How We Name Things

by John Delach

The methods used to name public places has evolved over the years from the traditional approach of tagging it with an appropriate name that identifies it as the Empire State building, United Nations and Pentagon, or where it is located like the Brooklyn Bridge, Pennsylvania Turnpike and Panama Canal. Honoring individuals has always been an exception, the George Washington Bridge, Hoover Dam and the Eisenhower Locks.

But times have changed. Takes sports edifices, today, overwhelmingly, the process is how much money can you get for the naming rights. Stadiums and ball parks are the most obvious, Met Life Stadium, FedEx Field, Citi Field and AT&T Stadium are simple examples. But then it can become more complex if the old name was considered iconic. Take Denver’s appropriately named, Mile High Stadium. When it was replaced by a newer version, it morphed into Sports Authority Field at Mile High (whatever that means) or the Superdome; which, as if by magic, became the Mercedes-Benz Superdome after it was re-built following Katrina.

The more venerable playing fields have held onto their traditional names; FenwayPark, Madison Square Garden, Yankee Stadium and Wrigley Field although the latter must include an * as it was originally named after the chewing gum family. Others change names quickly and frequently like CandlestickPark, also known as MonsterPark and 3 Com Park. Another, the Miami Dolphins home, currently named, Sun Life Stadium, but a.k.a. Land Shark, Dolphin, Pro Player and originally, Joe Robbie Stadium.

Public places have become a problem as we are just not building enough new highways, bridges, tunnels and airports to fulfill the desire to put someone’s name on them. Gone are the days when Robert Moses could take a plate load of things to bear his name, Robert Moses Niagara Hydroelectric Power Station and the Moses – Saunders Power Dam, Robert Moses State Parks (two of them) and Robert Moses Causeway. No, if we want to plaster a person’s name on anything but a high school, the old name must either come off or be amended to incorporate the VIP. The Triborough Bridge became the Robert F. Kennedy (RFK) Bridge, the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel (already a mouthful,) the Hugh Carey-Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, National Airport, Ronald Reagan-National Airport and the Queensboro Bridge, the Ed Koch-Queensboro Street Bridge. (Of course, nobody calls it that. It’s the Ed-Koch-59th Street Bridge.)

Right now the new bridge being built across the Hudson River to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge appears up for grabs. Some pundits are petitioning that it be named after Pete Seeger in recognition of his work in cleaning up the Hudson River. A couple of problems with that. Ole Pete, despite his many talents, was a member of the Communist Party and a life-long apologist for the Workers’ Paradise. Also, the existing bridge already has been christened with a politician’s name. It is the Malcolm Wilson-Tappan Zee Bridge (named after Nelson Rockefeller’s long time lieutenant governor who became governor when Rocky became Gerald Ford’s VP. Alas Malcolm only lasted a year losing to the same Hugh Carey of tunnel fame.) But most importantly, if the new bridge is to receive a new name, it’s my bet that Andy Cuomo will name it after papa Mario.

This all becomes complicated and a bit silly. Fortunately, at least the City of New York has tempered the madness by declaring that it will no longer change the official names of highways, byways and tertiary streets. Instead, if there is a good reason to honor someone, their name will be added as a ceremonial name and the appropriate sign added to the street pole. I believe they learned their lesson following the ill-fated agreement to re-name Sixth Avenue, Avenue of the Americas. The best part of this system is that if the honoree’s persona and name recognition fades into oblivion over time, few will challenge replacing it with a new ceremonial moniker. Certainly, that is a better idea then having to live with Major Deegan whoever he was.