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The politics of toponymic continuity: The limits of change and the ongoing lives of street names

Young, C and Light, D (2017) The politics of toponymic continuity: The limits of change and the ongoing lives of street names. In: The Political Life of Urban Streetscapes Naming, Politics, and Place. Taylor & Francis, pp. 185-201. ISBN 1317020715

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Abstract

There is a widespread recognition in the critical toponymies literature that radical or revolutionary political change is accompanied by the renaming of urban streets and buildings. In particular, through a process of ‘toponymic cleansing’ ideologically inappropriate names are removed from the urban arena and replaced by new names that accord with the agenda, aspirations and values of the new political order. This process is frequently assumed to be clean, decisive and definitive; a clean sweep which results in a comprehensive reconfiguring of the toponymic landscape. However, we argue that the process is far more messy and inconclusive than is often recognised. Streets with inappropriate names may be overlooked; the material signage with the old name may persist long after a street has been through the administrative process of renaming; and old (and ideologically inappropriate) names may remain in widespread daily use long after they have been formally changed. In other words, former toponymies are absent presences that haunt the city long after a period of revolutionary political change has been completed. In this chapter we examine such ‘residual’ toponymies and we illustrate our discussion with a range of examples from post-socialist and post-colonial contexts. We argue that attempts to change everyday ‘worlds of meaning’ through renaming streets are much less successful than is often argued, and we call for a recognition of the performative limits of changing urban place names.

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