Americans have place names on their brains. Amid a widespread push to remove Confederate and Christopher Columbus monuments from our public squares, many began to demand the removal as well of more subtle reminders of systemic racism inscribed in the names of places – streets and towns, bridges and schools – by which we orient our lives.
Campaigners in Brooklyn, for example, recently shed light on the 70 streets in the neighborhood whose names are reminiscent of colonial-era New Yorkers who owned slaves. In Upper Manhattan, Representative Adriano Espillat proposed changing the name of Washington Heights (from the name of the founding father who owned slaves) and adjacent neighborhoods to “Quisqueya Heights” – a name that honors an Aboriginal name for the home island, in the Caribbean, of many residents of the Dominican Republic area.
Yet at a community meeting this fall, hundreds of area residents showed up to let Mr. Espillat know that they like the name of their neighborhood very much. (He changed his resolution to simply recognize the presence and contributions of the Dominican community to the neighborhood.)
The fallout was revealing. We need a more sophisticated way of approaching renaming issues than that adopted earlier this year by, among others, Eric Adams. During the mayoral primary, Mr Adams was joined by other leading Democratic candidates in insisting that New York City should rename streets and schools after people who held slaves. Mr Adams said: âWe should not honor people who have had an abusive past. “
But it is essential, in light of the broader debates on how best to confront our collective past, that we give weight not only to the origin of these place names. We also need to pay attention to the various meanings they have acquired, over time, from the people who use and appreciate them for what they mean to their community.
To study the names that make up a city is to access layers of its history – to meet the people and languages ââof various eras whose labels stuck to city maps. Here in New York, these layers include names derived from the natives Lenape (Manhattan, Canarsie, Rockaway), Dutch names left by Dutch settlers (Bowery, Bleecker, Brooklyn), and English names implanted by the British who captured New Amsterdam in 1664 and renamed New York (then labeled its outlying counties Queens and Kings). After the American Revolution, New York City gained streets named for the heroes of that war (MacDougal, Greene, Lafayette) and for the founders of the United States (Madison Avenue, after our fourth president – who was also an owner of ‘slaves).
New York was a colonial slave port and is also full of streets named after people who bought and sold humans as movable property. Few of the historical truths that I pass on to my NYU students seem so powerful, to young people who often have no idea that slavery was not just “in the south”, like telling them that Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn , say, may have been named after the family of a local landowner who, according to the 1790 New York Census, also owned six slaves. These facts are essential to understanding how modern New York came to be.
But besides that, there’s another truth: John Van Nostrand’s last name resonates most today among Caribbean immigrants who have long made their old property the place to go for top Trinidadian doubles. from Brooklyn or the hot sauce from Barbados – and as an artery now also cut in half by blocks named for heroes of Caribbean history like Toussaint L’Ouverture.
Place names have the power to encode history and signal social mores. But we have also always had the power to change what they evoke. The once swampy part of Upper Manhattan that we know as Harlem got its name from Dutch settlers who thought its wetlands and hills looked like the market town of Haarlem near Amsterdam. These Dutch were affiliated with a trading enterprise – the Dutch West India Company – which was intrinsic to the “triangular trade” of enslaved Africans in the New World. But no one today is advocating wiping “Harlem” off our cards. And the reason is simple: the name no longer evokes its founders nor the Netherlands, but an American district whose name has become emblematic, thanks to its proud inhabitants over the last century and more, of freedom and black culture.
Studying where place names come from also paints a picture of the resistance, chance and convoluted stories behind many place names in New York – ranging from anglicized riffs to Old Dutch words. (“Gramercy” develops from what the Dutch called this region “krom moerasje” – twisted swamp; “Coney Island” from what they called “Conyne Eylandt” – Island of the Rabbits) to a more recent Puerto Rican play on the Lower East Side. The name of this neighborhood, once evocative of Jewish life and later hipster life in Lower Manhattan, is also the origin of the Spanish nickname “Loisaida” which now hangs on street signs on Avenue C.
Residents in the Manhattan Beach section of Brooklyn recently wondered what to do with Corbin Place – a street named after 19th-century developer Austin Corbin, who built the neighborhood but also ran the American Society for the Suppression of Jews. Wanting to deny the last part of his heritage but not the warm memories that many have of growing up here, they changed not the name of the street but its referent: Now “Mr. Corbin Place” officially honors not an old anti-Semite but rather New York’s main participant in the War of Independence, Margaret Corbin.
Other institutions and communities have adopted clear principles that we would do well to consider: when and for what purpose a place was first named; whether or not the âmain legacyâ of its namesake could include the defense of slavery or racism; whether or not the presence of his memory in the public space was designed, or is being used now, to defend white supremacy or other values ââthat we reject.
Such criteria make it clear why it is entirely appropriate that the sites commemorating the former Confederates – most of which date not from the Civil War but from the days and ideology of Jim Crow – be removed.
But they also remind us why it’s vital to continue to devote so much energy to making the past visible – to commemorating the victims of history and celebrating those who fought to change it – in new ways. Today when I want to educate my students on how slavery shaped New York City, I show them the official plaque that now sits on the corner of Wall Street and Water Street in the Financial District to mark the location of Manhattan’s main slave market in the 1700s.
We have a long way to go before the mainstream version of history inscribed on our maps and in many of our streets is offset by sites hailing figures who sought to change its course, especially members of social groups. still rarely greeted in public space: women, people of color, members of the working class.
One of the reasons historians warn against condescending the past is to selfishly protect our present: who can say that our great-grandchildren won’t all agree with our vegan friends that they eat animals. dead was the height of barbarism? But there is another more subtle source of danger lurking in such condescension – the lack of credit we give to those who have shown us, by attaching new meanings to place names once reminiscent of slavery, that part of the power of names lies in our ability to change what they mean.
The names we give to places have a mysterious power, noted writer Henry Porter, to be a part of it. It’s a way of saying that they become a part of us. There are names that we can decide to change. But we must be careful not to erase the meanings we have given them and continue to push to inscribe the public space with other stories that must be made visible and better known.
Joshua Jelly-Schapiro (@jellyschapiro) teaches at NYU and is the most recent author of “Names of New York: Discovering the City’s Past, Present, and Future Through its Place-Names”.