Wednesday, July 18, 2012

As Long As They're Changing Street Names in HowCo...

I was intrigued by this news item about the recent decision to change the name of a street in Howard County because of its questionable name.

The street in question: “Coon Hunt Court.”

I guess there are two schools of thought when it comes to this kind of thing.

First, there is no indication that the street was named with any deliberate racist intentions. Indeed, as the article makes clear, the community where the street is located derived its street names from the paintings of artist Andrew Wyeth. Among the artist’s works are paintings entitled “Raccoon” (there is already a “Raccoon Court” in that neighborhood) and “The Coot Hunter.” So, it sounds like whoever did the name exercised a bit of poetic license.

Second, intentionally or not, the name is offensive and should be changed.

I concur with the second conclusion. Words are important, and using them in an imprecise and confusing way breeds unnecessary controversy. So, as long as all six of the households living on that street concurred in the name changing – which they did – I think the county acted properly.

Indeed, while the county is amenable to changing street names, I’d like to suggest another one ripe for reconsideration: “Minstrel Way,” located not far from where Snowden River Parkway intersects with Broken Land Parkway.

I have worked in Columbia since February 2011. Every time I pass that street, I feel pangs of irony: A planned, fully integrated community with a street evoking memories of Amos n’ Andy, Al Jolson, or gaudy antebellum burlesque performers prancing around in blackface.

Now, as in the case of Coon Hunt Court, I don’t think the name was intentionally chosen because of its more controversial meaning.

I discussed this with a well-placed friend of mine, and he correctly pointed out to me that the word “minstrel” actually has two meanings – the original one being “one of a class of medieval musical entertainers; especially: a singer of verses to the accompaniment of a harp” according to Merriam Webster.

There is a community in Columbia named “Kings Contrivance” located not far from Minstrel Way. Keeping the word’s original definition in mind, Minstrel Way would seem to be a riff off of the Game of Thrones-era theme the founders of Columbia seemed to have had in mind.

Also, all the street names in Columbia were inspired by specific literary or artistic references. So there must be a medieval-themed book or painting out there from which “minstrel” was benignly harvested.

I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about the meanings and origins of words. Still, upon first seeing that street sign, my mind went not to images of itinerant medieval musicians, but to the more modern definition.

I suspect most people would react the same way. I also think that, were you to approach a musical performer outside of a Renaissance Festival environment and asked them if they were a minstrel, the person would be confused if not outright offended.

So, Howard County government … before you close the book on the street name changes, care to give Minstrel Way some attention? It seems to me that redubbing it “Troubadour Way” would be an easy fix.

The street is in a business rather than a residential area, so presumably the businesses there would incur some cost resulting from the change, especially in terms of revising signage. Fortunately, the street isn’t that long, and I didn’t see too many commercial signs. Minimally the county should explore the cost of making such a change, as well as whether it can find the money to help businesses offset the cost.

I know that times are hard and every county in Maryland is struggling with budgetary pressures. But just because an issue is small does not make it unimportant. If the change can be achieved affordably and with minimal disruption, then Howard County should move accordingly.

Words have the power to either bring people together or rip them apart. With society as ideologically polarized as it is, it is important to avoid miscommunications or distractions with the potential to exacerbate tensions.

Generally, I’m a sucker for a good, heaping dose of over-the-top irony, as this unfortunately named street represents.

But not this time. 

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