In response to Dylann Roof’s killing of nine people in Charleston this past week, Jon Stewart commented what he called the state’s “racial wallpaper” of white supremacy: “The confederate flag flies over South Carolina. And the roads are named for confederate generals.”
To test the truth of Stewart’s statement, Laura Newman Eckstein, a rising senior at Haverford College, created a map of streets named after Confederate generals and African American leaders, respectively:
While the map raises as many questions as it answers (are the streets in prominent locations, or on back roads? Are they single-block “commemorations,” say, marking the block where a historic figure was born, or miles-long thoroughfares or highways? and so on), it make visible, in a powerful way, what “racial wallpaper” looks like.
At the end of another blog post, this one written by my friend (and South Carolina literary historian) Susanna Ashton, of Clemson, a commenter pointed out that Dylann Roof also happens to live very near a street named “Chain Gang Road.” I used to live on Joe Sayers Avenue in Austin, TX, a street named after a Jim Crow-era governor of Texas (and, I now discover, a major in the Confederate Army). I always hated giving out that address and was glad to leave it behind. But at least it wasn’t “Chain Gang Road.” Can you imagine what it says to choose that name for a road– much less be proud to live or work there? Or possibly, it just got that name because it described what happened there. But the fact that it stuck says a lot, none of which I’d be proud of owning.
I had always assumed that cities that used alphanumeric systems to name streets did so simply out of a desire to impose order on the grid, to make cities easier to navigate. But perhaps it also is an indication of an ideological fractiousness within a city, one that would make attaining consensus on street names impossible. Or it might hide that fractiousness altogether under a veneer of an orderly grid.
Everyone says New York is so easy to navigate, because it’s all numbers: streets going south-to-north, avenues going east-to-west. It may be easy to navigate, but it also “depersonalizes” or maybe even “dehumanizes” the city as well–perhaps for ideological reasons– does it not?