Few elements of the urban landscape are as expressive as street names.
They do more than describe the geography or commemorate heroes. Well-known monikers impart a sense of familiarity to those traveling the maze of boulevards and cul-de-sacs that make up towns.
In some cases, they also come to symbolize their surroundings, from the beach culture associated with Pacific Coast Highway to the Vietnamese shops and restaurants evoked by Bolsa Avenue. Aware of that, cities rarely rename streets, especially major thoroughfares.
But Anaheim’s Public Works Department has proposed altering the names of two well-traveled roads: A portion of West Street would become Disneyland Drive, and Freedman Way would become Disney Way. The idea is to steer tourists exiting the Santa Ana Freeway, now in the midst of a major improvement project, to Disneyland.
If the City Council approves the plan, the effect would be far more than the expense of changing address labels and stationery. Maps would have to be amended, new freeway signs would be needed and commuters would have to reprogram their mental atlases.
In Orange County, most name changes involve small streets and sometimes involve misspelled or misunderstood Spanish names. A few years ago, residents in Yorba Linda persuaded the city to rename Via Amargura, Spanish for “Way of Bitterness,” to Via Belleza, or “Way of Beauty.”
For every name change, however, many requests are rejected. Increasingly, preservationists and historical societies are mobilizing to fight such proposals, arguing that street names are important links to the past.
“These names are part of our heritage. They bring the past into the present,” said Jerry Person, a Huntington Beach historian who successfully fought an effort by developers to give the century-old Walnut Avenue a more contemporary name, Pacific View Drive.
Preservationists won another street name battle recently in Dana Point, where Marriott Hotels & Resorts sought to re-christen the road in front of an inn it had purchased from Street of the Park Lantern to Marriott Drive.
Residents pointed out that Dana Point has incorporated the word “lantern” into its street names since the 1920s. The City Council kept the original designation.
Response to the Anaheim proposal is mixed. Some civic and business leaders said the changes would improve the traffic flow around Disneyland and benefit the city’s effort to revitalize the adjacent commercial district.
But history buffs expressed concerns about renaming a portion of West Street, which designates the western boundary of Anaheim’s original 1850s Germany colony.
Descendants of Freedman Way’s namesake, Grand Hotel developer and philanthropist Leo Freedman, have also raised objections.
Some cities have established policies that encourage the use of historical names for new streets. The county even asks its historical commission to review requests involving old names.
Reverence for the past is only one reason why officials hesitate to alter the map. Name changes force businesses to print new letterheads, can create mail delivery problems and require cities to make new signs, which is a costly procedure.
Such concerns helped sink a proposal by some Santa Ana residents to rename Fairview Street after slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
“In older, established communities, it’s harder to make changes because people become accustomed to the street names and where they are,” Santa Ana Councilman Ted R. Moreno said.
Merchants in Laguna Hills took the city to court four years ago to block the conversion of a stretch of Pacific Park Drive to Oso Parkway, its original name. They were unsuccessful, even though business owners argued that the move would hurt sales.
While some unusual street designations become the topic of debate, several truly confusing monikers have gone unchallenged. One is Chapman Avenue. There’s one in Fullerton and another, entirely separate, in Orange. Both are major east-west arteries with offramps from the Orange Freeway.
Another is State College Boulevard, which was never updated even though Cal State Fullerton became a full-scale university decades ago.
“I would be annoyed if someone tried to change that one,” Fullerton preservationist Dave Zenger said. “To me, it harks back to a historical period on the campus.”