I’m still reading Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950 by Mark Mazower (and liking it more and more), and I reached a section on street names that pushed my buttons and that I want to share here. This is from the section “Naming the Mahala,” which starts on p. 227:
The old streets within the walls were tortuous, narrow, and mostly unnamed. There were no maps and navigation was difficult for strangers… Residents were classified by Ottoman officials, and identified themselves, by their neighborhood (mahala) whose nicknames made no sense to outsiders. Kaldigroç was a corruption of the Judeo-Spanish Kal de los Gregos, the Street of the Greeks; Bedaron, an abbreviation of the synagogue Beth Aron. There was the “Quarter of the Three Eggs”—named after a decorated marble slab on the façade of an old house—”At the Fire” (after an especially bad one) and “Defterdar,” because a treasurer of the province had once lived there. Other neighbourhoods were known after local places of worship and their nicknames. There was the “Red Mosque,” the “Mosque of the Clocktower” and the “Burned Monastery” district, from the destruction caused by a Venetian bombardment two centuries earlier. The Ashkenazic synagogue was known as “Russia” or “Moscow,” Poulia as Macarron, from its members’ supposed fondness for pasta; the salt-farmers’ synagogue, Shalom, was called Gamello, after the camels who carried the salt (but also local slang for a dullard or idiot)…
Places thus acquired names according to an entirely locally generated logic. Many small alleys and cul-de-sacs were nameless, or known by such helpful terms as “Rocky Place,” or “Behind the Square of the Graveyard.” Larger streets changed name several times as they wound their way past mosques and shrines…
But at the very end of the nineteenth century, this localized way of naming space was challenged by new conceptions of what place-names should do… The municipality eventually issued the first street names [i.e., official markers] in May 1898, although their usefulness for strangers was initially limited by their being written only in Turkish. A more fundamental problem was that those choosing the new names had not properly understood the logic which was supposed to lie behind them. It was as well they had only been in Turkish—for what would Europeans have made of the “Street that Leads to Miltiades’ Coffeeshop,” or the “Street of the Greengrocer Constantine”? Local journalists tried to explain to the authorities the error of their ways:
We know that in Europe streets are given names of celebrated men whose memory it is wished to honour or those of noble citizens who have rendered useful service to their country. But we do not see how the said Constantine with his plums and his bad coffee, or M. Miltiadis, pouring out his raki, can raise the prestige of the city so far as to be honoured by the municipal scribe.
In Europe, squares and wide avenues carry as an honorific title the dates of national triumphs, the names of cities where the national army covered itself in glory, or where great generals are illustrated: the Boulevard Magenta and the Avenue de la Grande Armée in Paris, the Strada Manin in Venice, Trafalgar Square in London, are monuments which speak to the hearts of patriots. Each crossroads is a lesson and History is written on the walls. And is the history of our dear country so lacking in these glorious occasions? ["Les noms de Rues," Journal de Salonique, 26 May 1898]
One conception of the past—the past which linked the city dweller’s pride in his country to that in his city—was coming to impose itself on another—the past as local memory. No longer was it thought appropriate to commemorate random fires, the Old Horsemarket, the Old Quarantine, the Pasha’s Baths or the Old Telegraph Station. Emperors, notable officials and elevated political values would be written over the plane trees, the bath-towel makers and the religious benefactors of the past who had made the city their own. These names were stamped with the authority of the new municipal bodies and conformed to European norms. Ironically, although they were more transparent than those they replaced, they proved far less durable. In the twentieth century, wars, revolutions and sudden changes of regime led names to be discarded and replaced with ever-increasing frequency. The civil servants and bureaucrats were kept busy, but the city’s inhabitants were left little if any better off than they had been before.
How I hate those modern names, the Street of the 37th of Octember, the Avenue of Marshal X, the Boulevard of Our Glorious National Uprising! If countries can’t inspire loyalty without that kind of propaganda, they don’t deserve it. Better cities should commemorate the long-gone inns, horse markets, and residents who made them what they are than try to keep up with the twists and turns of politics. Long live the Quarter of the Three Eggs!