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From number to name: symbolic capital, places of memory and the politics of street renaming in New York City

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Numerous studies have highlighted the importance of street naming as a strategy for constructing 'places of memory'. This paper draws upon Bourdieu's theory of symbolic capital to examine two key moments in the history of street renaming in New York City: the renaming of the avenues on Manhattan's Upper West Side in the latter nineteenth century and the street renamings in Harlem a century later. The aim of such a comparative case study approach is to demonstrate how the symbolic capital associated with street naming may be linked to an elite project of symbolic erasure and forced eviction, on the one hand, and the cultural recognition of a historically marginalized group, on the other. Both cases consider attempts to rename formerly numbered streets and avenues, and the benefit of considering them together is that they illustrate the multiple interests—as well as the exclusionary politics of race, class, and gender—involved in such shifts from 'number' to 'name'. In doing so, this paper extends the current literature on street naming as a commemorative practice by linking it to a broader relational view of place-making, memory, and symbolic capital.

Keywords: New York City; commemoration; places of memory; street naming; symbolic capital

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Department of Geography, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX, USA

Publication date: June 1, 2008

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