The History, Politics, and Economics of Street Names

The apparently simple task of finding a suitable historic figure to name a street after has been made complicated by government bureaucrats.

Liberty is essential to the progress of humankind. However, the liberty that permits this progress is frequently reduced, piece by piece, by government. One such case that often goes unnoticed is the freedom to live on streets whose names we choose and not to have them change on the whim of a new political movement. New street names require individuals to change credit card information and shipping addresses, as well as entire personal documents. This is both costly and time-consuming. On top of this, I will demonstrate that it could have an economic impact, as well.

Street names may seem minuscule at first. However, they are a very powerful political weapon as they can be used to rewrite history. Communist countries, as well as other regimes, used street names and monuments, as well as other things, to further their political goals. To illustrate the effects of government policy in this regard, I will demonstrate what has happened in Serbia over the course of the past century. Serbia may be a small country, but its political climate is anything but stable, and as such, the lessons if offers can be applied everywhere else.

The Case of Serbia

Serbia only recently became an independent country. Historically, it constituted a part of Yugoslavia, which was a monarchy after World War I, a communist dictatorship after World War II, and a state union between only Serbia and Montenegro after the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s. The politicians of all three countries were guilty of renaming streets to meet their political goals, but it became most pronounced following World War II.

When communists took over in 1945, the followers of Marx and Lenin decided to rewrite history. Every major street in every city throughout the country was renamed after a communist revolutionary. Previously, all of these streets bore names of the Yugoslav Royal Family, and before that, the names of the Habsburg Monarchy or the Ottoman Sultans, depending on the part of the country. The communists believed there was no one worthy before they came into power—only capitalist exploiters and political despots who did not deserve their own streets.

Even entire towns were renamed. For example, in the northern part of Serbia, which is called Vojvodina, a sizable town called Beckerek was renamed to Zrenjanin after communist revolutionary Zarko Zrenjanin. The communists named four streets after communist revolutionary Sava Kovacevic in Belgrade without considering the difficulties this would cause.Considering over 300,000 native Germans were forced to flee Vojvodina for “collaborating with the Nazis” and most of its inhabitants had been robbed blind for “war profiteering,” one can only imagine how happy these people were to live in cities bearing the names of the very men who robbed them. 

After communism collapsed, the same practice was repeated again. In the capital, Belgrade, close to 40 streets in the very heart of the city were renamed. One might applaud these changes due to the inherent evil of communism—except for the fact that communism was replaced by another form of collectivism under the guise of Serbian nationalism. The leading party at the time was not in favor of free markets—it was called the Socialist Party of Serbia.

The communists named four streets after communist revolutionary Sava Kovacevic in Belgrade without considering the difficulties this would cause. The regime that came after only had time to change one of them and not even take off the old plaque. The name of a Christian monastery now stands above the name of a communist—much to the confusion of tourists and even locals. In one part of Belgrade called Palilula, a total of 332 streets have changed names in the past 15 years.The apparently simple task of finding a suitable historic figure to name a street after has been made complicated by government bureaucrats.

Krunska Street has changed names 12 times in total since its inception, holding the official record. Svetogorksa Street had its name changed so many times the authorities were forced to hang a plaque with all its former names to avoid any confusion.

A 2009 documentary film explained the changes of street names throughout Belgrade and how they coincided with shifts in political opinion. The film shows a committee of roughly 20 people holding a meeting in which they are deliberating what a street ought to be called. One may think that reinventing the wheel is not necessary to find a suitable historic figure who has not yet been honored with a street, however, this apparently simple task has been made complicated by government bureaucrats, as is usually the case. All of the people present in the meeting have detailed reports, papers, and notes, as well as other things to aid them in determining a suitable name.

The Economics of Street Names

All of these changes would have been justified had the demand for them come from the people and not from government bureaucrats. A government bureaucrat working in the busy city center has probably never stepped foot in the suburbs, yet that same government bureaucrat probably named every single street there.

It is important for one to have this liberty not only for liberty’s sake but also due to the fact that street names could be economically important, as well. If we truly believe in freedom of expression, who are we to stop anyone from naming a street after Stalin or some other criminal?Businesses on streets with quick and catchy names could capture customers much easier than ones made of several hard-to-pronounce words. The words “avenue” or “boulevard” sound much more sophisticated than “road,” and this could greatly increase the value of a particular property located there.

Streets are often named after historical figures, but there is no reason why a street name could not be random letters, a mere number, or a deceased individual who used to live there and is still loved by his neighbors. If we truly believe in freedom of expression, who are we to stop anyone from naming a street after Stalin or some other criminal? Regardless of how abhorrent such an act may be, it is not right to take this liberty away provided that the people requesting the name do not follow Stalin’s example.

Further Reading

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