discovering the stupid "Neu York" piece last weekend got my panties in a bunch, so I'm starting a spate (a very spate!) of street renaming posts. (There will be at least three.)
Here's an example of simple, but smart: a temporary street renaming project with entirely political purposes. Last summer the activist group "Gruppe N.E.W. Y.O.R.C.K." in Berlin renamed major streets in every Berlin district to "Yorckstrasse", in solidarity with the evicted tenants of Yorckstrasse 59. (Here are more images of the renamed streets.)
Yorckstrasse 59, or 59 Yorck street was previously home to an "alternative living project", which included a number of lefty residents and families, as well as a number of lefty type organizations. The tenants had occupied the building for 16 years when the current owners doubled their rent. They refused to pay and the eviction notice came down. The eviction itself became quite a circus, with the police so afraid of actions from sympathizers that they closed off the entire area around the building the night before the eviction.
Street renaming in Berlin has a long and intense history. Because of the number of constitutional changes in the area that is now Germany in the past 150 years (unification, Weimar republic, Nazi Germany, West Germany/East Germany, reunification), Berlin has been through six sets, and many, many waves, of systematic geographic renaming. The streets, squares, monuments and memorials, graveyards, waterways, parks and major buildings have been renamed each time to reflect the new political system, or else retooled for the same purpose.
This temporary renaming action draws on the recent, decade-long renaming of Berlin streets to reflect a new pantheon of political values created by the melding of East and West Germany. Berliners are, as a result of the street renamings in the 90's, supremely aware of the meanings behind the names of streets. Yorck, if I remember correctly, was some sort of aristocrat. Not someone who represents left-leanings or communal values. But the layering of street name meanings has already set in. Yorck himself is not important here anymore, but rather what has been happening for the past 16 years on Yorck street. Yorck street has now taken on the meaning of the squat at number 59.
Although from the outside this action, and how seriously everyone takes it, seems a little silly -- the lefty tenants of "besetzte Häuser" or political squats in Berlin are mostly educated punkalicious middle class types, and the "bulls" (pigs) they hate on are all working class -- this is the sort of event that defines lives and politics.
The eviction photos of Yorckstrasse 59 look like color versions of the eviction photos of the International Hotel on Kearny Street in San Francisco.
The International Hotel on San Francisco's Kearny Street, from the 20's onward a single-room occupancy hotel for mostly Filipino migrant workers and the center of San Francisco's Manilatown, was, by the 60's, hot real estate sitting right next door to the high-rent financial district. It was also, as a home to the now elderly immigrant community, a mecca for young baby-boomer Asian Americans raised in disappearing post-war ethnic enclaves, who were activated by the civil rights and free speech movements to form an Asian American Movement. The low-rent storefronts and basement of the I-Hotel were the perfect spaces for nascent Asian American organizing around social services, and self expression in the arts.
In the late 60's the I-Hotel was sold and the tenants -- both residents and organizations -- served with eviction notices. the next ten years saw a protest against the eviction eventually take over all left-leaning segments of the city's population. By the time the sheriff was ordered to evict in 1977, the issue was so hot that the sheriff chose to refuse to evict (symbolically), and spent three days in jail for contempt of court. The eviction went through, and the building was torn down, but the political infighting was such that the I-Hotel site remained an empty hole in the ground for nearly a quarter of a century afterward. (Good news: the I-Hotel has been rebuilt on the same site as SROs for the elderly, with a Filipino community center on the street level.)
The eviction was devastating to the community. One young man, who had spent years organizing against the eviction, even suffered a nervous breakdown. One of the evicted organizations, an arts collective called Kearny Street Workshop, even after becoming nomadic in the increasingly expensive real estate market of San Francisco, held onto the name "Kearny Street" as it became more and more a meaning divorced from the street, or the geographical location of the I-Hotel. Young Asian American spoken word artists all over the country, born after the eviction, still reference "the I-Hotel" and "Kearny Street" as symbols of "revolution" and Asian American resistance to "the man" (whoever he is).
When I was working at Kearny Street Workshop in 2001 and did research for a symbolic, temporary street renaming project, I looked up "Kearny". The street was named after Stephen Watts Kearny, an army officer, the first military governor of California (at the expense of a major and embarrassing feud with the commander of the navy in California), and a military governor of Mexico City (also at the expense of the same feud.) Not the best name for such a street, but, again, the street name now transcends that. Its meaning has become another meaning.