Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Staying Power of Signs

Now that the exhibit has opened, I have a bit more time to think about other topics. Lucky you!

A couple weeks ago, I noticed an article in the Metro newspaper about the city's renaming of a block of Broad Street as "Gamble and Huff Walk." One observer said, "I’m sure 50 years from now . . . people will say 'Why is that name there?' And what will happen is people will go and read about the music of [sic] and the legacy."

That got me thinking. Is that really what we can expect from honorary street names?

Do these signs ensure a long-lasting public history legacy?

Keep in mind, these streets are not officially renamed, at least according to the U.S. Post Office. The block now marked as Gamble and Huff Walk, for example, is still just Broad Street.

So I took a (very brief) walking tour of the city to see what we're commemorating.

Do neighbors of McCollough's Way know to whom that refers? I don't, and couldn't figure it out by Google-ing or doing a quick search of digitized Philadelphia Inquirer articles.

Stokowski Place is a bit easier to decode, for those who care to try. That block is named in honor of Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977), renowned conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra who had a studio there.

But who stops to notice the Broad Street block named in honor of Rev. Charles A. Tindley (1851-1933), a key figure in African American gospel music? (You can read more about him and his church, located on that block, here and here.)

Dozens of other signs throughout the city honor various other notable personalities. Maybe with all my new free-time (ha!) I'll start a new digital project to record where these markers exist.

Because that's one problem with honorary street signs: they don't help you find the actual street.

I originally planned to include a photo of Marian Anderson Way, but while walking through the neighborhood, I couldn't remember where it was. (It's the 700 block of S. Martin Street.) Thankfully, Anderson is commemorated on more than one block, thanks to the Marian Anderson Historical Society.

Another problem with considering honorary street names to be public history tools is that some tacked-on signs have more to do with marketing or neighborhood identity than with history. How are viewers to know which signs are historical?

The city renamed Broad Street just south of City Hall "The Road to Beijing(TM)" in the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics. I keep forgetting to check, but I don't think the route to Beijing still heads south from City Hall.

In my opinion, if you're interested in a more lasting public history legacy, better to get a street officially renamed, like activists did for Cecil B. Moore Avenue (formerly Columbia Avenue) or Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive (formerly West River Drive).

At least then your legacy will show up in Google maps.

1 comment:

  1. I actually like the honorary street names. The reason that we have this system is for practical reasons -- officially changing the name of a street is a major undertaking. But putting that aside, when street names are officially changed, people are so used to the old name that it takes decades for the new name to catch on and creates confusion. Just look at how many people still refer to Columbus Blvd as Delaware Ave nearly 20 years after the change. The media still often refers to it as Delaware and even the City of Philadelphia uses Delaware Ave as the street address of its offices that are located along Columbus. It’s going to be another 20 years until enough locals have died that a majority forgets it was once called Delaware Ave.