The pitfalls of naming places after famous people

Places named after notables

This week the city fathers of Aberdeen, Washington, decided it might not be wise to name a bridge after Kurt Cobain. So what are the perils and pitfalls of renaming things after famous people?

There are some very famous places named after famous people. A famous renaming can quickly erase what went before.

How many foreigners flying into New York's JFK airport remember it used to be Idlewild airport?

We name places after people to recognise their achievements. Alexander the Great liked to found cities and name them after himself, in honour of his own achievements. But mostly it's done by other people.

Every act of naming is pregnant with meaning. In the 1980s, the UK had a wave of renaming places after Nelson Mandela. With then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher reportedly regarding Mandela as a terrorist, such namings were often by more left-wing councils and groups. The trend was immortalised in the sitcom Only Fools and Horses for the block of flats the Trotters lived in.

Today, of course, Mandela is an uncontroversial figure, hailed from all parts of the political spectrum.

A similar flurry of renaming streets after Martin Luther King has happened in the US.

But many figures are inherently more controversial.

It's easy to see why Aberdeen decided to hold off on honouring Kurt Cobain. A great musician to some may be seen by others as a drug user who falls short of role model status. Instead the bridge will now stay as Young Street Bridge. But it's still named after a person - Alexander Young who built the first saw mill.

Attitudes to people can change over time. It used to be common to name streets after notables of the British Empire. In 2002, efforts were made to change the name of a street housing a large Sikh temple in Southall, west London. Havelock Road was named after Sir Henry Havelock, who was prominent during the Indian Mutiny of 1857.

Some have even suggested that Liverpool's Penny Lane, made famous by the Beatles, is insensitive. It commemorates James Penny, an 18th Century slave trader.

Image caption Kurt Cobain is a controversial figure to some

The point is that attitudes change over time, says Derek Alderman, professor of geography at East Carolina University. He has been tracking the US streets named after Martin Luther King. So far he's counted over 900.

For Alderman, addresses are an everyday reminder of people's history in a way a museum can't be. "Think about all the times you use a street name in a day from catching a cab to putting it in your GPS."

In this way it can do much more than a monument and, he suggests, it is a cheaper option.

And older names are useful because they "force people to talk about their history".

People's reputations are constantly being reassessed, adds Alderman. He notes George Washington, once celebrated as presiding over the creation of the US constitution, is now also criticised by some for his association with slaves. He observes a trend in avoiding naming schools in the US after people in order to stay away from controversy.

But the debate, for Alderman, gives an opportunity to work out what the popular view of a person is. "If a city decides they are going to name a park after [Kurt] Cobain they will talk about why that person is important. In doing so they are going to talk about that person's legacy and so they have to come to a consensus about the meaning of that person."

Image caption Martin Luther King, on the other hand, has his own national holiday

Location names for Alderman can have political motivations. "Renaming a street is about claiming a certain voice, and a certain power over how your city looks. It is about remembering the specific person but it is also about making sure there is a greater democracy in how cities look."

Liam Scott-Smith at think tank New Local Government Network goes one step further. He thinks naming a place after someone can "reward good behaviour". This recognition, he thinks, could create a virtuous circle where people aim to get this kind of recognition.

Scott-Smith's think tank started a campaign in 2008 for more British roads to be renamed after modern people. Their report at the time claimed Britain is far behind America and France in doing this. But he says it should be encouraged for local celebrities to be named as "you have a strong affinity with someone in the area and that builds civic pride".

He does warn against fads, though, confessing that at the time the report was launched they suggested naming roads after David Beckham.

Remember Downing?

Figures can rise and fall in the public consciousness. Leeds University's student union once had a section called the Harvey Milk Bar, but many of the 18-year-olds arriving there for the first time would have been unaware of the life of the assassinated, gay 1970s San Francisco politician. After Sean Penn's recent high-profile movie, knowledge of Milk's life will have again spread.

Others maintain a steady level of fame. The officials who named streets in Italy, the Netherlands and Spain after George Orwell seem on safe ground.

Others can disappear into obscurity. How many people stopped in London's Whitehall, would be able to tell you much about the life of George Downing, after whom Downing Street is named?

Etymologist Tania Styles says that the people cities, towns and villages are named after have been forgotten over time without much consequence. That's because, she says, place names become a labelling function and the name "may as well be arbitrary".

Historians have struggled to find the Padda after whom Paddington is named, or indeed the Bucca who gave us Buckingham.

But she warns that nowadays the associations of the names will persist much longer. "In this day and age I can't imagine that kind of information will be forgotten."