What Street Names Say About Us

Historians in the News
tags: books, memorials, geography, urban history, Martin Luther King Jr., Streets

Since the turn of this century, Portland, Ore., has changed the name of 39th Avenue to Cesar E. Chavez Boulevard, Portland Boulevard to Rosa Parks Way and a stretch of Southwest Stark to Harvey Milk Street. Civil rights icons seem on brand for such a cartoonish lefty town.

Yet, having whiled away a premature midlife crisis in Portland at the end of the 1980s, back when it was nicknamed “Skinhead City” after a trio of young white supremacists murdered an Ethiopian student with a baseball bat, I remember why Front Avenue is still called Front. In the ’80s, when the city sent a survey to Front’s merchants and residents about renaming it after Martin Luther King Jr., more than 200 respondents vetoed the idea and only nine endorsed it. I’ll never forget the morning in April 1990 when downtown commuters did a collective double take at a prank perpetrated by artists who called themselves Group X. The tricksters had pasted over the Front Avenue street signs with impeccably silk-screened facsimiles labeled “Malcolm X St,” a tongue-in-cheek admonition of pleasant Portland’s ugly edge.

The city rebranded a different street as Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, though not without bellyaching among the citizenry. As Deirdre Mask recalls in her chapter on streets named for King in “The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power,” “dozens of people heckled outside the renaming ceremony.”

Mask, an American journalist who lives in London, pops in on historians, scientists, bureaucrats and various intriguing townspeople, guiding the reader across four continents and the Caribbean in her entertaining quest to trace the origins and implications of the names of the roads on which we reside. She careens through Nazi Germany, which changed the names of streets called “Jew,” and Tehran, where Winston Churchill Street was rechristened, to the British Embassy’s dismay, for the Irish revolutionary Bobby Sands. She notes that Tokyo has unnamed streets aplenty (a predicament for which my sister and I once invented the exclamation “JIC!” — Japan is confusing! — so as to not lose more time complaining on top of the hours wasted getting lost). This fact, Mask says, may have something to do with the structure of written Japanese, which emphasizes blocks of characters rather than (as in English) lines of letters. About Haiti, she wonders, “Could street addresses stop an epidemic?” — a question that’s becoming more interesting by the hour.

Read entire article at New York Times

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