Editorial: Stop naming things after politicians

Should Mario Cuomo's name be on new Tappan Zee bridge?
The north span of the new bridge at the Tappan Zee, days before it opened in August.
The north span of the new bridge at the Tappan Zee, days before it opened in August.

There’s a petition being circulated online, which as of Friday had more than 70,000 signatures, to take the late Gov. Mario M. Cuomo’s name off the new Tappan Zee bridge.

Not only should the state honor the petition, but it should review the names of all buildings, bridges, highways and parks that bear the names of past and present politicians and consider new standards for naming these monuments-to -grandeur.

The Tappan Zee bridge — which connects Westchester and Rockland counties over the Hudson River and is a major route into New York City — was named in 1955 for the Tappan Native American tribe that lived in the area and the Dutch word for “sea.” 

The hasty decision to rename the new Tappan Zee bridge for the current governor’s father, who passed away in 2015, is seen by many as an ego trip for the younger Cuomo — both as a personal way to honor his father in a monumental way and to get the Cuomo name out there in a very visible place to help promote his future political ambitions.

What better way to subliminally impart the Cuomo name in the brains of millions of potential voters by forcing drivers to say they’re “taking the Cuomo” every day on their way in and out of the city?

The Legislature slipped the renaming of the new $4 billion replacement bridge onto the agenda of a special legislative session called in June primarily to extend mayoral control over New York City schools.

That’s how it got passed.

Many people seem to prefer the old name, one because they’re used to it and two because it’s a testament to the area’s Native American and Dutch heritage.

The governor says he’s offended by the petition to change the name.

But supporters say it never should have been changed in the first place. Others say the issue is trivial, given the real problems facing the state.

But that raises the question: Should we be naming things after public officials in the first place. And if so, is there a more appropriate way to match the renaming of objects to the individual’s lasting legacy other than recent political popularity or clout?

In Rensselaer County, there is at least one building named for former Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno in each of the 14 towns and two cities in Rensselaer County — not counting the baseball stadium that bears his name. 

Bruno was not a billionaire donating his personal money to the construction of all these buildings. He was a politician who used his accumulated political power to channel state taxpayer money — our money — to pet projects. He later was convicted of abusing his office for personal gain. Even though the conviction was later overturned thanks to a weakening of the standards of proof by the U.S. Supreme Court, the book on Bruno remains open.

There’s a state park on Long Island and a parkway near Niagara Falls named after Robert Moses. Moses was a 20th century urban planner who was later revealed in the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, “The Power Broker,” as a ruthless abuser of political power with racist tendencies who pushed through many major infrastructure projects that New York City residents now revile. Should his name be on public highways and parks? 

The controversial presidential campaign and presidency of Donald Trump has already resulted in his name being removed from several New York apartment buildings, and there have been efforts to take his name off a state park in Putnam County.

Love him or hate him, shouldn’t his legacy be evaluated over time before public places are named after him?
Certainly, Gov. Mario Cuomo was considered a man of integrity and a national statesman who could have risen to the presidency. Yet some attribute the state’s high spending and taxes to his three terms in office and don’t revere him as others do. Is it right to name a major bridge after him while his legacy as governor has yet to be fully evaluated or appreciated?

Even public figures revered for decades and centuries, such as Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and some of the Founding Fathers, are being re-evaluated for their public places of honor as society comes to terms with their legacies.

It might be impractical and expensive to change all the signs bearing these individuals’ names all at once. But at least put a stop to the new ones and take a step back.

Perhaps it’s time state and local governments reconsider naming buildings, bridges, highways, parks and other public places after recent politicians and instead look to honor local culture and history — along with the lasting legacies of historic figures — in proper context.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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