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Brian McGrory

Bright idea brings new lights to Zakim Bridge

The Zakim bridge in 2002.Globe File/Boston Globe

This is how life is supposed to unfold but too rarely does, because reality has a nagging habit of getting in the way. Plus nobody ever listens to anyone anymore, but we’ll leave that topic for another day.

Today we dwell on all good things. Today we remind readers of a column in this space in May that pointed out how the once alluring blue lights of the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge have faded to a dull shade of drab.

It was right there for an entire city to see. When the bridge first opened, the soaring towers were bathed in cobalt blue, a symbol of a new Boston, vivid and forward thinking. That blue bridge was featured on half the postcards sold in Quincy Market, portrayed on untold websites, and used as a veritable sales pitch for the city. Look, world, Boston isn’t old and gray anymore.

But the plastic blue lenses faded with time, plus they got dirty from weather and traffic, and too soon our brilliant-blue bridge had turned pale, the color of nothing. So much for progress.


Which I mentioned in print, acknowledging that this wasn’t the biggest deal in the world, or even in this city, or for that matter even in the state Transportation Department, but it was annoying and unnecessary just the same. We designed a blue bridge. We paid for a blue bridge. We deserved a blue bridge. The state could not have seemed any less interested, so I wrote and moved on.

But others took up the cause. Mike Sheehan, the chief executive of the advertising firm Hill Holliday, reached out to Harold Schwartz, an acquaintance in his downtown office building who also serves on the board of the Lenny Zakim Fund.

Sheehan told Schwartz he had a client, Philips Color Kinetics, that had used state-of-the-art LED lights to illuminate bridges from Corpus Christi to Dubai in spectacular fashion, and had recently relit the Empire State Building. The company, based in Burlington, wanted to play a role on this structure in its front yard.


A call was made to the governor. A meeting was set up with Richard Davey, the state transportation secretary who has an intuitive feel for customer service. Schwartz and Sheehan attended, along with executives from Philips, as well as Joyce Zakim, the widow of the beloved civil rights and social justice activist for whom the bridge is partially named. Lenny Zakim died in 1999.

“Lenny was a luminary,” Sheehan said in describing his motive. “The bridge should be well lit.”

Philips gave Davey a detailed presentation. They would replace the big, clunky bulbs with vivid LED lights that would last a dozen years and cut 40 percent off the energy bill. They would provide the lights at cost. Even better, state officials could change the color of the lights with a few strokes of a remote keyboard. One night the bridge could be blue, then green for the Celtics, then gold for the Bruins, or any combination of colors to mark different philanthropic events.

Joyce Zakim voiced her strong support, as did Schwartz, one of Lenny Zakim’s closest friends.

The results will soon be apparent along the Boston skyline. The state Transportation Department ordered 16 of the high-tech LED bulbs and will install them along the tower bases by October. Assuming all goes well, the DOT plans to spend $400,000 to replace all 200 lights on the bridge with the LED bulbs.


“With help from Philips, we’ll make the bridge iconic again – and save the taxpayers money,” Davey said on Tuesday. “It will be more spectacular.”

Joyce Zakim was effusive about the response.

“Lenny would love these new lights,” she said. “It will light up for different causes, and he was all about reaching out to different communities.”

The taxpayers cut their electric bill and the city gets the gleaming bridge it’s supposed to have. Imagine if the rest of life, or at least government, could work like this?

McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.