Robert Moses Plaza and a Troubling History


The plinth that serves as a monument to Robert Moses is currently covered up, due to debates about its position on campus (PHOTO BY HANA KENNINGHAM/OBSERVER ARCHIVES)


“Robert Moses, Master Builder,” reads the statue recently erected on our outdoor plaza, but, for many communities of color, Robert Moses was a master destroyer. The very campus we stand on came at the expense of people of color. Beginning in 1958, the old Lincoln Square neighborhood, called San Juan Hill, an area of predominantly black and Puerto Rican residents, was cleared and bulldozed in order to make room for a myriad of sites, including Lincoln Center and our campus. In total, about 3,000 families were forced to leave their homes. Moses’ “slum-clearance” projects took place all over the city, including the South Bronx, meaning that tens of thousands of people of color were displaced. Yes, Moses built a mecca for the arts, both the Cross Bronx Expressway and the Henry Hudson Parkway, but at what cost? Is an opera worth more than 3,000 families of color? Moses never acknowledged the devastation he caused, instead he insisted that critics simply did not “understand” the complexities of re-development. While that may be true, the tragedy involved in so many families losing their homes is easily understandable. Now, we’re not proposing that we immediately tear all of it down and give the land back to those it was taken from, but an acknowledgement of the sordid history of our campus is essential.

Last Wednesday, when the university decided to–from what we have heard–re-erect the statue bearing Robert Moses’s image, they failed to acknowledge this history. In light of everything else that has happened, such as the racial epithet inscribed on a Rose Hill freshman’s door and the swastika recently carved in a bathroom here at Lincoln Center, this decision comes as another slap in the face to students of color–and just at a time when the university promised more racial understanding, they displayed a complete and total lack of it. The installation, ironically enough, disrupted a vigil for the victims of the recent terror attacks worldwide. Though we doubt any of this was intentionally malicious, that is precisely the issue. Yes, incidents of outright racism occur every day, but it is the incidents that spring out of lack of thought that occur far more frequently.

Every day, microaggressions are lobbed at minorities of every kind, be they racial, religious, LGBTQ-motivated, and so on. Many of these microaggressions are not necessarily intentionally malicious but their negative impact is felt nonetheless. This statue was a microaggression. We want to call on everyone not just to avoid being actively prejudiced, which is easy enough for most of us, but to also take into account the impact of their thoughts, words and actions. Maybe you think people are being oversensitive and you’re “tired” of political correctness, but is it really that unreasonable to ask people to speak and act conscientiously? Honestly, any failure to do so is laziness–plain and simple.  In moving forward, acknowledging the error in this statue placement and re-naming the Outdoor Plaza is one of many steps Fordham can take towards becoming a racism-free institution. What the university did was lazy but that does not mean they cannot spring into action now and remove the bust.

And why stop there? The university should not stop until every student is aware of the history of the campus we stand on. We owe the former residents of San Juan Hill at least that. Let us be reminded of the Jesuit tenets Fordham holds so dear–specifically in social justice. We are reminded to “set the world on fire” as St. Ignatius of Loyola once said. But to what extent can we carry that out and be critical of the social justice issues in this country and around the world if we fail to acknowledge they exist within this very community? It is no easy task, but we encourage the Fordham community to think upon the ways in which we need to be self-critical in that this campus is simply not conducive for people of color, and as we approach this holiday season we must become cognitive of the humility and empathy necessary to truly make this campus a better place to be.