Friday, April 2, 2010

They Keep Changing the Names on Me!

First, an update to last week's update about the Washington, DC Complaints Choir. I was happy to receive this newsflash from Evan Tucker, the director of the Voices of Washington choir, who informs me that "We just wrapped up our filming of a Complaints Choir for Washington DC tonight [March 8]. We've staged unannounced outdoor performances of it at the White House, the Capitol and Dupont Circle. We are going to be editing the footage for the next few weeks and should have a complaints choir film ready and totally worthy of all DC's faults by the beginning of April (and hopefully well before that). If you have any questions about the project, I would be absolutely delighted to answer them. My email is etucker82 @ Please feel free to contact at any time, and I'm so happy to hear that other DC people are as interested in the complaints choir project as we are." So keep watching this space. I will post a link to the finished film as soon as it's available. Now on to the main course:

Comcast is becoming Xfinity, but don't expect me ever to call it that. And what's with the initial X for companies? (Actually, that's for another column; this one's about my fondness for old names.) I found myself pondering the name change on my walk home from People's Drugstore. Um, I mean CVS. I can't help myself: "People's" must be stamped on the primal neurons of my brain, which just can't seem to recall the three simple letters of the new ("new" meaning since 1990)name.

I'm not as bad about names changes as my mother, who still refers to that big hotel at the corner of Woodley Road and Connecticut Avenue as the "Wardman Park." Which became the Sheraton Park in 1953. And then became the Marriott in 1998. But wait! Marriott restored the original Wardman Park to the hotel's name, so that now it's officially the Washington Marriott Wardman Park, which may be called "Wardman Park" for short. So after half a century of mis-labeling the hotel, my mother is now correct again. That gives me hope.

Meanwhile I continue on my merry way, flying in and out of National Airport, not "Washington Reagan National Airport." I don't know any DC native who calls it that. Actually, I doubt I've ever heard the phrase coming from anyone other than a Metro train operator. So there's no reason for me to change.

I think part of my resistance to name changes stems from the loss of a sense of place. "National" Airport tells you that you're in the nation's capital. When I'm in New York, I often hear New Yorkers refer to Sixth Avenue, which officially got renamed "Avenue of the Americas" in 1945. But what does that "of the Americas" tell you? That you're in the hemisphere which has two continents called America. What does Sixth Avenue tell you? That you're on the avenue that falls between Fifth Avenue and Seventh Avenue -- now that's useful information! So much so that sometime in the 1980's, the city of New York acknowledged the truth and installed "Sixth Avenue" street signs alongside the "Avenue of the Americas" signs.

I can claim a bit of credit myself in keeping a useful street name unaltered, right here in our neck of the woods. When I was a commissioner of ANC 3-C back in the early 1980's, there was some political momentum to change the name of a short segment of Massachusetts Avenue to "Nelson and Winnie Mandela Avenue." The name change would be just for the block in front of the South African embassy, then controlled by the apartheid regime that had imprisoned Nelson Mandela. Now I admire Mandela as much as anyone – I was even arrested and jailed for a day as part of the series of staged protests in his behalf – but I just could not see the value in hanging new street signs and printing new maps, all for a one block segment of a street. What would be the impact? Perhaps some mild annoyance for the rulers in South Africa -- though this would have been the least of their problems -- versus a good deal of confusion for tourists trying to navigate their way down an avenue already hard to follow through its various circles and squares.

Fortunately, the name change never happened. If it had, we'd probably still be trying to get the Council to change the name back. By the way, take a close-up look at the 1100 block of 16th Street on Google Maps. You'll see that segment of the street is officially named "Andrei Sakharov Plaza," a moniker slapped on it during the early 1980s to annoy the Soviet Union, which had its embassy on that block back then. If the Council would like to make a stand for rationality of place names and control of its own street grid, as well as recognition that
times have changed, it should take the quick, simple and long-overdue action of changing the name back to 16th Street.

My mother and I would be grateful. And I suspect that the Andrei Sakharov, champion of democracy that he was, would not have minded at all.


Published on the Cleveland Park Listserv, March 12, 2010

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