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5 June 2015

Lyrics accompanying a city symphony: street names help us do more than just find our way

Street names tell of a city's character and story, rather than simply being a function to help us get around.

By Oliver Farry

A mild source of annoyance for me is when I give directions to people who know the city in question as well as I do, using street names, and the directions are met with blank stares. Once you give them a little more detail, a cinema on the corner, a bar you have gone to together on a number of occasions, or a school whose pupils clog the pavement come four o’clock, their faces light up with recognition. “Is that what that street is called?” they invariably say.

One might assume that the practice of naming streets originated to distinguish them from one another and to make navigating cities easier but that is no guarantee the name will stick in people’s minds. Or even that people need those names – Londoners and citizens of other British cities were able to find their way around during World War II when nameplates were removed from streets to foil any would-be enemy visitors.

Similarly, in Beirut, a lack of up-to-date maps and an urban landscape changed by war and other social upheavals means locals ignore the names of streets, relying instead on colourful descriptions to tell people where to go. Even in well-charted cities, some people prefer this method – on numerous occasions people have instructed me over the phone to walk past a flyover, along a canal, take the fourth street on the right or cross a park to get to an appointed venue. Sometimes it seems rude to point out to them that I can just rely upon a map, given I have the address.

I have to admit though that some streets, in various cities, also exist in my mind only visually. These include streets and alleys in my own neighbourhood whose names I have learned only when stumbling upon them by chance from the opposite direction having taken a different route home.

Visiting Lisbon recently, I decided to reread Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, which I had first read long before I set foot in the Portuguese capital. I was struck by the amount of actual topography of the city that features in the book – much more than I remembered – and I was intrigued by the street, rua dos Douradores, where the book’s protagonist Bernardo Soares both lives and works.

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The name was unfamiliar to me, even after multiple visits to the city, but in a serendipitous stroke of fate I stumbled upon it the same day. As it happened, it was a street I had walked down many times, though there had never been anything remarkable enough on it for me to ever stop and linger. The name of the street is perfectly Pessoan both in its doleful sonority and in its meaning – it is named after the gilders that historically occupied the neighbourhood – and it has a firm lodging in my mind now, but only after I had found a “use” for it. In this I am no different from those friends I get impatient with when the name of a street draws a blank.

With a select number of streets the inverse is true – their names are widely known to people who might never walk down them. Oxford Street, the Champs-Élysées and Red Square are recognisable addresses to people far beyond London, Paris and Moscow. The same can be said of Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, 42nd Street in New York (proof that having a number instead of a name is no bar to fame) or Bourbon Street in New Orleans.

Other streets exist as metonyms for entire trades, such as Carnaby Street, Harley Street or Park Avenue, sometimes even long after those trades have upped sticks and left , like with Grub Street and Fleet Street. Streets also change names over time – usually the changes are piecemeal or follow great historical events. Sometimes the name changes are ignored – place Charles de Gaulle, with the Arc de Triomphe at its centre, was renamed after the General’s death in 1970 but Parisians still call it Place de l’Étoile (de Gaulle’s name is also ignored by French people when referring to Paris’s main airport – for them, it is always “Roissy”).

In some cases the changes are wholesale. Anyone reading Günter Grass’s Danzig trilogy will need a street-name translator if they ever want to explore the locales in real life; the German names of the old Hanseatic city have given way to Polish ones in contemporary Gdansk. One imagines the same is true of Immanuel Kant’s hometown of Königsberg, which is now the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, not to mention Breslau/Wroclaw, Stettin/Szczecin and other former East Prussian cities.

Many Irish towns and cities changed their street names in 1898, upon the centenary of the 1798 rebellion. Thoroughfares thenceforth bore the names of United Irishmen such as Bartholomew Teeling and Theobald Wolf Tone and other Nationalist icons like Henry Grattan, Robert Emmett and Lord Edward Fitzgerald. Dublin and Belfast, being stronger Unionist strongholds, resisted the tide of Nationalist feeling, and the Irish capital continues to have most of the same street names it had when part of the British Empire.

Apart from a few notable exceptions (Sackville Street and Carlisle Bridge becoming O’Connell Street and O’Connell Bridge respectively; Little Britain Street and Rutland Square morphing into Parnell Street and Parnell Square), the centre of Dublin has names not much different from many cities across the Irish Sea.

There have been occasional half-hearted moves to give the names a more Hibernian colour but they have never been taken seriously. Some, like Joycean scholar and senator David Norris opposed it on the grounds that the Dublin of Ulysses would be unrecognisable. It’s all very ironic given Joyce faced obstruction from George Maunsel, publisher of Dubliners, who was reticent about putting down in print actual names of Dublin companies and landmarks. Joyce later wrote about it in his satirical poem Gas from a Burner:

Shite and onions! Do you think I’ll print
The name of the Wellington monument,
Sydney Parade and the Sandymount tram,
Downe’s cakeshop and Williams’s jam?
I’m damned if I do – I’m damned to blazes!
Talk about Irish Names of Places!

Joyce would have to wait till Bloomsday 2003 for Dublin to honour him by naming a bridge across the Liffey after him (fellow Dublin writers Samuel Beckett and Seán O’Casey would also later be honoured with bridges).

Rarer, though, is the naming of a street after a fictional character, though Waverley Station in Edinburgh is a close example, as is Robinson Crusoe Island in the south-east Pacific, which the Chilean government renamed from Más a Tierra in 1966 because Alexander Selkirk, the inspiration for Crusoe, spent six years marooned there. The alleyway in Lyon which the workers of the Lumière factory spilled out onto in the world’s first motion picture is now known as “rue du premier film”.

The streets around the headquarters of the TV station TF1 in Paris are named after classic French films such as Belle de Jour and Les Enfants du paradis. More recently, mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, upon reading Patrick Modiano’s 1998 novel Dora Bruder (translated into English as The Search Warrant) decided to name a street in the 18th arrondissement after the young girl who died in Auschwitz (though Modiano’s character is fictional, she is based on a real Parisian of the same name who also died in the Holocaust).

The main attraction of street names is the way in which they sum up the city they inhabit, offering a flavour of the local character to residents and visitors alike. Even if you don’t absorb the names on the street signs in a city you are visiting for the first time, they do bestow a sense of what the city is about – a visitor to Seville cannot fail to notice all the arcane and baroque street names related to Catholicism; those travelling around Italy, France and Portugal will notice repetitions of names and themes that send the inquisitive running off to Wikipedia. The street names are an initiation into a country’s history and to its writers and historical figures.

David Bellos, in his book on translation Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, advises literary translators to keep street names in the original so as to maintain part of the source language’s flavour. I agree entirely – who would want to see Rue de Rivoli rendered as “Rivoli Street” in a book about Paris? Or Berlin’s Unter den Linden translated clumsily as “Beneath the Linden Trees”? Street names are the lyrics to accompany the symphonies that all cities perform, day-in day-out, and their integrity ought to be respected. Maybe they do have more of a function after all than to simply help people tell one street from another.

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