An idealist’s worst enemy is reality.
The lyrics of U2’s song ‘Where the streets have no name’ may have been inspired by the segregated streets of 80s Belfast, where each street had a religious-economic identity. But 40 years later, we’re far from releasing our streets from the grip of power struggles. There are calls for more and more streets to be renamed so as to conform to the l’air du temps. Why the big deal?
History is a living and breathing thing. The past is all around us, embodied in every particle that gets handed down. Streets are no different. Or should I say, hodonyms, or street names, are no different.
The Romans liked to name their streets. Every Roman town grew around the intersection of two streets, the cardo (north-south axis) and the decumanus (east-west). But most streets had names, like Vicus Sobrius (Sobrius Street), Vicus Piscinae Publicae (Public Pool Street) or Vicus Minervi (Minerva Street). Street names were used for localisation, but also for setting culture in (paved) stone.
Streets reflect the local culture and its people. They create culture by memorialising the achievements and ideals of a community.
I grew up in post-Communist Romania, where streets had been renamed during the 50s and 80s to fit the ideals of the new regime. Street names such as ‘Triumph Avenue’, ‘Labour Boulevard’, ‘Solidarity Street’, ‘Freedom Plain’, ‘Cooperative Way’ or ‘Production Street’ helped communism get off the ground by cementing it into the ground. The memory of a people erased to make room for new memories. The palimpsest of urban spaces.
Bono’s wish was not for nameless streets. Instead, I think it was a desire for demilitarised hodonymy.
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