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.

Bleat Along to Classic Holiday Tunes With This Goat Christmas Album

Feeling a little Grinchy this month? The Sweden branch of ActionAid, an international charity dedicated to fighting global poverty, wants to goat—errr ... goad—you into the Christmas spirit with their animal-focused holiday album: All I Want for Christmas is a Goat.

Fittingly, it features the shriek-filled vocal stylings of a group of festive farm animals bleating out classics like “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The recording may sound like a silly novelty release, but there's a serious cause behind it: It’s intended to remind listeners how the animals benefit impoverished communities. Goats can live in arid nations that are too dry for farming, and they provide their owners with milk and wool. In fact, the only thing they can't seem to do is, well, sing. 

You can purchase All I Want for Christmas is a Goat on iTunes and Spotify, or listen to a few songs from its eight-track selection below.

What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?

Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.


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