in New York history." He came into office with a very modest economic status, and he left with millions—millions in 1918 dollars, so hundreds of millions today. And it was all very clear quid pro quo. The state legislature got involved many times trying to undo some of his corruption, and there was a push by Governor Roosevelt to try to remove Van Wyck from office. But they were Masonic Lodge brothers, and Roosevelt decided there wasn't enough evidence to remove Van Wyck.

The expressway was built way after he died, but Van Wyck was the first mayor of unified New York, and oversaw a critical moment in New York's history. And maybe that's why the highway was named after him, but it's really unclear—whatever Robert Moses said, went. The elected officials would ratify what he just decided.

He built it to "whisk" people from Manhattan to Idlewild Airport. And of course, it didn't. From its inception, it's been a dismal stretch of road and always jammed. The Sanitation [Department] band played at the dedication, and that always seemed fitting to me.

There are not a lot of our soaring ramparts or bridges or expressways named after women, but one is—there's the Hutchison Expressway named after Ann Hutchison. Who was she?

She's super interesting. She was an American Jezebel. She was a pilgrim who came over to the colonies in Massachusetts, but immediately got in trouble on the ship ride over, because she had her own ideas about theology and was very, very educated. 

She started teaching women, but she got so popular that men started coming too—which was not OK. Women don't teach men anything ever, they are subservient. She was upsetting the natural order, and the clergy came down hard on her. They tried her for the crime of sedition, and she was pregnant at the time. And she argued in court for hours—she ended up losing the baby, which was her thirteenth or fourteenth, and she ended up losing the case. 

She was exiled, banished, excommunicated, and Roger Williams, who himself was banished, invited her to Rhode Island. And so she went, and the first thing she did was negotiate with the Narangansett for some land. And she stayed there until Massachusetts threatened to invade Rhode Island to capture her because they wanted to execute her. So she wound up coming down to New York, to the Dutch colony, because it had supposedly more space for tolerance for religion.

She and most of her family moved down here and started up a farmstead, got caught up in Kieft's War, a really ill-advised war between the settlers and local tribes, and Hutchison and all of her family except for one were massacred. And Massachusetts celebrated. She was eventually pardoned 400 years later by Michael Dukakis.

Sometimes this can get so murky. The expressway was named after the river, and why was the river named after her? It's a little obscured in the historical record.

Another heroic namesake in New York is Thaddeus Kosciuszko. First off, is it ko-SHCH-OO-SH-ko or Kos-kee-OOS-ko?

The latter, which is how Polish people pronounce it.

But everything should be named after him. My kid teases me that I have a crush on him, and in fact, I do. He was such a visionary. He was a true revolutionary. He walked into Benjamin Franklin's printing shop and said, "I'm here to fight for the revolution, I'm a military officer." And they were like, "Uh-huh." But he was! And without him, we certainly wouldn't have won the Battle of Saratoga, which convinced the French that they could use us in their ongoing battles against the British.

He was an adamant opponent of slavery. His aide-de-camp, his second-in-command, was a Black man—Agrippa Hull, a free Black man from Massachusetts, who had enlisted in the Continental Army, and they were quite a team. And a lot of his success in the southern campaign of the revolution had to do with Hull's ability to get information from people who were enslaved in the South.

After the war, when Kosciuszko was granted land in return for his service to the country, he entrusted all of it on his death to pay for the freedom of enslaved Black men and to get them started in a trade of some kind. And he asked no other than Thomas Jefferson to be the executor of this will. And that didn't go so well. Jefferson, shockingly, didn't implement the will. There were three court cases about the will that went to the Supreme Court, and it was never implemented.

After the revolution, Kosciuszko also went back to Poland and participated in a revolution there as well! And they won, briefly, and he freed all the serfs. But then Russia ultimately invaded. Sound familiar?

Kosciuszko was wounded and captured in battle and Catherine [the Great] freed him under one condition: that he could never return to Poland. And he came back to the United States, where he was paraded through the streets, and settled in Philadelphia.

And maybe this is apocryphal, but I hope it's not—there's a story that the chief of the Miami tribe came to visit the wounded Kosciuszko in Philadelphia, and Kosciuszko gave the chief, known as Little Turtle, his dueling guns that he had been given at the military academy in Poland. And he told the chief to use the guns on the first person that tried to take his lands.

And the bridge is ultimately named after him, because it was dedicated when the Nazis were invading Poland in 1939.

(Arcadia Publishing / Author photo)

Going from a truly heroic New York name, to a decidedly more villainous one—who were the Rikers?

That family's name should not be part of anything in New York City, and it shouldn't be a part of the name of the renewable plan for the island after the jail shuts down. Some names can't be redeemed, and Richard Riker is one of them. Richard Riker, who's really the villain of the book, personally had enslaved at least one person.

One of the last things that Peter Stuyvesant did before losing to the British was convey the island to the Von Rycken family. They were a wealthy Dutch family, slaveholders, and built a fortune on the backs of enslaved labor, which they then parlayed into social prominence. They hosted the Marquis de Lafayette, they were among New York's movers and shakers. 

The British took over from the Dutch and they anglicized their names, became Riker. Samuel Riker became a senator representing New York, and had two noteworthy children.

There was Andrew Riker, who was a privateer—a pirate with the sanction of the government. His younger brother Richard became the City's recorder, which was the City's judge at the time. And he was responsible for enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act—and not only was he super willing to send people who had liberated themselves back into slavery, but he also was part of what became known as the "Kidnapping Club," a conspiracy that he had with the chief of police, to just grab Black New Yorkers, deny them the right of habeas corpus, and declare them to be fugitive slaves and send them to slavery.

Why can't we start renaming these things right now?

There was a proposal to rename the Major Deegan after Joe DiMaggio, because it runs past Yankees Stadium. And people really fought against it for a couple of reasons. The name had really become a part of the culture of New York, and a lot of rap songs reference it, so there was a lot of local opposition. 

Veterans groups came out of the woodwork to oppose it as well. I could see it being renamed, but then we'd have to redo the signs, and people would be angry about that as well.

A final fun naming quirk to end on is that the Outerbridge Crossing is not named Outerbridge Crossing because it's the city's outermost bridge to New Jersey.

Right—and it's not even named a "bridge," because "Outerbridge Bridge" would sound absurd. It's named for Eugenius Outerbridge. He was still alive when it was named after him, and he got a badge that allowed him to cross without paying, because he was the head of the Port Authority. But apparently, according to his son, he never used the badge, and always paid.

Which is of course, different from Robert Moses, who always sailed through the toll plazas.

Moses would have obscured his license plate.

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