Aarian Marshall is a transportation reporter at WIRED and former CityLab contributor. She lives in San Francisco.
You wanna build on top of an old Jesuit retreat? You gotta live with streets named after greed.
Earlier this month, a New York State Supreme Court judge ruled that the Staten Island Borough President James Oddo could go ahead with plans to give a section of the island some fairly unpleasant street names. A few very lucky New York City residents will now live on Cupidity Drive (“cupidity” meaning “greed”), Fourberie Lane (“fourberie” is “trickery” in French), or “Avidita Place” (from the Latin avidus, which means “eager,” or, you know, “greed”).
If you’re wondering why a public official would saddle residents with such sad addresses, know that this is Oddo’s very official revenge against a housing development he has opposed for some time. In 2013, the Savo Brothers development firm purchased a 15-acre retreat from the Society of Jesus. The land had served as the first laymen’s retreat in the United States. The developers wanted to build 250 condominiums on the $15 million parcel, knocking down the Jesuits’s 1920s-era chapel and some 400-year-old trees in the process. Community efforts to preserve the site or reach a satisfying compromise failed. So when the development company finally submitted potential street names for Oddo’s approval (e.g. Lazy Bird Lane, Rabbit Ridge Road, Timber Lane, or Lamb Run), Oddo got the last word—and picked three names very obviously not on the list.
The good news for sore losers everywhere is that this is perfectly legal, according to a ruling from the judge Philip G. Minardo. The Staten Island borough president does indeed have the power to name streets, the judge concluded in a civil suit brought by the developers. And crucially, Cupidity Drive and its sister streets check all the street name boxes. The judge decided: they are “easily annunciated,” aren’t “lengthy, offensive, insensitive, or profane,” can be “clearly understood by a 911 dispatcher,” and “are not considered insensitive nor will they inflame controversy.”
“The fact is that the names chosen are auricularly pleasing and historically illuminative,” Oddo crowed in a tweet published after the judge’s decision.
This is far from the first time that a street name has become a flashpoint in a larger local controversies. Just one example: San Francisco’s 1909 decision to rename some streets after important Spanish figures was met with fears that “the Spanish will then have taken San Francisco, notwithstanding Dewey's victory at Manila Bay several years ago,” as one local paper put it. Of course, communities often use street names to honor local heroes or history, to highlight the values they hold most dear, and to tell themselves stories about who they are and where they come from. That’s why the dearth of city streets named after women is troubling, and why the decline of streets named after Martin Luther King, Jr. in historically black neighborhoods sometimes points to larger problems.
Which is all to say that street names are important symbols. Years from now, historians will be able to look upon Avidita Place and learn something about our time. Ah, when politicians used obscure Latin roots to show others up.