What’s in a name, anyway?

By · Published in 2010

The 59th St. Bridge isn't feelin' too groovy these days. (Photo by flickr user wallyg)

Immortalized in song by Simon and Garfunkel in the mid-1960s, the 59th St. Bridge will soon have a new name. As part of an effort to honor former New York politicos, the Bloomberg Administration announced yesterday that the Queensboro Bridge will be renamed for Ed Koch and the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel for Hugh Carey. So now if there’s too much traffic on the RFK, you can jet down the Koch to get to Queens.

The former mayor was quick to embrace the honor that sees a 101-year-old bridge deprived of its rightful name. “It’s a workhorse bridge,” Koch said of the landmark. “And that’s what I am, I’m a workhorse. Always have been. I feel very compatible with it.”

Koch also praised former Governor Carey as well. “I’ve been trying to get something named for Governor Carey,” he said. “I think he was the best governor of the modern era and saved both the city and the state from default and from bankruptcy.

The current mayor was equally as magnanimous as the old. In a statement issued yesterday, he said that the Queesnboro Bridge, like Koch, is “icon of the city that’s been bringing people together for a long time.” It was a day for humility it seems.

Over the past few years, the state legislature has gone on a naming binge. We have the Joe DiMaggio Highway, the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, the Ed Koch Bridge, the Hugh Carey Tunnel and the Jackie Robinson Parkway. Unfortunately, as famous names are appended to iconic and familiar roads, the names lose all meaning. It’s much easier to figure out where the West Side Highway, Triborough Bridge, Queensboro Bridge, Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and Interboro Parkway are than it is to give directions to these location-less named parts of town.

For city too, these changes aren’t free. At a time when municipal dollars are stretched thin, New York is going to have to come up with money for new signs. It cost the city $4 million to rebrand the RFK Bridge, and everyone stills just calls it the Triborogh Bridge. This time, the city is going to look for private donations to cover the costs. Perhaps Mr. Koch can fund his own bridge.

While the City Council seemed enthusiastic about the new names — “Over 40 years ago, the Queensboro Bridge had Simon and Garfunkel feelin’ groovy and today there is no one in our city groovier than Ed Koch,” Christine Quinn said — not everyone shared the joy. “To glibly rename things is very sad,” Bob Singleton, a Queensboro Bridge historian, said.

But tongue-in-cheek sarcasm aside, watching the state simply give away the names to these iconic structures raises some questions. Just a few days ago, the Wall Street Journal pondered the role naming rights will play as cities look to close budget gaps. Public schools and parks may soon carry corporate names while transit systems in Philadelphia, New York and Chicago have begun to auction of the names of subway stations.

While it’s undeniable that naming rights can lead to dollars, many across the country have not been keen to embrace the intrusion of the corporate into the realm of the public. Do we sacrifice convenience and usability for the sake of money? In New York, we’re sacrificing instant name-and-place recognition for the sake of honoring historical figures, most of whom aren’t alive to appreciate the honor.

Maybe, then, naming rights aren’t the way to go without stringent guidelines. I’ve long believed that subway stations can append corporate names but shouldn’t replace geographical identifiers with place-less sponsorships. If Disney wants to buy the Times Square station’s naming rights, it shouldn’t be called Walt Disney Station; rather, it should be called Disney-Times Square. People need to know where they’re going.

But it’s too much to ask of our state legislature to keep convenience in mind. New Yorkers will still give directions to the Battery Tunnel and the Queensboro Bridge because those are the landmarks we know and that’s where the roads lead. When someone asks “How you doin’?” the answer shouldn’t be “lost trying to find my way to the Ed Koch Bridge.”

34 Responses to “What’s in a name, anyway?”

  1. Nesta says:

    This is a disgrace. RFK was bad enough since he wasn’t even a NYer. But Koch is even worse this guy was a terrible mayor and he’s an even worse human being!

  2. Peter says:

    Even the possibility of tabloid headlines like “3 KILLED 5 WOUNDED IN DISNEY STATION SHOOTOUT – FIRE – DERAILMENT – FLOOD – BEDBUG INFESTATION” will keep people in Orlando boardrooms from making deals to brand busy NYC landmarks with their names, methinks.

  3. John says:

    Some names are accepted by the public, some are not. The city spent millions trying to fulfill Fiorello LaGuardia’s dream of renaming Sixth Avenue as the Avenue of the Americas (which also was one of the motivating factors behind LaGuardia’s desire to spruce up the avenue by removing that annoying el as quickly as possible), and nobody pre-1973 called the West Side Highway the Miller Elevated Highway while it was still elevated, and no one calls it the DiMaggio Highway now. Other renamings, like FDR Drive or Kennedy Airport, did take hold, in those two cases because their deaths were so sudden and people were receptive to renaming a public works project to memorialize them with (and at the time of their renamings, both the highway and the airport were still pretty new, and less-established in the public’s mind).

    I suspect Koch and Carey will suffer the same fate as the Ave of the Ams, Mr. Miller and Joltin’ Joe — the renamings aren’t going to take hold, except with politicians (I suspect the mayor has his eye on that bridge just outside his window at City Hall for a future renaming project in his honor), and the Queensboro especially is going to be tough to rebrand, with two major subway stations on the Queens side retaining the old name.

    • Christopher says:

      I hear this about 6th Avenue a lot, but I’m actually always surprised how often I do see it called the Avenue of Americas. Especially in midtown. (It’s frequently given as an address at law firms for instance.)

      • Joe says:

        Corporations love using it because it sounds more poetic than “Sixth Avenue”.

        • John says:

          True — ABC is probably the best known user of the name, both on the local and national level with its “1330 Avenue of the Americas” address. But the other networks along the block — CBS, NBC and Fox — all seem to prefer the Sixth Avenue name, when the name gets mentioned at all.

          • Jerrold says:

            But didn’t ABC move away from 1330 some time ago?
            I thought that ALL of ABC network/WABC Channel 7 was now in their buildings in the Lincoln Center area.

  4. Marc Shepherd says:

    I maybe half agree with you.

    Most of the original place names are not very helpful for wayfinding. If you didn’t already know where it was, the name “Interboro Parkway” wouldn’t be very helpful. All you’d know is that it’s one of the several roads that connect two boroughs. Likewise, all you’d know from the name “Queensboro Bridge” is that it’s a bridge in Queens, and there’s more than one of those.

    Ed Koch quipped that it’ll probably be 50 years before people stop using the name “Queensboro Bridge.” People forget that the FDR Drive used to be the East Side Drive; I still hear the old name occasionally. Both JFK and LaGuardia Airports had different names that have now passed completely out of use.

    But I do agree that renaming loses its value if the privilege is tossed out too readily, and as Ben noted, re-naming has a real cost. With government budgets stretched, it’s an expense with dubious value. JFK, RFK, and FDR, seem to me iconic figures who deserve to have big things named after them; Koch and Carey, not so much. I don’t know about LaGuardia, but at this point there’s no point in undoing the decision that got an airport named for him.

    • Marsha says:

      That’s East River Drive.

    • BrooklynBus says:

      While I agree with you that the Interboro and Queensboro are not that descriptive, by the same logic you could argue that the Brooklyn Bridge isn’t that descriptive either.

      • Marc Shepherd says:

        The truth is: the name “Brooklyn Bridge” is not that useful for way-finding (Ben’s original point), since there are multiple bridges that connect to Brooklyn. Of course, that name is so iconic that they presumably wouldn’t dream of changing it.

        • Al D says:

          Ah, c’mon, it could be the Rudy Giuliani bridge in a few years…NOT!

        • BrooklynBus says:

          Not that useful, but still provides more information than naming it after a person. Providing useful information in bridge and street namings is not what this City is about. Consider all the avenues that have been renamed “boulevard” which supposed to mean a wide street. But people are just too important to have just an avenue named for them. It has to be a boulevard.

          Also, when they named the Marine Parkway Bridge after Gil Hodges, they also kept the name Marine Parkway which was more misleading than helpful since it does not connect Marine Parkway to the bridge.

  5. BrooklynBus says:

    I liked Koch but am still opposed to this renaming and the others you mentioned.

    Ben, you are right on the money on this one. The City also has gone overboard on alll the street co-renamings too. Except for firemen and policemen, no one knows who any of these people are or what they did except for some friends. When they die, these co-renamings will be utterly useless. All they do is confuse people especially when the real sign has fallen down and is not replaced for five years. There are much better ways to honor people for their good deeds by erecting plaques in public places or planting trees for them or using the Greenstreets program by naming street malls for them.

  6. PW says:

    Bad enough the city wasted that $4 mil on renaming the Triboro. Renaming any other bridge or tunnel shouldn’t be done in these financial times.

    • Anon says:

      You can make the case that the $4 million stimulated the economy by providing signmakers and construction workers jobs.
      Yeah, I don’t believe that either. Too small to make an impact.

      Renaming the Triboro was totally unncessary.

  7. Steven says:

    John said “I suspect the mayor has his eye on that bridge just outside his window at City Hall for a future renaming project in his honor.”

    What makes you think he’s that humble? I would assume he’s angling to have the whole city itself renamed “Bloomberg.”

    • JP says:

      I’ll meet you on Apple Computer Lane, at the entrance to Bloomberg Park.

    • John says:

      Hey, at least with the bridge name, the MTA won’t have to re-do the “BB” tablets in the IRT subway station, though the wall tile name’s gotta go (and thank God the name “Bloomberg” is just about as long as the word “Brooklyn” so they can just chisel the old name out and put the mayor’s name in).

  8. Marsha says:

    No one will call these crossings by anything than their current names, not even in 50 years as Mayor Koch predicts. I think it is a waste of time, energy, and money to even bother making the changes. Maybe the City Council will have the guts to not approve King Bloomberg’s suggested renamings. Let Albany name something for Carey and let NYC name a street in Greenwich Village for Koch. That’s enough recognition for both of them.

  9. Frank B. says:

    Awesome. We should just rename the Empire State Building “Bloomberg Tower”. Call Central Park the ‘Rudolph W. Giuliani Central Park. ‘

    Let’s rip down history, tradition, brick by fucking brick. Let’s rename Williamsburg “Hipsterville” and let’s rename Park Slope “Yuppietown”. Bushwick is EaWi- East Williamsburg. Let’s rename Morningside Heights “Dinkins Heights”, and screw it, let’s rename the entire borough of Staten Island the “Vito Fossella Memorial Borough.” Everybody loved him, didn’t they?

    Why do these moron politicians spend taxpayer money to rename things that no one will pay attention to anyway? No one is ever going to say “The Edward I. Koch Queensboro Bridge” and no one is ever going to say “The Governor Hugh Carey Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel” just as no one but politicians calls the Triborough Bridge “The Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Triborough Bridge”.

    For the $8 million dollars between the bridge and the tunnel, we could have built a park or shored-up a school. Maybe get environmental studies done for a few subway lines. These egomaniacs ought to be ashamed.

  10. Alon Levy says:

    Would Bloomberg be doing this if he didn’t expect a future mayor to name things after him? I think not.

  11. Anon says:

    Thank you so much for this post, Ben. You’ve captured a bit of frustration that is too often overlooked.

    As for Koch’s name being affixed on the 59th Street Bridge, I find it troubling when we whitewash the past with permanent tributes (See Robert Moses State Park, etc.). In this case, we shouldn’t be naming a bridge after the man who sat back and allowed AIDS to ravage New York City simply because of his own personal concerns about being perceived as a homosexual.

    Renaming structures can easily become revisionist history, and should be put off until the figure is long departed and has posthumously passed through the court of public opinion.

  12. Ray says:

    The name changes are frustrating; the money that will be spent wasted to change the signs is infuriating.

  13. Al D says:

    When my son is old enough to drive, and I direct him to the Triborough Bridge, will he look at me like I have 3 heads?!

  14. Jerrold says:

    Also, let’s not forget the biggest old names that simply refuse to die:
    BMT, IRT, and IND.

  15. paulb says:

    Koch dissed the bridge! He said something like the Queensboro is an appropriate namesake because it’s a workhorse bridge–the implication being that its design is not particularly attractive–and he was a workhorse kind of politico. Talk about an insult by faint praise!

    I’ve liked the look of that bridge since I was small, and I’m guessing Paul Simon would not have written that song if he didn’t agree. The Queensboro has the classic 19th century combination of masonry and steelwork, the ornaments on the towers add some flair to the cantilever truss, and it’s well proportioned (the designer actually switched to a double deck design to avoid a bridge that by being very wide for its length might look ungainly). It’s a beautiful bridge and without it any architectural glamor we associate with that part of Manhattan would disappear also. The bridge was the focus of that arresting frame from Woody Allen’s movie Manhattan.

    Koch didn’t even for a minute act gracious about the honor. It was like, “of course I deserve it.” Reasons enough to revoke the offer.

  16. Cape Kennedy was restored to Cape Canaveral. So it is possible that some day in the future, much brighter leaders will restore Triboro, Queensboro, West Side Highway, and 6th Avenue to their proper names.


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