Opinion

New York City's (re)naming binge

By Aaron Short |  

October 4, 2017 |  

Columbus Circle in Manhattan (Edwin J. Torres/ Mayoral Photo Office)

New York is on a naming binge. City and state officials have been steadily ramming through street co-namings and plaza re-dedications with a mirthful fervor over the past decade.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently floated a proposal this summer allowing companies to get naming rights for subway stations if the spend at least $600,000 to maintain them.

We know the MTA is strapped for cash but won’t this confuse tourists who already have difficulty navigating the subway on the weekends?

You want to go to Williamsburg? Take the Ernst & Young line south from CitiGroup terminal, transfer at Google Station and take the train five stops before you get to Lululemon. If you get off at FritoLay, you’ve gone too far and you should take the WeWork line in the other direction.

But renaming the subways weren’t enough for Cuomo.

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A few weeks earlier, the governor slipped a measure naming the new Tappan Zee Bridge after his father, the late Gov. Mario Cuomo, into the final bill state lawmakers passed deep into the night at the end of the legislative session. 

New Yorkers have fond memories of Mario but that moniker is as likely to stick as the Ed Koch Bridge. The Journal News even wrote an editorial telling readers they don’t have to use the name if they don’t want to, although AP Style requires them to call the span the Mario Cuomo Bridge.

Cuomo isn’t the only one getting grief over a renaming.

While sleepwalking through his re-election campaign, Mayor Bill de Blasio stumbled into an awkward quandary involving Christopher Columbus.

De Blasio formed a commission to study the city’s monuments after a white supremacists rallied in August to preserve a statue of Robert E. Lee in Virginia.

The mayor wanted to remove any statues, busts or markers dedicated to confederate generals – a worthy goal since New York fought on the side of the Union. There’s even a square named after the effort.

But it’s a circle further uptown that has given the mayor headaches. 

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and left-leaning groups have pushed for a Columbus statue’s removal because of his exploration’s effects on the lives of indigenous Americans. 

De Blasio said he would consider it, prompting Italian-American leaders in both parties to remind him of the discrimination their ancestors suffered after settling in the city and chided the mayor for neglecting his own heritage. Now he has to march in the Columbus Day Parade and pretend it doesn’t bother him.

At least it wasn’t his name. Naming buildings after political leaders, some of whom are still alive, is only half the problem.

President Donald Trump’s golf courses have been defaced, highway signs he dedicated on the West Side Highway have been vandalized and his gold-tinted letters have been jimmied off apartment buildings he developed in the Upper West Side.

Let’s face it; there are too many names. Allow me a short interlude.

A few months after actor Jerry Orbach died in December 2004, his family wanted to honor his artistic legacy by naming the corner of 53rd Street and 8th Avenue after him. 

It had been a divisive time in American politics. White House officials had acknowledged they could not find weapons of mass destruction – their justification for toppling Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime. Swaths of anti-war demonstrators met Republicans at their presidential convention in New York that summer, resulting in 1,800 arrests. President George W. Bush won re-election a few months later.

The preternaturally calm and assertive Law & Order actor may have been one of the nation’s few unifying figures at the time. No less than the New York Times called him a “consummate New Yorker.”  

Who else would be worthier to have a street christened in his memory?

Well it wasn’t an easy decision.

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In 2007, members of Manhattan’s Community Board 5, who make recommendations to the City Council over any street dedications in Midtown Manhattan, voted 18 to 17 in favor of the decision after more than five hours of discussion. But it wasn’t a majority of board members so the official recommendation was “no recommendation.” (Full disclosure: I was a member of the board at the time and I think I abstained.)

No matter. City Hall granted the Orbachs’ request and the corner is now named for Jerry.

But if the mayor’s monumental mess and the governor’s subway silliness tell us anything, it’s that we should think carefully before allowing politicians to rush to name public works on our behalf.

There’s a certain geographic elegance to the Queensboro and Triboro bridge names, even if they were later changed.

Battery Park City was named after the artillery batteries that protected the early settlements in lower Manhattan. 

And the word Manhattan itself is a Lenape word that means “island of many hills” although apparently not a hill worth dying on since the tribe sold the land in 1626 to the Dutch for roughly $24 or about $950 adjusting for inflation.

New York, a.k.a. Gotham, a.k.a. New Amsterdam, a.k.a. the Modern Gomorrah, means different things to each of us. But at least we can agree on where places are and what to call them most of the time.

Aaron Short is a New York-based political reporter. Follow him on Twitter @aaronshortstory.

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