In light of the news of a proposal being floated to name the new span of the San Francisco Bay Bridge after former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown, I thought I would repost what I wrote a few years ago about naming civic structures after politicians generally. Short answer: I’m against it, and I use another Bay Area bridge as an example of how civic structures should better be named. (Note also the post-script at the end.)
In the days where naming rights to every civic structure are routinely sold to the highest bidder, it’s nice to see things get named after a deserving and appropriate person.
California just completed a new suspension bridge (in the Bay Area, crossing the Carquinez Strait carrying eastbound I-80 traffic) and named it the Alfred Zampa Memorial Bridge. According to CNN (Update: link may no longer be active):
[The bridge] is named for an ironworker who fell from the Golden Gate Bridge during its construction in 1936 and survived to help build six more bridges in the Bay Area.
Zampa died in 2000 at 95, weeks after turning the first shovel of dirt for the bridge.
He sounds like a worthy recipient of the honor of having the bridge named after, and certainly much more worthy than others who’ve had civil engineering projects named after them like, say, Ronald Reagan. Someone wrote on the Internet somewhere (I forget where) that it was tremendously ironic to name an airport after the man who had fired all the air traffic controllers.
I think it would be advisable to make a rule (either codified, or simply as a hegemonically and tacitly socially agreed-upon tradition) not to name things after people until 50 years after their death. This would give us a chance to really reflect on these people’s contribution to society and decide if, on retrospect, we still feel highly enough about them to justify the honor. Also, particularly in the case of political figures, such a policy would prevent the naming of structures that everyone shares for people whose politics not everyone necessarily favored.
True, Zampa died only a few years ago, but it’s not like he was a political figure whose supporters called in political favors to have the structure named after him. And the story of his contributions to the Bay Area’s infrastructure makes naming a bridge after him seem very appropriate. Perhaps if it was a baseball stadium they wanted to name after him I would feel differently. But then again, if it would prevent another recurrence of an Enron Field…
The preceding was originally posted November 10, 2003. A few months later, on another post, came the following comment by Ronald Zampa:
I like your commentary regarding the naming of things. Alfred Zampa was my grandfather and a local legend. There never was a more down to earth individual. He started building bridges on the first Carquinez in 1926 and the rest is history. I wish more of the structures in America were named after the people that did the work to build this country.