NEW YORK — Rarely does a birthday gift provoke a public spat, but rarely is a birthday gift a double-decker cantilever bridge immortalized in song and on film and designated a civil engineering landmark, right up there with the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty.
To Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, it made perfect sense to use former Mayor Ed Koch's 86th birthday to announce plans to rename the Queensboro Bridge — linking Manhattan to the borough of Queens — after Koch, who spearheaded efforts to repair New York's aging bridges as the city emerged from near-bankruptcy in the 1970s.
"Like Ed Koch, the bridge is a resilient, hardworking New York City icon that's been bringing people together for a long time," Bloomberg said at Koch's birthday party in December, unveiling a sign with the envisioned new name: Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge.
But one man's gift is another's gaffe, and while the renaming is expected to win City Council approval, it will do so amid words of caution from historians and urban planners, and over objections from some Queens residents who say it smacks of disrespect for a borough flanked by glittering Manhattan and trendy Brooklyn.
"No one would ever consider renaming the Brooklyn Bridge, but when it comes to the Queensboro Bridge, for some reason it's OK," said Queens City Councilman Peter F. Vallone Jr. "This is a bridge named after our borough, a bridge which was responsible for the growth of the borough and much of the history of our borough. This landmark should not be tampered with."
Actually, it already has been. The bridge, completed in 1909, used to be the Blackwell's Island Bridge, for an East River island beneath it. Blackwell's Island has since undergone two name changes and is now Roosevelt Island, an example of the frequent name-changing that goes on in New York — which used to be New Amsterdam.
In 2008, the Triborough Bridge linking Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx was renamed the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge. Idlewild Airport was renamed for John F. Kennedy. The Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel connecting Brooklyn to Lower Manhattan is about to be renamed after former Gov. Hugh Carey.
Scores of city streets gain new names each year, honoring everyone from slain police officers to people slain by police officers. Last year, part of a Queens road was renamed Sean Bell Way to memorialize a man shot dead by police on the eve of his wedding in a controversial 2006 incident.
Lawrence J. Vale, an urban planning expert at MIT who studies "symbolic politics," said he sensed an increase in the renaming of public areas nationwide — from residential streets to bridges to expressways such as the Arroyo Seco Parkway, formerly the Pasadena Freeway and before that ... the Arroyo Seco Parkway.
Vale suspects officials have become more relaxed about renaming places in part because more people rely on GPS devices to navigate. No longer must names reflect location.
"I think something is lost, though, when you allow place names and addresses to be so self-referential that they don't help orient you," said Vale, who also questions the wisdom of naming things after living people. "There needs to be a time of reflection after the person's demise ... to assess the contribution of that person and judge what scale of monument is appropriate."
Rushing to rename can backfire, as it did in Missouri on a stretch of highway named for former Cardinals star Mark McGwire. After McGwire admitted using steroids, the state last year voted to rename the highway after Mark Twain.
"It's a messy business," said Michael Miscione, the official Manhattan borough historian. It becomes messier when someone suggests a new name for something that already bears someone's name, he said, citing the protests over a 1999 proposal to rename the city's Major Deegan Expressway after Joe DiMaggio.
"Who the hell knows Major Deegan?" said Miscione of the road's namesake: Maj. William Francis Deegan. "But every time there's an effort to rename that thing, out of the woodwork come Major Deegan's fans."
Marc LaVorgna, a Bloomberg spokesman, dismissed the idea of a scandal undermining Koch, a three-term mayor who led the city from 1978 to 1989.
"I can tell you that the mayor proposed the renaming to honor one of the greatest New York mayors, who helped save the city from bankruptcy," LaVorgna said. In particular, Koch regained city control of the East River bridges from the state, expediting repairs on them.
Koch has welcomed the birthday gift, saying the span, also known as the 59th Street Bridge for the Manhattan street at its western edge, suits his personality.
"It's not a beautiful bridge. It's a workhorse bridge," Koch said. "It's craggy and shaggy, and I'm craggy and shaggy."
Indeed, with its sharp-edged steeliness, the Queensboro appears far grittier than the romantic Brooklyn Bridge or the soaring Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to the south. Traffic roars just feet from the narrow pedestrian path, which empties onto a Queens street dominated by a strip club.
On a recent rainy afternoon, the walkway was deserted except for a homeless man pushing a shopping cart and a deliveryman riding a bicycle.
Nonetheless, Simon & Garfunkel named their hit "The 59th Street Bridge Song/Feelin' Groovy" for it. Edward Hopper painted it, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about it, and Diane Keaton and Woody Allen watched dawn break over it in the film "Manhattan," making the bridge a cultural icon even if it lacks the aura of its elegant neighbors.
Privately, some New York officials say few lawmakers would oppose renaming the bridge because they don't want to anger Bloomberg. Constituents, though, have expressed dismay with the plan via online comments and letters to local media. "Leave the name of the bridge alone. Can you imagine Paul Simon singing the 'Mayor Edward Koch Song?' " wrote one.
And even with a name change, most New Yorkers — including Koch — concede it will be many years before people call it the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge. Few call the Triborough by its new name, underscoring critics' arguments that name changes often are a waste of time.
But Miscione said they were crucial to preserving the city's history, even if some names provoked controversy. "If you shy away from every controversy or every person who has a blemish in their history, we'll end up remembering nobody," he said.