Patricia Bissessar

Many of our street names are of historical significance and form part of our cultural identity and heri­tage. So the controversial question remains, are we erasing a reminder of our historical past by renaming the streets in Trinidad and Tobago?

Local activists say they want to break free from street names associated with our colonial heri­tage. There are others in society who argue that street names should not be changed since they serve as important reference to our history.

This group postulates that even if there are some negative connotations attached to the names of some of our streets in Trinidad and Tobago, there are more important issues happening in our country that deserve priority. These are all important views expressed by our citizens. However, the fact remains that we cannot erase history to create new identities.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I have no objection to honouring the legacy of our local heroes and national icons in society, but instead of renaming existing roads that are of historical signi­ficance in the name of cultural relevance, there are other meaningful ways to acknowledge local heroes—by naming a new building, the new wing of a hospital, a scholarship fund, a bursary after them.

Commemorative street name signs added to a street name address are yet another way to honour our national icons and heroes. All of these are probably far more useful and meaningful than renaming a road after someone.

As leaders in society, we also have to consider carefully the extent to which renaming of streets produces real cultural change, where we can see a different kind of society that’s more inclusive and responsive to the realities of present day.

We have to be careful of the kind of subliminal messages we are sending to the youths of ­today of just who are considered our local heroes.

Is it only our local cultural artistes or sporting heroes, or are there specific established guidelines and criteria used to determine whether the individual selected to have a street ­renamed in his honour has provided “extraordinary public service or some exemplary contribution” to the public, and be associated with the community where the street is located?

Another issue we need to consider carefully is gender bias. Very few streets are being renamed after women. Besides the renaming of Queen Street after Janelle “Penny” Commissiong, have any other streets in our country been renamed after a woman who has made exemplary contribution to our society recently?

There must be a balance.

Have we also given serious consideration to the hassles involved in renaming a street? It might appear to be uncomplicated, but it’s not as easy as it seems. Utility bills, homeowner’s insurance, our driver’s license, ID cards and postal addresses are but a few things that will all have to be changed.

Furthermore, renaming requires the allocation of resources for the production of new signage, plus the labour costs of installing it.

There will always be arguments for and against the renaming of streets, but whatever the rationale for renaming streets in any country, it is imperative that we as a people adhere to best practices if our intent is to shape and support a local identity.

With the increasing focus on preservation of historic building and street names, it is worth adopting a more formal, structured approach, beginning with a review of all policies, including one on equality and diversity when dealing with the issue of renaming existing street names or promenades.

Having a clearly defined decision-making process for addressing questions of renaming streets and municipal parks is critical to the process since improvised procedures and lack of clear guidelines are likely to provoke further controversy in the future. For this reason, it is important to be wary of impulsive reactions to a situation.

—The author is curator of the Angelo Bissessarsingh Virtual Museum of Trinidad and Tobago

—Patricia Bissessar

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