Several generations of Robert F. Kennedy's family gathered Wednesday with some of the country's other Democratic elite -- including former President Bill Clinton -- for a ceremony renaming the Triborough Bridge in honor of the slain senator and U.S. attorney general.
Kennedy's wife, Ethel, most of their children, and Caroline Kennedy -- his niece -- attended the ceremony on a blustery but sunny day in a Queens park at the foot of the bridge.
Kennedy, who would have turned 83 on Thursday, was assassinated in 1968 while campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The senator "was about wanting to make life better for others," said Gov. David Paterson, who handed Ethel Kennedy a framed copy of the bill he signed renaming the bridge.
Paterson reminded the audience that in 1968, Kennedy had predicted that it would take 40 years for a black president to be elected. Some speakers likened President-elect Barack Obama's ideals to Kennedy's.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said the bridge -- consisting of three spans, a viaduct and 14 miles of approach roads -- was an appropriate tribute because his father "was about bridging all the differences."
The bridge connects Manhattan with the Bronx and Queens, which claims the nation's most diverse population and more than 170 languages. The Democratic club from the multiethnic neighborhood of Astoria, just under the bridge, was the first to endorse Kennedy when he ran for the U.S. Senate from New York.
Kennedy "operated on a grand scale," said Mayor Michael Bloomberg. "He united us as New Yorkers and as Americans. America would not be the country it is without Robert F. Kennedy and all the Kennedys."
To mark the renaming of the bridge, Paterson announced a set of public school lesson plans based on the theme of social justice. It is a partnership between the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights and the state teachers' union.
The New York Transit Museum has also unveiled a yearlong exhibit showcasing the historic bridge as well as Kennedy's life and career.
Bill Clinton remembered 1968, the year of Kennedy's assassination, as "one of the most heartbreaking, exhilarating years. ... You had no doubt that he cared about the people he spoke of."
The former president said his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, did not attend because she was in Washington working for causes that were dear to Kennedy: making sure people had homes and jobs. She did appear at an evening dedication gala at Manhattan's Chelsea Piers, reading a poem by Kennedy along with Paterson and New York Sen. Charles Schumer.
Among other dignitaries attending the daytime ceremony were former mayors David Dinkins and Ed Koch and former Gov. Hugh Carey.
Notably absent was former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who had first proposed renaming the bridge and resigned earlier this year amid a prostitution scandal.
The bridge, which opened in 1936 and is operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, is used by more than 200,000 vehicles each day. It is currently undergoing a $1 billion rehabilitation, including repainting of its 6 million square feet of steel, strengthening of its structure and replacement of its entire roadway deck.
At a time when the state faces massive budget cuts, the renaming project has drawn criticism for the cost of changing about 140 signs on roads leading up to the bridge. Charles Carrier, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, said officials are trying to find "a cost-efficient way" to make the conversion -- and would have had to change the signs in any case to address new federal highway standards effective in 2009. The MTA has put up some signs with the new name, but Carrier said no exact date has been set for the full conversion.
The RFK Bridge is the first major public work dedicated to Kennedy in the state he represented from 1965 to 1968. The bridge is now part of a route leading from Manhattan's Franklin Delano Roosevelt Driveway to the John F. Kennedy International Airport.