Naming Gotham: Who Does New York City Honor, and Why?

Naming Gotham Book Review

Naming Gotham: Who Does New York City Honor, and Why?

In 2004, the Beastie Boys wrote a love letter of sorts to New York City. Their song, An Open Letter to NYC, was an ode to New York City’s vibrant culture, and a recognition that the city’s strength and resilience after 9/11 stemmed from its incredible diversity. They were not wrong. New Yorkers proudly speak 800 languages, and the city boasts immigrants from every corner of the globe. I live in Queens, most diverse place on earth. Indeed, Queens has been called “the capital of linguistic diversity” for all of humanity. That diversity is our greatest strength. Our patchwork of unique neighborhoods has welcomed successive waves of immigrants, each adding incredible foods and traditions to our vibrant civic life.  Yet it is striking how few of the names that grace New York’s infrastructure actually reflect that diversity.

Naming GothamMy new book Naming Gotham: The Villains, Rogues, and Heroes Behind New York’s Place Names, uses the naming of New York City’s roads, bridges, and civic institutions as a unique window into urban social structure and the city’s ever-changing inhabitants. The life stories of Revolutionary War figures, civil rights heroes, robber barons, and Tammany Hall politicos introduce readers to the outsized roles that power politics, corruption, and the slave economy played and continue to play in New York City. The life stories of people like Major Deegan, Richard Riker, Anne Hutchinson, Eugenius Outerbridge, Archibald Gracie, Shirley Chisholm, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., and Clifford Holland serve as the jumping off point for exploring a bigger story about New York City racial and class politics.

By tracing the lives of the people whose names have become New York’s urban shorthand for congestion, recreation, and infrastructure, Naming Gotham offers readers an accessible way to understand the complexity of multiracial, multicultural New York City. Part of the lesson is that fame is fleeting, and if you want a road or bridge named after you it really helps to be a white man.

Take Henry Bruckner for example. 

Henry Bruckner

Henry Bruckner Harris & Ewing Collection, Public domain.

The Bruckner Expressway is one of New York City’s busiest roadways, carrying thousands of trucks and cars each day. Yet, virtually nobody knows who Henry Brucker was, and for good reason.

Henry Bruckner was a soda water magnate and a Bronx politician. In the first capacity, Bruckner made a fortune selling soft drinks to New Yorkers during Prohibition. In the second, Bruckner was a loyal Tammany Hall machine politician. Under the Tammany auspices, Bruckner was elected to Congress three times, beginning in 1913.  In office, Bruckner’s track record was underwhelming. He missed more than half of the roll call votes, skipping critical votes like the constitutional amendment for women’s suffrage.

In 1917, he resigned his House seat and was elected Bronx Borough President.  In that capacity, Brucker kept to the pattern he had established in Congress of rarely showing up for his job.

For example, in 1921, it was front-page news that Bruckner had “sleeping sickness” and needed to spend 6 weeks in a sanitarium recovering. [FYI: Many doctors now think that sleeping sickness was the rough equivalent of what we today call long COVID, a lingering and debilitating post-infection neurological condition.] Indeed, Bruckner’s 1921 opponent Joseph M. Levine, ran on the slogan that, unlike Bruckner, he was “a businessman who will stay in office and work in the interests of the people.”

Bruckner won the election anyway and resumed his duties in time to be caught up in a host of corruption scandals.

A 1926 state legislative report accused Brucker, and his Tammany compatriots of “reckless extravagance and waste of city funds” for automobiles. In that year alone, Brucker spent more than $18,000 (roughly $306,000 in 2023 dollars) of public money on cars and drivers, excluding upkeep.  For perspective, Brucker’s salary as Bronx Borough President that year was $15,000.  Only Mayor Walker spent more public money on cars, the other officials targeted in this report, including the other Borough Presidents, all spent significantly less.

The 1932 Hofstadter investigation of Tammany Hall corruption, led by Judge Samuel Seabury, uncovered the fact that Bruckner had deposited hundreds of thousands of dollars in multiple safe deposit boxes at more than 8 banks, and that Bruckner and his son had visited those boxes more than 185 times over a five year period. Seabury urged that Bruckner be removed from office on the ground that “his neglect and incompetence was apparent,” and that “any decent regard to public service would require that Bruckner . . . should be removed from public service.” Bruckner refused to resign, and Governor Roosevelt declined to remove him.  Nevertheless, Brucker did not run for re-election and left office in 1933.

Bruckner died in 1942. In one of the more bizarre accolades in his obituary, the New York Herald Tribune described Bruckner as “an amiable politician who wept when employees gave him diamond and ruby rings.”  This was no doubt a nod to Bruckner’s reputation for corruption.

Despite the corruption and the lack of work ethic, Bruckner remained very popular. Indeed, just one week after his death, Bronx Councilmember Louis Cohen introduced a bill to change the name of Eastern Boulevard to Bruckner Boulevard in his honor. And a decade later when Robert Moses forced yet another elevated expressway through the Bronx, he kept the Bruckner name.

The process of naming civic institutions can tell us a lot about who we think we are. It is hard to imagine a woman or a person of color with a record like Bruckner having anything, let alone a major thoroughfare named after them.  In a city as diverse as New York, the fact that we have so far chosen to commemorate mostly white men is telling. It reflects the historical balance of power in the city—both in terms of who had the power to name things and who got to define what counted as history. For honorees like Bruckner (and Major Deegan, and Sheridan, who each also have an expressway named after them), it was friendship with powerful politicians and a close association with Robert Moses that seems to have prompted their honors, rather than a truly remarkable contribution to civic life.

Indeed, one thing Naming Gotham makes clear is that the names currently attached to New York City institutions tell only a small sliver of the city’s story. This is changing, albeit slowly. In the 1980s and 1990s, New York City renamed a handful of streets after important male Black New Yorkers, including: Jackie Robinson, Fredrick Douglass, Malcolm X, and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. It took another 20 years for Black women to gain similar recognition. The Shirley Chisholm State Park, named after the first Black woman elected to Congress, opened in 2019. Currently, there is legislation proposing renaming the Queens Midtown Tunnel after Jane Matilda Bolin—the first Black woman to serve as a judge in the United States after being appointed to the bench in 1939 by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, himself the first Italian-American to serve in Congress.

This shift in who the city memorializes reflects the changing narrative that New Yorkers tell themselves about their city. That shift creates the possibility of a wider transformation–It remains to be seen how this changing story will translate into the policies the city adopts for its schools, its roads, and its neighborhoods. In the meantime, Naming Gotham will fill you in on the gossipy backstories of many such honorees.

Naming Gotham

Frontispiece of Naming Gotham drawn by Charlie LaGreca

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