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What’s In a Name? Urban Infrastructure and Social Justice

Responsive Government

This post was originally published on Notice & Comment, which is published by the Yale Journal on Regulation.

Arriving in New York City, you might take the Van Wyck Expressway past the Jackie Robinson Parkway on your way from JFK airport. Or you might cross the Kościuszko Bridge as you travel from LaGuardia airport. Or you might take the George Washington Bridge to the Major Deegan Expressway. Or, you might use the Goethals Bridge, or the Pulaski Skyway, or the Outerbridge Crossing. What, if anything, would those trips tell you about the city (other than that we desperately need better mass transit)? All this infrastructure commemorates individuals who helped shape the city’s history. Yet, few people remember that, before these names became a shorthand for urban congestion, they were actual people.

In Naming Gotham: The Villains, Rogues, and Heroes Behind New York Place Names, I set out to remedy this situation. Using mostly archival sources, each chapter offers a deep dive into the life of someone the city has chosen to honor. (You can watch the book trailer for Naming Gotham here.)

Some of the figures were truly remarkable—like Revolutionary War hero and anti-slavery advocate Tadeusz Kościuszko, or inventor/philanthropist Peter Cooper. But a surprising number were mid-level government functionaries whose main claim to fame was being Robert Moses-adjacent and dying while he was building something (most likely yet-another highway rammed through the Bronx). Henry Bruckner, Arthur Sheridan and Major Deegan fall into what I would call the Robert Moses club, with the much earlier Van Wyck as perhaps an honorary member.

The names attached to New York City’s roads, bridges, and other civic infrastructure tell us a lot about who we think we are as a city. Looking across the city as a whole, one fact stands out. Virtually all the people with roads or bridges named after them were white men. In a city as diverse as New York, this speaks volumes — about who had the power to name things, and who got to decide what counted as history. There are, of course, exceptions. In 1997, the Interboro Parkway was renamed for legendary baseball player Jackie Robinson. And, the Hutchinson River Parkway, like the river it tracks, is named after Puritan religious leader Ann Hutchinson.

Over the past few years, there have been growing calls to name more infrastructure and landmarks for the wide array of remarkable women and people of color. As I wrote Naming Gotham, this began to happen. Statues recognizing a range of Black Americans including Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Ralph Ellison and Duke Ellington have been erected across the City. A statue of women’s rights pioneers Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony sits in Central Park. Just last month, New York dedicated the Gate of the Exonerated. Perhaps the City’s biggest step forward came in 2019, with the opening of the Shirley Chisholm State Park in Brooklyn. The park honors ‘fighting’ Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress, and life-long Brooklyn resident.

Renaming existing infrastructure to better reflect our shared history is more challenging. While much attention has been focused on removal of Confederate statutes and monuments sited in southern states during the Jim Crow era, and renaming streets that honored Confederate officers who took up arms against the United States, that is only one aspect of a fundamental, society-wide reconsideration of who we name things for. Hastings Law School renamed itself UC College of Law, San Francisco, removing Serranus C. Hastings’ name because of his role in genocide against the Yuki Indians. Similarly, the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law rebranded itself CSU Law School removing Chief Justice John Marshall’s name because of his participation in the slave economy. More than 80 public schools across the country have responded to student pressure by dropping Confederate names, and sports teams face growing pressure to change racist mascots.

New York City has its own reckoning to grapple with. In 2018, New York City’s Public Design Commission voted unanimously to  remove a statue of J. Marion Sims from Central Park. Often called the father of gynecology, Sims routinely experimented on enslaved women. Removing the statue was an important step in recognizing structural racism encoded in city monuments. Yet, the mayor still lives in Gracie manor, named for slave-owner Archibald Gracie, and almost certainly build with enslaved labor. Lenox Hill and Lenox Avenue bear the name of Robert and James Lenox, whose family enslaved people and whose fortune was deeply entwined with the slave economy. The City sends its pre-trial detainees to Rikers Island, named for a family that profited from enslaved labor, and whose most famous member, Richard Riker abused his position as City Recorder to participate in what came to be known as the Kidnapping Club — a scheme that used the Fugitive Slave Act to sell free Black New Yorkers into slavery. At least the Rikers name will likely soon be gone. By 2027, the City will close the jail and convert the (most-likely-renamed) island to renewable energy generation. Lennox Avenue is increasingly known by its alternate name, Malcom X. Boulevard. But what of Gracie Mansion? Of Lennox Hill? Of other similarly situated places, like Macomb’s Dam Bridge?

Read the full post on Notice & Comment.

Responsive Government

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