Sunday, September 10, 2006

Where the Streets Have Too Many Names

Where there is a street in Atlanta, there's someone just dying to change the name. Streets change names halfway through their route as a holdover from segregationist tradition. They change names along the way as counties or districts change (DeKalb becomes Decatur becomes Marietta). They're subject to the whims of spelling-challenged signmakers ("Marietta" is misspelled on some signs; Clairmont or Claremont or Clermont changes by the block). They have their names changed to hide a bad reputation (Collins became Courtland, Stewart became Metropolitan). Or, venerable old streets have their names changed to honor recent worthies.

The last is especially common as Atlanta struggles to find a way to honor the veterans of the civil rights struggle. Thus Hunter Street became Martin Luther King Jr. Drive; Cain Street became Andrew Young International Boulevard, in honor of the Atlanta mayor, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., and Wal-Mart sayer of poorly-thought-out things; Gordon Street became Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard. And, Atlanta's portion of the Bankhead Highway became Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway, in honor of the civil rights attorney.

I was driving the latter yesterday, contemplating some of this. On the one hand, I can hardly disagree with the motivation; these people did courageous things, and deserve permanent honors of some sort. And in a state where Lester Maddox's name still pops up all over the place, I'm guessing many of the original inspirations for street names were perhaps not the nicest folk.

But on the other, I wonder if it's the most appropriate way to honor anyone. These aren't nice streets being chosen. MLK is a charmless industrial parkway. Andrew Young is the most aggravating street in the city; I imagine the ex-mayor himself driving it and saying "fucking Andrew Young!" as he punches the steering wheel.

And Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway is pretty awful. Extraordinarily poor area, ramshackle buildings. In the faintly disapproving and awkward words of a Wikipedia edit, now deleted: "The Bankhead neighborhood in Atlanta is noted for the abundant drugs for sale and prostitutes selling their bodies." Desperate hardened faces and signs of fly-by-night businesses, abandoned buildings looking no different from the occupied structures. What an honor for a civil rights pioneer: having your name on that for all eternity.

Of course, it could be worse; when former mayor Maynard Jackson died a few years ago, the city erupted in great debate over whether to rename Hartsfield Airport (named for Outspoken's guitarist -- I mean, for another old mayor) Jackson Airport. Eventually city leaders compromised and renamed it Hartsfield-Jackson, ignoring the fact that having your name attached to that monstrosity is on a par with having syphilis named after you.

Seriously, doesn't Atlanta have any more museums or stadiums to rename? A note to all of you, all ten loyal PPA readers-- if I do something really fantastic (what, I don't know -- teach ice hockey to starving Albanians or something) and then croak, don't let them name a street after me. Stick my name on something with a bit more class, a strip joint or something.


gsdgsd13 said...

Just for clarification, that photo up top isn't from Bankhead/Donald Lee Hollowell; it's from the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood. Didn't take any pics on yesterday's drive; too depressing.

Nanuk of the North said...

I will only commit to honouring your memory with a strip club naming if you promise to feed the starving Albanians before teaching them hockey. They will skate a lot faster that way.

gsdgsd13 said...

I'm only feeding them after they get good at hockey. They need something to strive for. Plus, skinny guys = less air resistance.

Nanuk of the North said...

That is sadistic. Fortunately for you, in the world of hockey training, sadism is a positive.

Esteban said...

Can I sound off with a hell yeah? Atlanta's compulsive renaming of streets is a disgrace. You're right, of course, that people like Young, Holloway, King, Abernathy, Lankford and others were brave and courageous and fought for things we should all be grateful for. Nevertheless, I can't overlook the fact that local neighborhood histories are forever disjointed by the Atlanta City Council's reflexive renaming of streets. Street names are a deeply ingrained part of any given neighborhood's history and renaming these thoroghfares only fractures Atlanta's already pathetic appreciation of local history.

My belief is that it would be far better to erect statues to those we wish to honor, like with the Henry W Grady statue on Marietta St, leading west from 5 pts in downtown Atlanta. Clearly, it would be a travesty to rename Marietta St to Grady Street (or more likely Grady Boulevard....."Street" seems never to be good enough in a case where a road gets renamed). Grady was a figure worth remembering, but his memory is well-served by the statue and the nearby Grady Hospital. There is not, to my knowlege, a street named in his honor. That approach, though, seems to have fallen out of favor. Wait another few decades. Cynthia McKinney will pass away and our airport, after considerable public debate, will likely become Hartsfield - Jackson - McKinney International Airport. Antoher 25 years will go by and it will once again be renamed.... I don't know.... Hartsfield - Jackson - McKinnney - Francouer International Airport. I'm right. Just wait and you'll see.