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A Bridge or a Day by Any Other Name

The New York Metropolitan area welcomes the Mario M. Cuomo Bridge replacing the Governor Malcolm Wilson - Tappan Zee Bridge

by Donna Chirico
The reaction to events in Charlottesville, VA has brought about an opportunity to re-visit how the United States has honored historical figures who are not necessarily the virtuous figures many had assumed. This has led to rally cries to tear down the statues, end the parades, or rename the days as we come to understand it is not just the feet of the statues that are made of clay.

The Governor Malcolm Wilson –Tappan Zee Bridge is on the brink of being replaced by the Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge. No one I know refers to the current bridge by its full name; here in Rockland County, it is the Tappan Zee or just the Tap. I imagine that this will also be the case for the new bridge. The Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge does not glide easily off the tongue and the traffic reporters will find that saying the full name takes up too much time in their thirty second broadcasts.

The opening and naming of the new bridge coincides with controversies arising throughout the country questioning of the appropriateness of statues and monuments dedicated to historical figures as well as the historical names in place on our roads, bridges and buildings. On Long Island, the Levittown School District decided to remove all the named days from its printed calendar for the upcoming school year. Parents are in an uproar over this action.  No Thanksgiving? No Columbus Day?

Most would be upset about Thanksgiving, but Columbus Day is different matter as it is a name that has ignited conflict and aggressive debate. The day is celebrated as part of Italian American Heritage and Culture Month. Each year, a Presidential Proclamation is issued to this effect. Some years the proclamation is specific to the day; more often it refers to the entire month. Separate from being a federal holiday, the day is commemorated well beyond the United States under different names such as Día de la Raza in Latin America and Fiesta Nacional de España in Spain. National Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from September 15 to October 15, includes Columbus Day.

None of this eliminates the anger and betrayal many feel toward Columbus and his legacy. In the 2016 Columbus Day proclamation, President Obama stated, “As we mark this rich history, we must also acknowledge the pain and suffering reflected in the stories of Native Americans who had long resided on this land prior to the arrival of European newcomers.” This sentiment has led many communities to change the name of the day; some have chosen Italian American Heritage and Culture Day and others have chosen Indigenous Peoples Day to highlight the brutal treatment of Native Americans by European empire-building. Seattle, Albuquerque, and St. Paul are just a few of the cities across the country to adopt Indigenous Peoples Day. Illinois gubernatorial candidate, Ameya Pawar has stated that if elected, he will work to have the state rename Columbus Day. Even Staten Island, often referred to as “Staten Italy,” has struggled with this issue. Several years ago, its Columbus weekend festivities were dubbed “Rome Through Richmond Town.” This year, the event is being called “Festa Italiana at the Mount: The Biggest Columbus Day Celebration in Staten Island’s History.” (The “mount” refers to Mount Loretto.)

Making Columbus Day a day to celebrate indigenous peoples does not seem the best resolution. It would taint the day moving forward. Instead, there should be a separate day to honor indigenous peoples not linked to the rhetoric of Columbus or the rancor the matter has created in both the Italian American and Native American communities. A propitious time is November during Native American Heritage Month. I suggest that the Columbus Day become a celebration of all immigrants as opposed to making it solely Italian American Heritage and Culture Day. It can become a day of solidarity for immigrants and their shared experience of exile.

Which brings us back to the new bridge. The history of the Hudson Valley is reflected in the names of its towns and water ways. Native American names were replaced by Dutch ones and then again by British names. Just as Manhattan became New Amsterdam and then New York City. If we are to remove all of the names associated with the inhumanity shown by those individuals, then there will be a good deal of renaming. Given that we do not know what the legacy of certain individuals will be in the long run, the lesson here is to refrain from using the names of people whose historical importance is likely to have been of the moment. Who actually remembers Governor Malcolm Wilson?

I would call it the Tuphanne Bridge – Tuphanne is a Lanape term for “cold water.”

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