The Strange Politics of Street Renaming

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In New York City, celebrity sightings happen on street corners and even on street signs.  You can play a tune on Duke Ellington Boulevard or read the headlines on Peter Jennings Way. In Champaign Illinois, you can rock out on REO Speedwagon Way, and in Augusta, Georgia, you can find your soul on James Brown Boulevard.

Historians Benardo and Weiss write in their book Brooklyn by Name: How the Neighborhoods, Streets, Parks, Bridges and More Got Their Names that, "Street names function as a barometer of social values at a given time, and as such have historical significance that goes beyond a name."

That's exactly why sometimes cities have to undo their street renamings. In Brooklyn, Corbin Place was named after Austin Corbin who was a longtime Brooklyn developer and the president of the Long Island Rail Road for fifteen years. Corbin was also a member of the American Society for the Suppression of Jews and once said "If this is a free country, why can't we be free of the Jews?"

Picture 67.pngToday, many Jews reside on Corbin Avenue, and some rabbis consider the street's thriving Jewish community to be the best revenge. To cover over Austin Corbin's reputation without confusing pedestrians or drivers, residents worked to name the street after another famous Corbin—Revolutionary War heroine Margaret Corbin. The Corbin exchange has enabled locals to revise history without forcing residents to change their addresses.

Ain't no Sonshine

New street renamings also incite protests. In 2007, a four-block stretch of Gates Avenue divided the New York City Council. The street would have been named after Sonny Carson, a Korean War veteran and longtime community activist in Brooklyn.

He seemed like a clear case for the honorary designation, but he was also known for making racist comments, boycotting Korean grocery stores and serving time for a kidnapping charge. When accused of being anti-Semitic, he said, "I'm anti-white. Don't just limit me to a little group of people."

While most street naming proposals are merely rubber-stamped by the time they get to the city council floor, Sonny Carson Avenue sparked public arguments among council members was removed from the legislation.

Bucking Popular Opinion

Picture 95.pngRacism, though, isn't the street activists' only battle call. A Chicago proposal to rename a street after Hugh Hefner incited protests, but the 2000 City Council proceeded with honoring the Playboy magazine founder with a street that sounds like a dating manual: the Hugh Hefner Way.
Beyond politics, renamed street can be hazardous. When a segment of Seventh Avenue was renamed (Christopher) Columbus Avenue, upstate New York residents were outraged. The address change made it difficult for deliveries, contractors and even emergency service vehicles to find their homes. Regardless of their opinions of Christopher Columbus, locals wanted their street to have a number. Whether a UPS truck trying to deliver shoes or a fifteenth century explorer trying to find India, Columbus has long been associated with getting lost.

Rather than deal with official political channels, Miss Middagh of 19th century Brooklyn Heights took street names into her own hands. She didn't like her neighbors so she ripped down the street signs bearing their names. In their places, she put up Cranberry, Orange, Pineapple, Poplar and Willow street signs. The city took her signs down, but gave up after she put the signs back up.  Her street names of choice remain today.

--Other controversies:

  • After a 37-year-long campaign, Prague agreed to rename the city's center Kafka Square, though many contend that the author would have hated to be a square.
  • In 2006, the renaming of a block after Fred Hampton started a controversy in Chicago. In 1969, Hampton was drugged by an FBI agent and killed by police in a raid on Black Panther headquarters. The Chicago police opposed "Chairman Fred Hampton Way" citing the leader's advocacy for violence against police.
  • At the turn of the 19th century, merchants in downtown Manhattan appealed to the city to rename the Bowery.  They were sick of the seedy connotations the name carried, but officials refused.  The government said visiting soldiers and sailors would get lost while looking for the Bowery and that such confusion could impair the efficiency of the army and navy.
  • Portland, Oregon, abandoned a Cesar Chavez street renaming plan.
  • And perhaps a corner that deserves to be renamed? The New York junction of Seaman and Cumming, which has cars full of junior high students guffawing every day.

July 30, 2008 - 5:41am
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