Mike Von der Porten: Changing Place Names

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 (Photo Credit: Amanda Font/KQED)

Names attached to schools, streets and other public sites have roiled communities cross the state. Mike Von der Porten suggests a process to determine which should stay and which should go.

Naming places and buildings for people is a tradition stretching back centuries.  Important people have been honored with statues for millennia. But, times change and it may be appropriate to replace some of these recognitions.

The process for evaluating such changes needs to be consistent and fair.

The process must be public.  Citizen committees should include broad representation with good publicity and outreach.  This is an opportunity to bring the community together, and to educate us all about issues and history.

Next, we must look at the reason the name was honored. If it was meant to intimidate or suppress, the name must go. A plaque in Monterey honored army officer Garnett for designing the California State Seal. Was it put up by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to recognize his design work or support lost-cause ideology?

A serious study of the person’s life is necessary. The standards against which this biography are measured must be carefully considered.

Some standards are likely universal.  The hunting of unarmed civilians such as that the namesake of Patrick’s Point is accused should never be justified. That may have been unremarkable in Patrick’s time, but] If we have the “right” Patrick, the name should be changed.

Other standards will generate more debate.  Does the possible mid-19th century ownership of property, as one Santa Rosa school board member advocated, warrant removal?

A life history is complicated. Outstanding accomplishments can be tainted by now-questionable acts. Midlife change may show a different person at each stage. To evaluate each person, their biography must compared with the standards of the time in which they lived.

Then, the biography needs to be evaluated through today’s lens.

If standards have changed, we must choose whether to  retain the name and seize the opportunity to educate, for example by putting up interpretive displays and websites.  Shall we explain the evolution of thinking and laws over time, or shall we simply eradicate the name?

Does Jesse Peter, Junior’s collecting of Native American materials for museums by now-questionable means require his name to be removed from his museum?

Name changes will always be needed.  Let’s be inclusive and make good decisions.

With a Perspective, I’m Mike Von der Porten

Mike Von der Porten helps businesses with their one and five-year planning processes.

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