Naming Names

Fiorello La Guardia was a great mayor of New York — he even has an airport named after him — but he made some boneheaded errors. Some years after the Sixth Avenue El in Manhattan was razed, La Guardia and the city council decided to rehabilitate the neighborhoods around the thorough-fare, which had become run down from hosting the elevated train. And so, in October 1945, they officially rebranded Sixth Avenue as Avenue of the Americas. City planners must have found the cosmopolitan-sounding name exciting. New York City was emerging as the global capital, on the cusp of the American Century: home to the new United Nations and soaring International Style skyscrapers, a hub of commerce, a dynamo of artistic creativity. But this act of renaming by fiat, against the grain of public opinion, failed spectacularly. A survey ten years later found that, by a margin of 8 to 1, New Yorkers still called the street Sixth Avenue. “You tell someone anything but ‘Sixth Avenue,’” a salesman explained to the New York Times, “and he’ll get lost.” Generations of visitors have noticed signs that still say “Avenue of the Americas” and wondered fleetingly about its genesis and meaning, but for anyone to say it out loud today would clearly mark him as a rube. Names change for many reasons. While designing Washington, DC in the late eighteenth century, Pierre L’Enfant renamed the local Goose Creek after Rome’s Tiber River. It was a bid for grandeur that earned him mainly ridicule. After Franklin Roosevelt was elected president, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes saw fit to cleanse federal public works of association with the most unpopular man in America, making the Hoover Dam into the Boulder Dam. With independence in 1965, Rhodesia ditched its hated eponym to become Zimbabwe, and its capital, Salisbury,

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