The Strange Politics of Street Renaming

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.

Quick True/False: World Capitals
Bain News Service - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
10 Pats Born on St. Patrick's Day
A photo from the 1919 wedding of Princess Patricia of Connaught to the Hon. Alexander Ramsay.
A photo from the 1919 wedding of Princess Patricia of Connaught to the Hon. Alexander Ramsay.
Bain News Service - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Need some St. Patrick's Day conversation fodder that doesn't involve leprechauns or four-leaf clovers? Ask your friends to name a "Pat" born on St. Patrick's Day. If they can't, they owe you a drink—then you can wow them with this list of 10.


Princess Patricia was the granddaughter of Queen Victoria, who gave up all of her royal titles when she married a commoner. She was born at Buckingham Palace on March 17, 1886.


The Dallas star was born on March 17, 1949. And here's a totally random fact about Duffy: His nephew is Barry Zito, former MLB pitcher for the Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco Giants.


Pattie Boyd
Larry Ellis, Express/Getty Images

Pattie Boyd is well-known to lovers of classic rock: She has been married three times, including once to George Harrison and once to Eric Clapton, who both wrote a couple of the most romantic songs in rock history in her honor (including The Beatles's "Something" and Clapton's "Wonderful Tonight"). Boyd was a model when she met Harrison on the set of A Hard Day's Night in 1964; the pair were married two years later. They divorced in 1977 and she married Clapton, Harrison's close friend, in 1979. She also had an affair with Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones toward the end of her marriage to The Quiet Beatle.


Belfast-born Pat Rice is a former footballer and coach who spent the bulk of his career with Arsenal F.C. (that's "football club," a.k.a. soccer to us Americans). He joined the Gunners in 1964 as a mere apprentice, turning pro a couple of years later. He became captain in 1977 and left the club for a few years in the early 1980s to go to Watford, but returned after he retired from playing in 1984. In 2012, after nearly 30 years with the organization, he announced his retirement.


Patty Maloney is an actress with dwarfism who stands just three feet, 11 inches tall. She has appeared in many movies and T.V. shows over the years, including operating the Crypt Keeper puppet in Tales from the Crypt. She also played Chewbacca's son Lumpy in The Star Wars Holiday Special.


Michael C. Hall and Mathew St. Patrick in 'Six Feet Under'

Ok, so Mathew St. Patrick is the stage name of the actor, but he was born Patrick Matthews in Philadelphia on March 17, 1968. You probably know him best as David's boyfriend Keith on Six Feet Under.


He may not be a household name, but the recording artists Patrick Adams writes for and helps produce certainly are. Adams has been involved in the careers of Salt-N-Pepa, Sister Sledge, Gladys Knight, Rick James, and Coolio, among others.


It's possible you look at Patrick McDonnell's work every day, depending on which comics your newspaper carries. McDonnell draws a strip called Mutts featuring a dog and a cat named Earl and Mooch, respectively. Charles Schulz called it one of the best comic strips of all time.


 Singer/Guitarist Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins performs onstage during Live Earth New York at Giants Stadium on July 7, 2007 in East Rutherford, New Jersey
Evan Agostini, Getty Images

Yes, you know him better as just plain old Billy Corgan: he's the face of the Smashing Pumpkins, engages in public feuds with Courtney Love, and maybe once dated Jessica Simpson. He made his debut on March 17, 1967.


Patricia Ford is a retired model probably best known for her Playboy photoshoots in the 1990s.


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