Henry Grabar is a staff writer for Slate’s Moneybox and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
Queens Councilman Peter Vallone wants to end the trend of naming infrastructure after living people.
Considering that the city itself is on its second name, New Yorkers are a surprisingly fickle bunch when it comes to renaming infrastructure. A 2011 Quinnipiac University poll found that 64 percent of city residents opposed renaming the Queensboro Bridge after former mayor Ed Koch, who rescued the city from debt in the 1980s. And yesterday, Queens City Councilman Peter Vallone announced he is proposing legislation to ban naming New York landmarks after living people.
Vallone was reacting primarily to the new Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, which Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced last spring to celebrate Koch’s 86th birthday. But the Queens representative also opposed the 2008 baptism of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Bridge, formerly the Triborough, Mayor Bloomberg’s previous step on the city’s inexorable march to rename geographically titled bridges and highways.
"If they were willing to take the Queensboro Bridge away from Queens, there’s nothing stopping them from going after the Manhattan Bridge or the Brooklyn Bridge," Vallone told the New York Daily News. “It’s a way to curry favor with living people who may be able to endorse you or help your campaign out in other ways and city property should not be used for that." In this case, political favors might not be at stake—Mr. Koch has been out of office since 1989, and his most high-profile engagement since was as Judge Koch on the resurrected TV show The People’s Court, from 1997 to 1999.
Vallone’s primary objection to the dedication of the RFK Bridge four years ago—its cost—might be more valid. The bridge, which was built by Robert Moses in 1936, connects Queens, Manhattan, and the Bronx via Randall’s Island, and its renaming (on the 40th anniversary of the former New York Senator and U.S. Attorney General’s 1968 assassination) came during the height of the financial crisis and cost $4 million dollars to replace more than a hundred road signs.
Another obvious problem with naming things after living people is that their reputations are subject to change. Koch seems to be avoiding controversy, but former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani notoriously erred in naming the Manhattan Detention Complex—colloquially known as "The Tombs"—after Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik in 2001. The Bernard P. Kerik Complex quietly reclaimed its former name in 2006, when Kerik pleaded guilty to ethics violations. (He is currently serving four years in federal prison on other charges, including conspiracy and wire fraud.) Of course, that minor bureaucratic hurdle is nothing compared to what's going on in Egypt right now, where there were 388 schools named after deposed president Hosni Mubarak, and another 160 named after his wife Suzan, not to mention highways, streets, and a central Cairo Metro Station.
Finally, despite the best efforts of the Bloomberg administration to promote freshly named infrastructure, many names just don’t catch on. Wikipedia and the NYC traffic website LiveCam still call the RFK the Triborough, as do scores of New Yorkers. Previous renaming efforts have been hit or miss. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia renamed 6th Avenue the “Avenue of the Americas” in 1945 as a sign of pan-hemispheric goodwill, but the name stuck only on street signs. But LaGuardia did get his own name affixed to the New York Municipal Airport, and few still call it the North Beach Airport. (This while he was still mayor—what must Vallone think of that?)
The worst renaming of all, though, is what's called a "ceremonial change." In 1999, Giuliani and then-Governor George Pataki engaged in some political sparring over renaming Manhattan’s West Side Highway after the late Yankee Clipper, Joe DiMaggio. Though the men eventually came to an agreement, the legislation called for a "ceremonial, not official, name change," meaning that only a few signs would use the new name. The idea was to save money on street signs, but the result was that the DiMaggio highway sounds more like a region of center-field at Yankee Stadium than a way to get from Columbus Circle to Battery Park.