Sunday, December 8, 2013

Davis Historic Names and Street Naming: Problems of Inequity & Invidiousness (142)

At its meeting on December 16th, 2013 the Davis Historic Resources Management Commission (HRMC) will, according to its press release, “discuss a proposal to update and refine a list of individuals and families who have played a significant role in Davis’s history.” A major purpose of this list is to provide names for streets in the planned Cannery subdivision.

I want in this post to suggest, first, that rather than “update and refine,” the Commission should think anew about how a “list” might be correctly established in the first place (if a list is, indeed, needed). The existing effort displays inequity and plans for its use are deficient and invidious.

Second, after describing nine measures that might lead to a legitimate list that could be used properly, I want to raise wider questions about naming Cannery streets in the first place.


Let me describe the elements of what I think could be a more appropriate way to establish a  “historic Davis names” list, as well as then honoring such people by naming streets after them, among other measures.

l. Creating Criteria: How Do We Know One When We See One?
Because we are going about this possible honoring in the context of the Historical Resources Management Commission, the thought comes to mind that perhaps the names could be determined by a set of criteria that have the same precision as those used by the City in designating historical resource structures. For reference, I reproduce those criteria for the category of landmarks as they are stated in section of 40.23.060 of the Davis Municipal Code (image 1).

Because we are evaluating people rather than structures, we must of course develop appropriately different criteria. Since we do not as yet have any such criteria in Davis, we need to create them. Here are some suggestions.

(1) Deceased. A candidate for the status of historic should not longer be living. I appreciate that there are arguments to the contrary, but much conflict and invidiousness can be avoided if this rule is used. There might be some concern that there are not enough deceased historic names to name 40-some Cannery streets. Not to worry. A couple of weeks ago I reviewed relevant materials and found at least 132 candidate names (image 2). Likely at least half of them can meet whatever criteria are established. (Since then I have identified many more candidate names.)

(2) A Resident. Except for a few people present at the forming of Davisville, anyone named historic should have lived in or near Davis at least for a time and hopefully for a very long time. This is relevant because quite a few people who might be considered “historic” apparently never lived here.

(3} Community Improvement Activities Stressed. The core of being an “historic Davis name” is acting in public ways to invent and carry through on projects that improve the life of the entire community. I think there is no doubt that Calvin Covell was and is the all time champion in the number of highly regarded and successful community projects he devised, organized, promoted and brought to fruition. He, I think, sets the gold standard against which all other candidates have to be measured.

I should also say that the idea of projects that improve the entire community refers to the popular estimation of a person’s actions. For example, the person who was instrumental in expanding Davis’ boundaries from 7.5 to 8.5 square miles in one stroke might or might not be viewed as a wonderful historic person, despite arguably having greatly improved Davis. This distinction can otherwise be captured with the two labels “major shapers” versus “historic persons.” Major shapers are all those Davisites who “significantly altered or elaborated the physical or social character of Davis” whether people liked those changes or not at the time or now. Historic persons are only those major shapers whose activities are highly regarded by current publically engaged Davisites. (Davis “major shapers” are discussed and listed in Davis History Today post 73, September 9, 2012. For a bibliography of discussions, Google “davis major shapers.”)

(4) Long-time Positive Public Presence Recognized.  But, we also intuitively feel there are additional people who while not up to Covell’s energy and inventiveness, were nonetheless important in setting the tone in Davis and embodying, for many years, the integrity of the public realm and higher culture. Here I would offer Hattie Weber as the exemplar. She was involved in community improvement projects, certainly, but not notably so. Instead, she ran the public library decade in and decade out. She stood for intellectual and higher cultural values in Davis and we rightly honor that.

(5) Critical Projects Or Actions Recognized. There is, in addition, a third category of action we intuitively feel can create a “historic name.” Sometimes without intending it, a person can be positioned such that what they do makes a large difference for what follows even though they had little to do with what followed. I speak, of course, of a person such as Jerome Davis. Others present at or otherwise involved in “the founding” are likewise “historic.”

These five tentative criteria are sufficient to provide an idea of what I mean. They of course require revising, refinement and extension


2. Widening From the Mostly Economic & Political, Perhaps. As can be seen in the list of 132 candidates for the title Historic Davis Name (image 2), there has been a pronounced historic tilt to people in economic and political pursuits. Although not excluded, persons in the religious, educational, culture, performing arts, sports, and community welfare realms have been under represented. Thought and perhaps action might be devoted to correcting this. (The problem here is not availability of adequate original historical records. There are plenty of those. Instead, history-writers and readers discount--or overlook--the importance of the reports.)

3. Achieving a Draft of the Criteria.  Some persons must, of course actually draft up the criteria in a form that can become official policy.  Who are they to be?  HRMC commissioners or a subset of them? A special expert and/or lay body appointed by the HRMC or the Council? Must the Council appoint such a body in order for the criteria to be official?

4. Making the Draft Criteria Official.  Related but separate, once a solid proposal is produced, who is to decide that it is public policy? Can the HRMC do this or is an action of the Council required?  

5. Identifying Candidates/Applicants for the Title Davis Historic Name.
Once decision criteria are official, there is then the question of how are candidates for historic status to be identified and their cases worked up? Place ads in newspapers calling for nominations? Require these nominations be in a specific format with specific forms of evidence? Other?

6 . Deciding A Name Is Davis Historic or Not.  Who decides which applicant candidates are or are not historic? One thought would be to have people who actually know something about Davis history participate in the decision.

That idea aside, should a single person--a Davis Historic Names Czar--make all the decisions? Popular Voting? A special committee charged only with the decision task? The HRMC?

In addition, whatever the composition of the deciding entity, a methodical rating approach might be encouraged. I am told that the group deciding the Covell and Brinley Awards quantifies application particulars and makes numerical comparisons among candidates. Inquiry into how that works might be helpful.

7. Slashing the List To Fit the Cannery. Let us assume an official and legitimate list of about 100 Davis Historic Names is somehow achieved but only about 40 of them will be used on Cannery street signs. We therefore need now to decide which half-or-so to put up and which half-or-so to discard.

When I first began to think about this slashing, an imaginary scene at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial came to mind. Specifically, it was a scene of a park ranger explaining to a group of us that, for want to space, the Memorial has one rather than two walls or wings and only about half the names of all the veterans are on that single wall (image 3).

Our group was aghast. “How can they only honor half of them?” “How did they decide which names are on the wall and which are not?”

That is the way I feel about installing only a minority of Davis Historic Names on Cannery street signs. It is a travesty to the memory of the all the people who built Davis to honor only some of them in a venue asserted to be a special display in their honor.

That aside, let us lurch forward with the task of slashing. One means is to put all the names in a hat and draw them out. Put them on street signs in the order they are drawn as far down the list as needed to name all the available streets.  

Another means is to have the entity that decides Historic Davis Names in the first place also rank order them in terms of the degree of their historic importance. Use that rank-order.

Lest there be misunderstanding, let me say clearly that I have serious misgivings about establishing such hierarchies or classes of “historic names.” I think it engenders a spirit of invidiousness that is not balanced or mitigated by some clear and important greater public good.


8. Dealing With the 28 Existing Claimed Historic Street Names. Slashing for sheer lack of space is only the first cut. The next one comes from City rules that two streets cannot have the same name (image 4). This apparently eliminates 28 names from consideration. (In image 2, the 28 are identified by the street type following the name.)

This is especially unfortunate and curious because the 28 include many of what might be claimed to be the most prominent Davis historic names. Continuing my report of our imaginary visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, I recall the park ranger also saying that not only are only half the possible names not on the wall, about half of these left off were excluded because their names were already part of other memorials. Officials did not want to waste space repeating them on this wall. That is, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is confined to the names of veterans who were not meritorious enough to get honored some place else prior to building this memorial.

9. Dealing With Developer and Public Works Veto Power. And in this same imaginary visit to the Memorial, the park ranger related a third factor that decided which names were on the wall. For clarity, officials screened out veteran names that were hard to pronounce, difficult to spell, or sounded too much like another veteran’s name.

As expressed in official City prose in Image 4, this is of course the City’s veto power. The developer retains a similar veto power.  For example, the Cannery “master developer” has related to me that the major Cannery streets will be named in terms of its “brand” and will not be historic Davis names.


Aspects 7, 8, and 9, above, then, tell us that there might be a significant gap between what we Davis residents might think of as appropriate, dignified, and honoring of our pioneer leaders and what actually happens at the Cannery.


It is time to step back and to talk about street names and street naming per se.

1. Are Historic Davis Names Good Street Names? The whizz kid gnomes over at the Davis WIki have researched and published a detailed and educational entry titled “Street Name Themes.” It provides a quick education in Davis street names and I urge everyone to Google and read it. (The table of contents is reproduced in image 5.)


That account helpfully shifts our perspective from historic Davis names to street names and street naming per se. This, indeed, is what this discussion ought mostly to be about.  

So shifted, we have to ask: What are good street names? What names are meaningful and help people orient themselves and find their ways about?

In answering these questions, I first notice that street names are commonly “themed” by categories of names familiar to ordinary people--such as the names of birds, counties, and colleges. We all know in context, for example, that a falcon is a bird, a Mono is a county, and a Harvard is a college.

Street naming convention, that is to say, draws on name familiarity--cultural consensus-- and builds street context on that shared knowledge. These foster meaning and orientation.

Such is not the case for Davis historic names. What, for example, is a Bonham, a Grieve, or a Wilber? Words such as these have no shared, culturally consensual meaning. Indeed, 40-some of them massed at the Cannery might present a random and confusing hodgepodge. Such a constellation might even work against rather support local meaning and way finding.

2. Would Historic Street Names Advance the Cause of Davis History? Let us assume 40-some Davis historic names are installed on Cannery street signs. Are there plausible reasons to believe that this would have much of a positive effect on communicating Davis history?

Notice that 28 Davis streets--many of them our most prominent streets--already bear the names of allegedly historic Davis people. Does anyone aside from a few Davis history buffs know this--or have any idea about who or what is a “Covell” or a “Chiles”?

Actually, 40-some meaningless names sprinkled through the Cannery might, conceivably, be perceived as an irksome exercise in memorizing strings of nonsense words.  

3. Are Davis Historic Names The Best Names for the Cannery? The mass use of Davis historic names as street names aside, there is the question of how do such names enhance (or just fit with) the “brand” the Cannery is promoting. One of the critiques of the Cannery is that it is merely a good 20th century subdivision, which presumably includes the classic fact that we can name the streets for anything and it does not matter (birds, colleges or whatever).

But Cannery promoters claim it is much better than that and features a range of, if not unique, at least distinctive features. In particular, it has a number of themed subareas. If this claim is true and these are serious features, should they not be signaled in the names of the streets? Should there not be an organic relation between the areas of the Cannery and the streets--names that celebrate each area and facilitate finding one’s way?

In this regard, I have been disappointed with how open to historic street naming the developer has been. This openness might seem to support the critique that the Cannery is only a superficial development in which the street names are unrelated tack-ons.  One can hope, though, for something better.

But, if one cannot hope for better and the Cannery is in fact only another sterile batch of assembly line ticky-tacky boxes, then naming the streets for an almost arbitrary assortment of Davis residents might be fitting.

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In this post I have tried to describe some of the problems that arise in an attempt to mass designate the streets of the Cannery subdivision with Davis historic names. As I said in my letter to the City Council on this matter, the problems are so numerous and intractable that it might be best not to pursue this course of action.