Why I Love Boston: America’s Bridge

I love living in one of America’s oldest cities: thick with graveyards, ancient bricks, and street names that hark back to luminaries who actually walked these avenues. I am even more head over heels with the newer bits of Boston. I take all my out-of-town guests directly to the Institute of Contemporary Art to visit the future of the imagination as well as the views of our inner harbor. From there, we walk to the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, a park nicely peopled with smiling locals and tourists. (Spare me the bitching about how this elegant promenade is not the hub of the Hub — not yet, I tell you.)

Most of all, I love the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge. With a width of 184 feet, it is the world’s widest cable-stayed bridge — a tour de force of traffic management that is at once an elegant Calderesque sculpture and, lest we forget, the triumph of the much-maligned Big Dig. From the moment it was lit up in 2002, the bridge became an icon, and is now a mainstay on postcards, souvenir tchotchkes, and car commercials looking for a clear and cool geographical reference to Beantown. San Francisco has the Golden Gate; Boston has the Zakim.

The name is part of its beauty. Some wanted to put “freedom” into the bridge’s name, and since the new structure replaced the Charlestown High Bridge, some Townies lobbied for Bunker Hill Bridge. But the debate took place shortly after the untimely death of Lenny (no one ever called him anything else) Zakim, the charismatic director of the region’s Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish organization that fights bigotry and fosters tolerance everywhere. Zakim was famous for his passion for justice, his sense of humor, and his talent for making friends and creating coalitions in a city of still-tribal divisions based on race, class, and politics. Fitting, then, that one of the more powerful advocates for naming the bridge in his honor was Cardinal Bernard Law.

Boston is a city where the new and the old remain in lively conversation with each other. The obelisks atop the towers on the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge are a salute to the Charlestown monument that commemorates one of the battles for the creation of these United States and its unprecedented experiment in human freedom. The Zakim name on this 21st-century bridge is a big nod to one of the successes of that experiment, considering Solomon Franco, the first Jew to land in Boston, was “warned” out of town in the 17th century.

Depending on whom you ask, the Zakim Bridge looks like a prehistoric skeleton, like a ship’s rigging, like an open book. Whenever I see it — shrouded in fog or lit up at dusk or unfurled under a bright sun — I feel like I’ve been given a gift. I feel like saying thank you.

Anita Diamant is the author of 12 books, including The Red Tent. Her new novel, Day After Night, will be published this month in paperback.