It is confusing for taxis and Amazon delivery drivers, but in England I live in a Kent village on a street called simply “The Street”. Google Maps disconcertingly emphasises the “The” in big letters.
Surely no street name can be less political than mine. But in a much bigger conurbation, the decision by the mayor of Budapest to impose new street names in the Hungarian capital to highlight China’s human rights abuses is the latest example of the tendentious politicisation of place names around the world.
There is no doubt about Gergely Karacsony’s purpose. By calling the streets around the site of a proposed Budapest campus of China’s Fudan University “Dalai Lama Road”, “Free Hong Kong Road” and “Uyghur Martyrs Road”, the mayor wants to embarrass Viktor Orban, the authoritarian and pro-China prime minister of Hungary.
He seems to be succeeding. In the face of public protests, Orban is now hesitating to impose the Chinese university project he previously championed to please Communist party leaders in Beijing. You can see why Karacsony did it. He is an opposition politician, and Orban has steadily undermined Hungarian democracy, limiting the scope for other forms of political action.
But renaming streets for short-term political ends can be the start of a slippery slope. It does nothing to satisfy residents or help visitors find the place they are looking for, which are surely the main reasons for having names at all. And future mayors might change them all back again or impose their own ephemeral political views on the city nomenclature.
Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, has undergone such a bewildering series of street name conversions since the end of French colonial rule — a reflection of sometimes violent regime changes — that avenues are often known to locals by several different names and visitors struggle to navigate the city.
When I lived in the Zambian capital Lusaka in the 1980s, one avenue was briefly renamed Saddam Hussein Boulevard after the Iraqi dictator gave a shipment of oil to the cash-strapped government of Kenneth Kaunda. Now that Saddam is dead and no longer so popular it has again been renamed, this time as Los Angeles Boulevard. But because there was already a Los Angeles Road, that too was renamed last year after national footballing hero Kalusha Bwalya.
Many political or nationalist renamings, it is true, can stand the test of time. There are countless streets and squares in France named after General Charles de Gaulle, and scarcely a substantial town in India without its MG Road in memory of Mahatma Gandhi.
Some names, however, inevitably lose their appeal. In Madrid I bought my car from a Renault dealer in a street I was amazed to discover was still called the Calle del General Yagüe, a Francoist commander in the civil war known as the Butcher of Badajoz. The name was changed in 2017 to Calle de San Germán.
A court has just ruled that another Madrid street, called the Calle de los Caídos de la División Azul, can retain its name because the fallen Spanish soldiers who fought for the Nazis on the eastern front might be considered victims of the war as well as perpetrators.
But the lesson must be that there is little to be gained for mayors, governments or inhabitants if street names are changed purely for short-term political advantage, whether for celebration or denigration.
In our small village in Kent, there was not much scope for change, but change came anyway. There were always three principal roads: The Street, where the church is; Back Street, which runs parallel to it behind the village; and the main road, which joins them at the top and leads to the local towns in either direction. My first experience of the political or social motivations behind street-naming was when Back Street became Swan Lane (after a pub) and the main road was fancifully relabelled Poplar Road.
Such cosmetic changes are innocent enough — who wants to live with an address on Back Street or the B2082? — and they have become part of the local geography. But somehow I doubt that Budapest’s Free Hong Kong Road will be called that a few years from now.