There is a move afoot to change the name of Charleston’s Court Street to Martin Luther King Way. A bill to accomplish the switch is on a fast track to the City Council.
Lawyer, Katherine “Kitty” Dooley, is leading the effort. Her rationale for claiming the thoroughfare solely for King, a titan for all to know, is that “Court Street is . . . where justice is to be administered.”
Opponents, not of King, cite the history and stature of Court Street, one of the oldest and most prominent in Kanawha County, and want to find another way to memorialize King, as they believe the city should.
Both are fair positions. Decision-makers should reflect on the options to accomplish a worthy purpose. And none ought to feel cowed by the dilemma that the proposal of a few citizens creates. To be for the change is not to sweep away history, only some of it; to be against it is not to reject King or to stubbornly affirm a 225-year-old landmark that identifies a civic institution so essential as the judiciary.
Since colonial times, street-naming in the United States has been an oddly ad hoc exercise left to real estate speculators. For the most part, developers have picked the names for America’s streets, roads, avenues, alleys, lanes, drives, boulevards, circles, crescents and highways.
White settlers named the first streets of Charleston. The nearly complete omission of American Indian place names is one of their legacies. Some streets are named for slave-masters. As the city expanded east, the Confederate sympathies of landowners are evident.
Expanding into the West Side, a Pennsylvania speculator, John Brisben Walker, named new streets after mostly Northern and Midwestern states. Walker’s enterprise failed, “partly because the local citizens looked with amusement on what were considered rash dreams.”
As you can see, small and unimaginative thinking in Charleston have a long history. Walker later made it big in Colorado, and then bought Cosmopolitan magazine and sold it to William Randolph Hearst. He died penniless in Brooklyn, which is where one would go to do that sort of thing.
To play it safe, most developers preferred serviceable and quaint names found among numbers, letters, flowers and rocks. The Kanawha Valley’s numbered streets, as rule, do not add up. In Charleston, try finding a First through 11th streets while 12th through 72nd streets run to the Eastern edge of Kanawha City. Numbering resumes around 80th Street in Marmet and ends somewhere around 138th Street.
Trees make great street names: Maple, Elm, Larch, Spruce, Pine and Chestnut. Eleanor and Nitro have Kapok Streets, although the nearest Kapoks are found somewhere north of Tallahassee.
Forget their national profiles, U.S. presidents have given their names up and down the Kanawha Valley: Adams, Jefferson, Roosevelt, Wilson, Cleveland and McKinley. In the 1860s, future president Rutherford B. Hayes commanded the 23rd Ohio Infantry at Fort Scammon, overlooking the river. In gratitude, the city named an obscure residential street after him.
Yet, to our discredit, Lincoln remains absent from Charleston’s grid.
In the 1960s, developers favored Ye Olde English names for their projects, imparting that upper-crust feeling of having made it. Consider all of the Yorks, Hamptons, Loudons and everything ending in “Shire.” Sometimes, they approached the absurd. In Sherwood Forest, you can live on Robin Hood Road or Locksley Circle, a cul-de-sac named for a fictional place.
In my years, I have seen towns and cities consent to new streets named for developers’ first wives, second wives, favorite college football teams and deceased pets. I myself have negotiated these matters. Once, I managed to sneak in a new street name in tribute to a man who volunteered to die in place of a stranger in a German death camp. It exists in quiet solitude, virtually unknown. (I wonder who will find it?)
A while back, I hatched the idea to rename Broad Street for another national civil rights leader, Leon Sullivan, who grew up in Charleston before he led global businesses to boycott apartheid South Africa. The idea took off.
As for the most recent topic, let me propose a middle ground, another way.
Many great cities have adopted the custom of acknowledging the admired teachers, poets, writers, artists, athletes, heroes, leaders and, yes, (if we must) politicians by bestowing honorary names on streets, intersections, squares, alleys and other public places already named.
The custom of having two names — one honorary — began in Chicago and has spread around the nation. There are many examples. A California stretch of road is also named in honor of native West Virginian Chuck Yeager.
It would be a service if Kanawha Valley cities and towns elevated important diverse figures to the signposts. Official and honorary names would happily co-exist, preserving history while adding to our understanding of the people who make it.