Street names are products of their times
“What’s in a name?”
It’s a question most famously posed as rhetorical.
When William Shakespeare opened Juliet’s soliloquy with this question, he was trying to point out that the names we use to distinguish things or people have no meaning in themselves. Remember, “a rose by any other name…”
Sometimes, though, naming something, specifically when it’s named after someone, can hold significance – good or bad. The debate surrounding the re-naming of three city streets associated with Bishop Vital-Justin Grandin is a recent example of this.
And still, as Shannon Sampert recently pointed out in an op-ed for the Winnipeg Free Press, “the evolution of names and our propensity towards accepting them is socially constructed.”
Streets all around the city are named after people considered prominent in their time, but as often as not the streets commemorating them are in communities that have no specific relation to them.
Take South Osborne, for example. As one of the older communities in the city, many of its streets commemorate people like Corliss Powers Walker, who developed what was formerly known as the Walker Theatre. Hugo and Fortune were named after developers. Daly is named after the first mayor of Brandon – which is also the name of a nearby street.
Further south in the community, street names reflect that they were developed later.
When Semonite Homes bought 40 acres of land from the Winnipeg Electric Company in 1941, it was occupied by River Park. After removing the roller coaster, carousel, and ferris wheel – mainstays in the neighbourhood for decades – Semonite might have named a street after Albert William Austin. He owned Winnipeg Electric, and ran the first commercial electric transit system in Canada down Osborne Street to River Park.
Instead, Semonite named all of the streets it developed after Second World War generals who don’t necessarily hold any particular significance to the community, or the city. To the east, there’s Montgomery and Wavell; to the west McNaughton, and Montague. For the street that circles the river, Semonite chose Churchill Drive.
For the record, Austin does have a street named after him. It’s in Point Douglas.
People seem to like naming streets in this fashion. Maybe they do it commemorate a specific person, or to sell whatever they’re developing, but names can change over time. They still reflect history, but more so about the time they when were coined.
And people get used to them.
The Walker is now the Burton Cummings Theatre. Very likely the streets named after Bishop Grandin will change, and someday the name of Churchill Drive might as well, based on the evolution of its namesake’s legacy.
It’ll do nothing to change their present purpose.
Because even though “a rose by any other name…” stands true, our propensity towards accept that name continues to evolve.
South Osborne community correspondent
Andrew Braga is a community correspondent for South Osborne.