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.

In their book Brooklyn by Name: How the Neighborhoods, Streets, Parks, Bridges and More Got Their Names,  Leonard Benardo and Jennifer Weiss write 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 15 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?"

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.