The Politics In Naming Public Places

Larry Price
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Wednesday - December 16, 2009
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Years ago I happened to overhear a heated argument among a handful of important people about who the yetto-be-completed steel stadium in Halawa Valley would be named after. Some wanted to name it after Gov. John A. Burns. It made sense, because it would have never been built without his support. But he was dead set against the suggestion because the facility didn’t have the respectability of, say, the UH medical school, which is now the John A. Burns Medical School.

Even more controversial was whose name should be on the UH law school. The leading contender was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and Gov. Burn’s former lieutenant governor, William Richardson. The argument was that he was still alive at the time, but the powers that be overlooked that, and the Manoa law school became the UH William Richardson School of Law.

The powers at the stadium, which lacked the respectability of a law or medical school, decided to let the public name the controversial stadium, and that’s how Aloha Stadium got its name.

But you will notice that at the entrance to Aloha Stadium there is a wonderful statue of Burns. It is evidence of the compromise with the powers-that-be.

On one hand, these were all emotional decisions involving very powerful people. Time has proved the decisions were correct and in the best interest of the state.

On the other, several other “facility namings” ended up being short-sighted and out of place, not because of the names involved, but because of the bias involved in the decision-making process that ignored tradition and institutional sustainability.

An example is Farrington Hall, named after Wallace Rider Farrington, Hawaii first delegate to the U.S. Congress. When it was time to renovate Farrington Hall, they decided to tear it down and build a new building. When the new building was finished, everyone expected it to be named Farrington Hall - wrong. It was to be named Spaulding Hall. Then they built a student services building on the spot Farrington Hall was located and it remains nameless for now.

Sometimes there is a power struggle between political factions and they cannot agree on what name to put on a building. That’s why the new building housing the UH School of Architecture still does not have a name. Other buildings had names before they were finished, like the Thomas Hamilton Library, after a popular former UH president.

The second thing that can happen is when money and politics combine, and someone can actually buy a name for a structure, so Cooke Field becomes Ching Field almost overnight. Nothing wrong with that, since most large universities have price tags on all their unnamed buildings.

I was not surprised to hear Mayor Mufi Hannemann propose renaming the 30-acre Magic Island section of Ala Moana Beach Park after President Barack Obama - not because he was born in Honolulu, but because it’s the politically smart thing. This obsequious behavior is valuable beyond belief and pays big dividends in the long run. Rest assured, you will never forget that person who nominated a facility be named after you. Of course, coalitions die off and their clout dissipates. Then you end up with the aforementioned Farrington Hall and Cooke Field on the Manoa campus. Most colleges and universities also know that the name on a building is not forever. It’s a smart part of the fundraising scheme.

As we have joked with tongue in cheek before, there are groups right now trying to figure out what to name after U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye when he steps down. Thanks to Hannemann, former Mayor Frank Fasi has his name on a building, but whose name should be on the rail system when it’s finally complete?

It’s all very political, so don’t worry about it. But it is a shame that Sen. Hiram Fong’s name was never considered for recognition because he was a Republican.

In some cases, it’s that simple.

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