Author David McCullough deserves honor as bridge to history

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Allegheny County is considering selling naming rights to some of its 520 bridges. It's only a hazy idea, but with everything from skyscrapers to ski slopes branded already, it may be only a matter of time.

Given how broke the U.S. Treasury is, expect the idea to get there, too. Crumbling infrastructure is hardly just a county problem, and thus your grandchildren might one day be driving on the Eat'n Parkway North.

My friend Michael Connors of Chalfant is looking past this somewhat cheesy proposal, though. He wants to see a county bridge named for a particular human.

That's been done many times before, of course, most prominently and most recently on the county's yellow triplet bridges that span the Allegheny River to connect Downtown with the North Side. Roberto Clemente, Andy Warhol and Rachel Carson have been honored there. (Though these three all became widely known in the 1960s, there is no evidence they ever met, unless it was by chance in a Giant Eagle.)

Mr. Connors sees another prominent homeboy who should be added to this group:

"Name an honest-to-God Pittsburgher who has won a couple of National Book Awards, a National Humanities Medal, three dozen honorary degrees, two Pulitzer Prizes, has addressed a joint session of Congress, been a guest of the White House, has been awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom and doesn't have so much as an alley named for him in his hometown of Pittsburgh."

Some of you know the answer already, even if the headline didn't give it away. David McCullough, 78, America's biographer, grew up in Point Breeze and has never forgotten where he came from.

"Mario [Lemieux] has a street named for him,'' Mr. Connors said, adding, "Mario hit a puck with a stick." He noted McCullough has given the literary world the Johnstown Flood, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Panama Canal, Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Adams, 1776 and, in his latest book, a look at Paris's influence on America and Americans.

"August Wilson has a center, Sophie [Masloff] has a seal. McCullough has squat.''

What more fitting honor than a bridge in Mr. McCullough's name? We'd just have to make sure it was worthy of the man who wrote the definitive history of the iconic Brooklyn Bridge.

I called Bob Webb, who served as county manager under County Executive Jim Roddey and has an encyclopedic grasp of our region. Most county bridges are less than 50 feet in length, he noted, and a mere creek-crossing non-entity wouldn't do here.

Mr. Webb rattled off the names of the county bridges on the rivers, and I stopped him when he got to the 16th Street Bridge. If Pittsburgh were to do this, that 1922 bridge with its massive stone piers and statuary would be perfect, Mr. Webb agreed.

"It's a classic bridge, a lovely bridge,'' he said of the structure that connects the historic neighborhoods of the Strip District and North Side. "It can be fairly read as a direct descendant of the Brooklyn Bridge, designed to be a major statement.''

Both Pittsburgh and the nation were pretty full of themselves in the years following World War I, and this arched bridge with globes held up by winged horses was never meant to be merely a way to get from Point A to Point B.

The bridge underwent a major rehab less than a decade ago, Mr. Webb pointed out, so "it's not one of the ones that's going into the river.''

This honor would be topical given America's dramatic infrastructure needs, and there would be regional symmetry, too. By celebrating the Brooklyn Bridge, Mr. McCullough honored John A. Roebling, whose wire rope works was in Saxonburg, Butler County, and who began work on the Brooklyn Bridge after completing a bridge where the Smithfield Street Bridge (which is a PennDOT bridge) now stands.

I didn't call Mr. McCullough to see what he thinks of this because it's nothing more than an idea. But if the county has reached the point that it may commercialize some bridges to raise cash to repair others, setting aside one to honor regional history and achievement would provide some dignity and balance.

brianoneill

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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