Apparently, in Washington D.C. there is no building named after Lyndon B. Johnson, the first US president from Texas. Texas legislators are now hard at work, looking for a "solid edifice" to name/rename after President Johnson.
It is common practice to name public thoroughfares, buildings, airports, parks etc. in honor of national and local dignitaries. In most countries the overwhelming majority of such figures tend to be politicians - presidents, prime ministers, mayors and the occasional revolutionary. Military heroes, local tycoons and business entrepreneurs too fare quite well in the system of street nomenclature. It is no different in the US. But other nations also honor their poets, scientists, playwrights and thinkers in prominent and public ways. Germany shows off Goethe and Max Planck all over its landscape, France does the same with Pasteur and the Curies. Russia's Tolstoy and Gorky are memorialized in its public squares. India has Tagore emblazoned on its streets and buildings. In the US however, the group that is conspicuously under represented in proportion to its contribution to society are its intellectuals. I mused along the same lines in one of my earlier posts (Heroines, Heroes & Humility) about the lack of scholars among our elected officials. Our reluctance to name major streets, airports or parks after non-political figures, reflects the same bias. ( Two famous exceptions that I am aware of: Louis Armstrong Intl. Airport in New Orleans and Will Rogers Airport in Oklahoma City). We like powerful individuals to represent our public face but not always the wise, the astute or the creative. Is that because we fear that it would somehow detract from our image of a mighty nation, if more of our streets or parks were named (not just in their city or state of birth) after Walt Whitman, Linus Pauling or Georgia O'Keeffe?
Okay, most of our presidents were quite extraordinary men and some possessed exceptional intellect. Many were also wise, astute and creative. Several are deserving of great and repeated tributes from the nation. But don't we already have a Lincoln, Madison, Washington, Jefferson Street/ Park/ Avenue or Memorial in virtually every town? Monroe, Truman, Eisenhower, and the Roosevelts are well represented too. We have even carved one whole side of a mountain in the memory of four presidents. Presidents get their own libraries and occasionally an airport ( Kennedy, Reagan, Bush Sr). In this huge country, with its miles and miles of public thoroughfares, surely we could dedicate a few more visible pieces of public property to authors, scientists or artists without diminishing the glory of our statesmen. I am not suggesting that any existing dignitary, be that a president or a long dead and forgotten mayor, be bumped off his or her current perch. But there are long stretches of roadway bearing generic names of states, cities and numbers. Some of those could be renamed in honor of deserving non-politicos.
Many university and college towns do name some of their streets after writers, scientists or artists. But that is preaching to the choir. I am hoping to see them in the middle of major cities - near downtown, airports or ballparks. And why stop at honoring just our own? History is full of names that everyone can claim. Mahatma Gandhi has streets named after him in Amsterdam, Beirut, Addis Ababa', Khartoum and Tehran. The Indian poet Tagore, the first Asian Nobel laureate, is to be found on the streets of Tel Aviv, Singapore, and Berlin. India, with its three thousand years of kings, queens, conquerors, poets and homegrown politicians, still has place on its streets for Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Lenin and Nelson Mandela. Street names are mundane items of our daily lives. But unusal and interesting names on our streets and public squares brighten up things quite a bit, in my opinion. I for one, believe that the US missed a great opportunity of thinking outside its parochial box when it did not exercise its collective imagination in naming the two Space Centers in Houston and Cape Canaveral after Galileo and Isaac Newton instead of the presidential duo, Johnson and Kennedy. The names of two giants of physics and astronomy associated with space exploration, would have been in my view, more appropriate, evocative and memorable. And how about traveling a John Steinbeck Highway, a Leo Tolstoy Tollway, an Andy Warhol Expressway, a Willa Cather Causeway or a Desmond Tutu Turnpike, to break the monotony of a long journey?