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Brian McGrory

Bridge is lighting the way forward

We’ve basically accepted the fact that government can’t get things done anymore. We have relegated the very concept of big ideas and big accomplishments to a quaint part of our not so recent past. In Massachusetts, there have been monumental failures. In Washington, the perpetually grim-faced John Boehner is a poster boy for stalemate. Our entire economy hangs by a thread, and a collection of nitwitted politicians seem to take perverse pride in the fact that they are miles apart.

But put that aside for a moment. Put aside the chronically low expectations, the fear that we’re about to fall off the fiscal cliff, the notion that we’ve already disappeared into the partisan divide.


Put all that aside and come to the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge, that iconic structure that once glowed blue at night but faded over time to a pale shade of drab. On a cold, breezy, moonlit evening last week, just around midnight, the state shut down the inbound lanes and a team of officials, lighting engineers, and friends and family of Lenny Zakim stood on the quiet road and witnessed the ­essence of progress.

What they saw was bright lights, blue, then pink, red, purple, orange, bathing the pillars that are the focal point of the bridge. The new light wasn’t just as good as the old blue lamps, but infinitely sharper, making the bridge, in the words of Joyce Zakim, the widow of the civil rights leader, “the gateway to the city that it was meant to be.”

I happened to mention the dim lighting in a column last May, observing that the formerly blue bridge, which graces so many postcards and symbolized the new, vital Boston, was now the color of a cheap light beer. Maybe it wasn’t life and death, but if we paid for a blue bridge, we ­deserved a blue bridge.


The state didn’t seem bothered, but others did. Mike Sheehan, chief executive of the Hill Holliday advertising firm, pushed for a meeting between one of his clients, Massachusetts-based Philips Color Kinetics, and transportation officials. Joyce ­Zakim and family friend Harold Schwartz sat in on the session. Transportation Secretary Rich Davey seemed moved by the presentation, in which Philips offered the expen­sive LED lights at cost.

Philips, by the way, lights bridges and iconic structures around the world. Think Empire State Building, for one. These lights are so technologically advanced that they can be changed by remote control to any color in the imagination.

Plans were made. Money was budgeted. And late Thursday night, Shari and ­Deena, Lenny’s two daughters, flicked a switch far below the bridge for the first test run. A van drove the group onto the eerily empty roadway, where they basked in the glow of blue light.

“It looked fabulous,” said Joyce Zakim.

As Joyce and her daughters called out different colors, an engineer changed the lamps to the new shades, the light washing up the towers toward the sky. In the future, the bridge will be lit to mark various charities and sporting events: pink for breast cancer awareness, for example, and green for a Celtics game. “Lenny was all about building communities,” Joyce said. “The idea they’ll light up the bridge for causes is perfect.”

Susanne Seitinger, the city innovations manager for Philips, said the 16 state-of-the-art, 200-watt lamps will use only a fraction of the energy of the antiquated bulbs that were there before. The bridge architect will tweak the light this week, and the lamps are expected to be illuminated late next week.


Davey sat in his office Tuesday marveling at the scene of standing on the bridge on a cold autumn night, witnessing change. “It was one of the best things I’ve been involved in,” he said. “I’m no bridge engineer, but it looked spectacular. The skyline should be lit in Lenny’s memory.”

Look for the newly lit bridge by next ­Friday, not only a symbol of a new Boston, but a sign that government can get good things done.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at