Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Timely name changes

I just read on Arthur D. Hlavaty's ever-interesting blog that the Bernard Kerik Complex, a Manhattan jail, has hastily reverted to its old name, the Manhattan Detention Complex, in the wake of Kerik's guilty plea on corruption charges.

To Manhattanites, all these official name changes are irrelevant anyway, since the institution in question is known universally as "The Tombs" -- a name far more evocative, Dickensian and, let's face it, accurate. A jailhouse has sat on that site since before the Civil War, and the design of the original structure was inspired by an ancient Egyptian mausoleum, hence the nickname. (An illustrated history of the original "Tombs" is here.)

The Tombs news does remind me, however, of one of my longstanding grievances in Alabama, where I lived for 10 years. A prominent exit from I-20/59 in Birmingham, Ala., still points the traveler toward the Richard M. Scrushy Parkway, years after the public disgrace of the former HealthSouth CEO in a $2.7 billion accounting fraud. Scrushy was controversially acquitted in that case, though 15 executives, including every finance chief who worked for Scrushy over HealthSouth's 20-year history, pleaded guilty.

This past week, Scrushy was convicted in federal court (along with the former governor) of a half-dozen corruption charges, so maybe that will prompt someone -- the Birmingham City Council, maybe? -- to change the name of the street back to what it was before, Lloyd Noland Parkway, in honor of the visionary physician who rid Birmingham of smallpox, typhoid, dysentery and malaria and virtually introduced the concept of public health to Birmingham.

My favorite political name change of recent memory came when King County, Wash. (where Seattle is located), decided to change not its name but its namesake. The county announced that it no longer was named for U.S. Vice President William Rufus de Vane King, an Alabama slaveowner, but for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. They didn't even have to change the signs. Complaints were voiced by gay activists who believe, like some historians, that King was gay ... but methinks that's far enough off topic for one post.

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