Ethel Kennedy Bridge is dedicated, at long last


Ethel Kennedy (in white, facing camera) aboard a boat Wednesday in front of the Ethel Kennedy Bridge. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

In 2008, the D.C. Council voted to name the bridge that carries Benning Road NE over the Anacostia River after Ethel Kennedy, the widow of Robert F. Kennedy and a longtime advocate for environmental and social causes in neglected D.C. neighborhoods.

On Wednesday afternoon, with a star-studded crowd that included Attorney General Eric Holder, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and several of Kennedy’s children, the bridge was at last formally dedicated.

So what took so long?

Bob Nixon — founder and chairman of the Earth Conservation Corps, a charity that Kennedy has long supported — gave the most succinct explanation: “This is not something Ethel wanted at all. … It took years for our elected officials to stir up the courage to tell her.”

The reality isn’t quite so stark, explained Dan Tangherlini, the former D.C. city administrator who is now director of the General Services Administration. City lawmakers quietly passed the bill six years ago to commemorate Kennedy’s 80th birthday, and Tangherlini presented her with the honor at a birthday celebration shortly thereafter. But while she may have known about it then, he said, organizing a ceremony to formally dedicate the bridge was another thing entirely.

“I think my mother didn’t want a bridge named after her,” said son Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who attended the ceremony and shared anecdotes of fundraisers for D.C. causes at the clan’s Hickory Hill estate in McLean. “She likes to fly under the radar.”

True to form, Kennedy, 86, did not give any remarks at the ceremony. And in a brief interview with reporters afterward, she was loath to acknowledge the accolades. “I’m very grateful to this whole community,” she said. “They’ve been through so much.”

It was a recent encounter between Tangherlini and Ethel’s daughter Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the former Maryland lieutenant governor, that got the ball rolling on a dedication ceremony. Tangherlini took the idea to Mayor Vincent C. Gray, who got the legislation passed as council chairman and served as master of ceremonies for Wednesday’s event.

Besides the bold-faced names, the speakers included volunteers and local residents who benefited from and worked alongside Kennedy in cleaning up the Anacostia River and improving the surrounding neighborhoods. One volunteer recalled Kennedy wading into a creek, helping pull out tires and car engines. The mother of Diamond Teague, a 19-year-old Earth Conservation Corps member who was shot to death in 2003. “You came to our house and you comforted us, and we appreciate that,” said Florence Teague.

But the ultimate tribute to Kennedy, several speakers said, was the water flowing quietly behind the tent erected in River Terrace Park. While the Anacostia remains unfishable and unswimmable, there is hope that will be reversed with a decade or two, with a huge tunneling effort to keep sewage out of the river now underway and new attention being given to the toxic sediment on the river bottom.

“We wouldn’t be celebrating a restoring river if it wasn’t for Ethel,” Nixon said.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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Mike DeBonis · May 21