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Nestor Ramos

The Longfellow Bridge — connecting people, ideas, and identities — reopens

The Longfellow Bridge reopened on Thursday.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/Globe Staff/file

Even before the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's name adorned this bridge, the Longfellow was somehow more than steel and stone.

The span over the Charles River carried people, of course, but also ideas. Information. Values. Between cities whose identities are at once inseparable and unique, it was connective tissue.

Designed and built in a turn-of-the-century world that was quickly becoming more interconnected, the new bridge was to be "a monument that would have meaning for the future," said Charles Sullivan, executive director of the Cambridge Historical Commission.

It wasn't just a bridge between Cambridge and Boston. In some ways, the Longfellow spanned the expanse between the past and the future.

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And so it does again.

After years of painstaking construction and preservation efforts, the Longfellow Bridge reopened in full on Thursday. Two lanes of car traffic flow toward Boston and one lane is Cambridge-bound. Bicycle lanes, protected by plastic posts, flank wide sidewalks. Red Line trains chug back and forth down the middle.

On a warm day, the sun high in the sky and a steady breeze rippling the water and cutting the heat, the walk across the Longfellow toward the city is Boston's charm at its peak. So of course its name came from a poem about love, and about traversing the space, physical and temporal, between lovers.

"This is a masterpiece, not only as a bridge but as urbanism," said Franz-Josef Ulm, a professor at MIT.

At the turn of the 20th century, when the bridge was being designed, parts of Cambridge now dominated by MIT were home to dirty industry. It would have been easy, Ulm said, to build a bridge that allowed large ships to travel the Charles. But the Longfellow, under the direction of engineer William Jackson, did the opposite, effectively turning the Charles into what is now a public oasis.

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"This defined what we see today," Ulm said, gesturing out over the no longer dirty water. "Between these two communities, [the bridge] became a common space." The Longfellow isn't one-dimensional, Ulm said — it doesn't simply move cars or trains or people. It shaped a city — two cities, actually.

For a good long while in recent years, that was hard to see. Long overdue construction, $300 million worth, began in 2013, and though the roadway is open now, some pedestrian paths and various finishing touches won't be fully complete for a few more months. Entire classes of recent college graduates never saw the Longfellow Bridge without some sort of significant construction apparatus.

Even the Viking ships at the bases of the columns of the Longfellow Bridge got a touch up.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

But that price tag was, at least in part, a result of the state's refusal to properly maintain the bridge over decades. The project, Sullivan said, "probably would not have been necessary had the state invested minimal amounts in maintenance," like clearing drains and tending to rust.

In 2007, 100 years after the bridge was originally dedicated to much fanfare, David Westerling, an emeritus professor at Merrimack College, coauthored a warning, published in the Globe, about the state's failure to maintain its assets. The Longfellow, he wrote, was a symbol of that failure. The headline: "A Legacy of Neglect."

Today, though, Westerling is eyeing a celebration.

"From an engineering standpoint, it was probably much quicker and easier . . . to make it look like an interstate highway bridge," but instead, he said, Massachusetts did right by one of its iconic landmarks.

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That means craftsmen all over New England have been replicating original bronze doors and light fixtures. Pedestrian lights along the sidewalks resemble the originals, but each is loaded with tiny LEDs. Stone workers dismantled and restored the signature salt-and-pepper center columns, removing and rebuilding them, granite block by granite block.

Even the Viking ships at the bases of the columns got a touch-up, Sullivan said. Inspired by Harvard professor Eben Horsford's then-popular but bogus theory that Vikings had discovered and settled North America at the Charles River, they are among the only things about the bridge's design that a good editor might have scrapped. (Horsford, on considerably firmer footing, also improved the recipe for baking powder).

The Longfellow Bridge, as pictured Thursday.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Every place worth visiting cares about its history, of course. But in Greater Boston, the way our past shapes our present and informs our future is, if not uniquely, then at least especially important.

So much has changed since the 1907 dedication of what was then the Cambridge Bridge that the cities around it would be difficult to recognize. But look past the cars and asphalt, designer bicycles and reflective running shoes, and the bridge looks much as it did when horses drew streetcars across.

And its mission — its meaning — is not so different, either.

Westerling said he's looking forward to the completion of the intricate footpaths connecting the Boston side of the bridge to the Esplanade.

"There's a lot of good things happening there, you can just start to see them," Westerling said. "It's complicated, but in the end it's going to be beautiful."

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For our cities and for ourselves, for our past and our future, what more can we hope for?


Nestor Ramos can be reached at nestor.ramos@globe.com.