New York Place Names and the Politics of Renaming

My friends Lenny Benardo and Jennifer Weiss on the politics of renaming in New York.

A FEW weeks ago, most Brooklyn residents would have pleaded ignorance about the person for whom Manhattan Beach’s Corbin Place is named. But with the recent airing of the distasteful history of the man Corbin Place memorializes, local politicians have been leading a charge to rename it. A public hearing on possibly renaming the street is scheduled for tomorrow [Februaru 26th].

But renaming is a bad idea. Street names function as a barometer of social values at a given time, and as such have historical significance that goes beyond a name. If anything, we should consider co-naming the street, a solution that has been adopted in Brooklyn and other parts of the city…

[T]he Corbin Place affair presents an opportunity to illustrate why renaming streets, no matter how odious the people involved, is not the answer. Whitewashing the past does not offer historical redress, it obscures history. Corbin’s ideas, while extreme, reflected the realities of the day when Jews were excluded and ostracized as a matter of course. It would be impossible, for example, for an Austin Corbin, no matter how significant his accomplishments, to get a street in his honor today.

Furthermore, changing Corbin Place could be the start of a slippery slope with respect to other streets bestowed on the less than meritorious. Among many of Brooklyn’s founding families who have streets named for them — the Bergens, Lefferts and Lotts — are prominent slaveholders (the Lotts, among Kings County’s largest slaveholders, are memorialized in an avenue, a place and a street). All told, Brooklyn’s streets appear to have more than 70 slaveholders represented. And Peter Stuyvesant, who apparently lends his name to Stuyvesant Avenue, was an anti-Semite of the first order. In 1654, Stuyvesant petitioned the Dutch West India Company to expel the first Jews who settled in New Amsterdam.

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