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Tell It Like It Is

Posted by: Elisabeth Dick Oak on December 21, 2012
Triboro Bridge

Like many cities, New York has a tradition of naming landmarks after luminaries, for example Lincoln Center. Unlike many cities, however, New York also has a tradition of descriptive naming, as evidenced by the city’s famously numbered streets. It’s where these two traditions collide that things get interesting.

Take the Triborough Bridge. It's a brilliantly coined and descriptive name that tells you — in four syllables or less — that it connects three of New York’s five boroughs.

In 2008, this bridge was renamed the Robert F. Kennedy or RFK Bridge. Despite the fact that RFK was a popular political figure and the proverbial ribbon has been cut, the name change hasn’t changed the way most New Yorkers refer to the bridge or hit the cab driver lexicon yet.

Another example is the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. A descriptive and pleasantly alliterative name that describes what’s at either end of the tunnel, it was changed to the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel in 2010. Most of us didn’t even register the change until Hurricane Sandy when the mayor, the police and the press stumbled over what to call it. Some opted for brevity with the old descriptive name while others went for the full enchilada: the Hugh L. Carey Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel.

Let’s not forget the newly renamed Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge. It's also commonly referred to as the 59th Street Bridge.

Now, with a little time (and consistent signage), these names may take root. If and when they do, I wonder if we’ll lose a bit of what makes New York great.

We all take it for granted, but New York’s tradition of descriptive naming means that the names often take a back seat and let the city shine. It means that tourists don’t need to ask us for directions (well, most of the time). And newcomers can feel an immediate mastery of the metropolis they’ve adopted as their own.

What will happen when every streetcorner has a name? (It’s telling that we don’t use the honorary names that are there now. I’m looking at you Edgar Allan Poe Street.) Will we no longer meet on the corner of 5th Avenue and 19th Street? Will our cab drivers require London-style training? Will Central Park become Bloomberg Park someday?

Ridiculous? Maybe. Possible? Definitely. So while I’m all for praising famous people who have contributed to the city, let’s not forget that one of the greatest things about the greatest city in the world is telling it like it is.

Elisabeth Dick Oak is an associate director for Interbrand New York's Verbal Identity department.

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