If you live in Bristol or Glasgow, you are surrounded by a near-constant reminder of past wealth creation and some of the notable individuals that made it possible. We have a Jamaica Street in Glasgow and a Colston Street in Bristol, named after a slave trader called Edward Colston (see last issue’s Discovering Britain). Presently, there are calls to rename the Colston Memorial Hall following its refurbishment in 2020. It’s not the first time activists have taken issue with the way in which the city of Bristol has failed to address its complicity in slavery. The Colston controversy is a useful entrée into the contested geopolitics of street naming. When, where, what and how we choose to name space is never politically innocent. Our naming choices and practices are tied to place identity and expressions of power.
Some countries are currently reflecting on their colonial histories, legacies of authoritarianism and fascism, and past associations with the former Soviet Union and Marxist-Leninism. In Poland, the Law and Justice Party government has taken to the task with some relish. As part of a concerted effort to remove the stain of communism from Polish society, communist-era street names are being rescinded and a process started in the early 1990s is being accelerated. Since 2017, the Institute of Remembrance has identified hundreds of street names that acknowledge the Soviet Red Army, communism, Rosa Luxembourg and others. Critics worry that the current government is hellbent on forcing through a version of Polish history and geography that white-washes the country’s past.
Most recently, human rights campaigners have called upon the Trump administration to rename a section of the New Hampshire Avenue in Washington DC, the ‘Jamal Khashoggi Way’, following the Saudi journalist’s violent death in October 2018. The renaming gesture is designed to morally shame. While it is unlikely to be approved, given the US administration’s closeness with Saudi Arabia, the aim is clear – a permanent gesture designed to embarrass and remind those passing through a section of the Avenue where the Saudi embassy is located.
Choosing the right road or street to make such a geopolitical point is vital. New Hampshire Avenue is close to the heart of Washington DC and embassies are high-profile targets for activists and governments alike to register their displeasure. Embassies are located in capital cities, often in the most exclusive and expensive areas. A change in street name would also force embassies and their governments to acknowledge that change through their business cards, formal letters and other forms of correspondence. If change cannot be secured officially, however, there are always opportunities to do things more spontaneously. In Washington DC, congressional figures have expressed support for a plan to rename the street outside the Russian embassy the ‘Boris Nemtsov Way’ and an equivalent one outside the Chinese Embassy the ‘Liu Xiaobo Way’. Both are gestures designed to embarrass the respective governments for killing and/or imprisoning opposition leaders.
Such place naming gestures work both ways. If the street name of the Chinese embassy in Washington DC was renamed, it has been suggested that the Chinese might retaliate and come up with a ‘Snowden Street’ or ‘Osama bin Laden Street’. It could easily become a popular game as governments seek to come up with a name that would cause maximum embarrassment for geopolitical foes. In Turkey, the mayor of Ankara has done just that. Against a backdrop of worsening US-Turkish relations over the ongoing Syrian crisis, the street where the new embassy is due to be built has already been renamed the ‘Malcolm X Avenue’. Named after the controversial African-American civil rights activist, the decision reveals something about how foreign powers identify popular figures, geopolitical themes and periods of history that they believe will bring discomfort. To impose those names outside the buildings that are intended to regularise and formalise international relations is telling.
Foreign governments can sometimes get around awkward street re-naming. In 1981, the Iranian government renamed ‘Winston Churchill Street’, ‘Bobby Sands Street’. The change in name was designed to signify a profound shift in Iranian geopolitics. Britain’s close relations with the pre-revolutionary Iran were over. The UK embassy’s official address in Tehran was henceforth going to include a street deliberately named after an IRA prisoner who died in a UK prison. The British authorities attempted to circumvent the problem by closing its official entrance on Bobby Sands Street and opening a new one on Ferdowsi Avenue.
Street renaming nourishes populist geopolitics. The Turkish example is striking because Erdoğan met Malcolm X’s daughters when visiting New York in 2018. The meeting was, inevitably, shared with the wider world via the president’s official Twitter account. In Russia, there are reports of plans to rename the US embassy’s official postal address in Moscow: 1 North American Dead End.
This was published in the January 2019 edition of Geographical magazine
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