The Metropole Bookshelf: Who Was That Major Deegan Anyway?

The Metropole Bookshelf is an opportunity for authors of forthcoming or recently published books to let the UHA community know about their new work in the field.

By Rebecca Bratspies

The Major Deegan Expressway is many people’s first experience of New York City. Travelers crossing the George Washington Bridge take the Major Deegan to the Brucker Expressway and/or the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge. Artists, including Mary J. Blige, have included the Major Deegan in their work, with lyrics that invariably pair “Major Deegan” with “speeding.” (But that is probably because “stuck in bumper to bumper traffic” doesn’t rhyme.) In 2005, AAA named part of the Major Deegan the worst road in New York City—a dubious honor bestowed upon the approach to the George Washington Bridge where two lanes merge at the top of a steep spiral ramp. Each day, thousands of people “take” the Major Deegan. Few if any of those travelers remember that before his name became urban shorthand for congestion Major Deegan was an actual person.

In Naming Gotham: The Villains, Rogues, and Heroes Behind New York’s Place Names, I use the naming of New York City’s roads, bridges, and civic institutions as a unique window into urban social structure and the city’s ever-changing inhabitants. The life stories of Revolutionary War figures, civil rights heroes, robber barons, and Tammany Hall politicos introduce readers to the outsized roles that power politics, corruption, and the slave economy played and continue to play in New York City. The biographies of people like Major Deegan, Richard Riker, Anne Hutchinson, Eugenius Outerbridge, Archibald Gracie, and Clifford Holland serve as the jumping off point for exploring a bigger story about New York City racial and class politics.

By starting with the lives of individuals and the structures that bear their names, Naming Gotham offers an accessible entry point into the complexity of multiracial, multicultural New York City. Part of the lesson is that fame is fleeting, and if you want a road or bridge named after you it really helps to be a white man.

Take Major Deegan, for example. One of the most heavily traveled roads in New York City is named after him, yet virtually no one remembers who he was. You might guess that he was a war hero (he wasn’t) or a soldier who died leading troops into battle (again nope). In fact, it is hard to figure out what Major Deegan did to rate having a road named after him, except die young and have numerous powerful friends.

An architect by training, William Francis Deegan was commissioned a major in the Army Corps of Engineers during World War I. Even though he used his military rank for the rest of his life, Deegan never set foot on a battlefield. Instead, he spent the entire war designing fortifications in New York under the supervision of General George Washington Goethals (an even more famous military figure with no combat experience, who wound up with a bridge in Staten Island bearing his name).

Major Deegan (n.d.), New York City Department of Records.

Valuable work, and Deegan probably did it well, but hardly the stuff of legend. Even his supporters acknowledge he “wasn’t Teddy Roosevelt or anything.” Nonetheless, when Governor Pataki proposed renaming the Major Deegan (which passes by Yankee Stadium) for Joe DiMaggio, veterans groups voiced their displeasure.

After the War, Deegan helped form the American Legion and was promptly elected Commander of the New York branch. In that role, one of Deegan’s claims to fame was lobbying the Veterans Bureau to immediately fire “all married women…who have husbands able to support [them].” Despite this compelling campaign platform, which was perhaps influenced by his own salacious divorce, Deegan’s bid to be the nation chairman of the American Legion failed.

Instead, Deegan turned to politics. His bestie, Mayor Jimmy Walker, appointed him New York City’s tenement house commissioner. Deegan had really wanted to be police commissioner but lost out to a candidate with more support from Tammany Hall (another parallel with Goethals). As tenement commissioner, Deegan took the important public stand against allowing pigeon coops atop tenement buildings. Not only was Deegan concerned about pigeon coops blocking fire exits, but he was also convinced that pigeons spread polio (they don’t). Deegan’s pigeon ban infuriated pigeon fanciers, who reminded Deegan, to no avail, of the central role homing pigeons played in war readiness. Denying that he was anti-pigeon, Deegan graciously allowed that “pigeons may still use the parks.” Mayor Walker also appointed Deegan chairman of the Mayor’s Committee for the Reception of Distinguished Guests. In just two short years in that post, Deegan managed to rack up $5,000 in bills for flowers, lunches, and cars (roughly $85,000 in 2022 dollars).

Deegan died young, of complications from appendicitis. He was, by all accounts, a nice guy, with a lot of powerful friends. His funeral was a full-bore military affair, including thousands of mourners, a cassion drawn by seven black horses, military bands, airplane escorts, and 160 honorary pallbearers including Mayor Walker, two US Senators, and a legion of New York City dignitaries. Soon thereafter, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia signed legislation naming the street connecting the newly constructed Triborough Bridge with the Grand Concourse as the Major Deegan Boulevard. When Robert Moses converted Major Deegan Boulevard into yet another highway rammed through the Bronx, he kept the Major Deegan name.

All in all, an impressive life, but does it really rate being commemorated with a highway?

The process of naming civic institutions can tell us a lot about who we think we are. To date, New York City has chosen to commemorate mostly white men. In a city as diverse as New York, that fact is telling. It reflects the historical balance of power in the city—both in terms of who had the power to name things and who got to define what counted as history. For honorees like Major Deegan (and Bruckner, and Sheridan, who each also have an expressway named after them), it was friendship with powerful politicians and a close association with Robert Moses that seems to have prompted their honors, rather than a truly remarkable contribution to civic life.  

Frontpiece of Naming Gotham, drawn by Charlie LeGreca.

Indeed, one thing Naming Gotham makes clear is that the names currently attached to New York City institutions tell only a small sliver of the city’s story. This is changing, albeit slowly. In the 1980s and 1990s New York City renamed a handful of streets after important male Black New Yorkers, including: Jackie Robinson, Fredrick Douglass, Malcolm X, and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. It took another twenty years for Black women to gain similar recognition. Shirley Chisholm State Park, named after the first Black woman elected to Congress, opened in 2019. Currently, there is proposed legislation to rename the Queens Midtown Tunnel after Jane Bolin—the first Black woman to serve as a judge in the United States after being appointed to the bench in 1939 by Mayor LaGuardia.

This shift in who the city memorializes reflects the changing narrative that New Yorkers tell themselves about their city. That shift creates the possibility of a wider transformation. It remains to be seen how this changing story will translate into the policies the city adopts for its schools, its roads, and its neighborhoods. In the meantime, Naming Gotham will fill you in on the gossipy backstories of many such honorees.

On a more personal note, this book was a labor of love. It started when my partner, composer Allen Schulz, suffered a catastrophic cardiac arrest. He was in the hospital for over six months, spending the first month in a coma hanging between life and death. With no emotional energy for my usual environmental scholarship, I still desperately needed a project to keep me mentally engaged as I sat by his bedside. Allen and I used to get stuck in traffic on the Major Deegan every time we tried to visit my parents in Pennsylvania. I would always grumble “who was that Major Deegan anyway.” Allen finally challenged me to find out. So, working on this book was a way to connect with our past as I waited to see if we would have a future. That story has a happy ending. Although he has limitations, Allen made a truly miraculous recovery and is even able to compose again.  

Rebecca Bratspies is a longtime resident of Astoria Queens. When not geeking out about New York City history, she is a Professor at CUNY School of Law. A scholar of environmental justice and human rights, Rebecca has written scores of law review articles, four other books, including Environmental Justice: Law Policy and Regulation, and three environmental justice comic books: Mayah’s Lot, Bina’s Plant, and Troop’s Run (with Charlie LaGreca-Velasco). She serves on NYC’s Environmental Justice Advisory Board, and EPA’s Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee, is a scholar with the Center for Progressive Reform, and is a member of the NYC Bar Environmental Committee. ABA-SEER honored her work with its Commitment to Diversity and Justice Award.

Featured image (at top): Major Deegan Expressway Sign, photograph by Rebecca Bratspies.

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