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An Infinity of Worlds: In Conversation with Joshua Jelly-Schapiro

. 9 min read
An Infinity of Worlds: In Conversation with Joshua Jelly-Schapiro

by Lily Houston Smith

On a sunny Thursday afternoon, Washington Square Park teems with skateboarders, dog-walkers, joggers, and jazz musicians. It’s a fitting place to sit and chat with geographer and writer Joshua Jelly-Schapiro about his new book, Names of New York, published today by Pantheon. It’s an ambitious project: a journey through the place-names of this city—its streets, parks, neighborhoods, memorials. It is also a feast of fun trivia and surprising histories, in turns troubling and inspiring.

We discuss the darkness of this city’s past that is revealed in its toponymy. The park where we sit, like many places in this city, memorializes a slaveholder in its name. New York, Joshua reminds us early in the book, “was a slave port just like Charleston and New Orleans.” But we also talk about stories of hope, perseverance, and reclamation that come with renaming, or with recontextualizing inherited names. We remember the Black Lives Matter protests that surged as Names of New York was being finalized, and the powerful demand at their center: “Say their names.”

Jelly-Schapiro’s fascination with the “infinity of worlds” contained within a city is contagious, and his sharp eye for stories hiding in plain sight is striking. Our conversation is but a sampling of the treasures in store in this deeply pleasurable, illuminating little book.

Names of New York by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro (Pantheon, 2021)

LILY: Let’s start with a fun question. How much of this project was about your love of names and history, and how much was you wanting to go out and eat all the best food New York has to offer?

JOSHUA: Well, I'm a writer who was trained as a geographer, so my love for places and my love for language and literature duke it out daily for my affections. I'd say this obsession with place-names obviously brings those two things together. Thinking about language and words, and the ways in which they shape our sense of place, is a deep fascination of mine as a writer. It always has been. So doing a book about it was obviously appealing. But extra, super-duper appealing when that book means experiencing those places through one's ears or through one's mouth, with food. So, I am a lover of exploring New York and exploring its communities and lived life, and food is a big part of that, for sure.

You co-edited Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas with Rebecca Solnit. How did working on that book influence this project?

This project grew from that one, in the sense that Nonstop Metropolis is a book that’s predicated on the idea that any of us who live in the city could, and do, map it in our own way. And so one thing I've always been interested in in this city—in New York City, but this is true of any city—is this infinity of worlds and stories and maps that the city contains.

An interesting thing, though, that I found in working on Nonstop Metropolis—which involved exploring the city in all kinds of ways, connecting with people in all the boroughs and in all walks of life—are the ways in which there are these words, place-names, that we all share in a sense, but that we also have our own relationships to. So absolutely it struck me in creating Nonstop Metropolis that a book or a project that just focused on place-names and the words that make up the city would be a fascinating way into thinking about and narrating the city.

One of my favorite geographers, Yi-Fu Tuan, once said that cities are made as much of words as of stone. And I think if that's the case, then place-names—the words of streets and parks and neighborhoods—are foremost among those words.

The Purchase of Manhattan Island, by Alfred Fredericks, c. 1910.

Something that struck me while I was reading the book is just how many of this city’s place-names are rooted in violence—names taken from indigenous languages that are lost or almost lost, names that honor slaveholders. Did digging into these histories and examining the violence behind them change the way you see the city?

To chart the history of names in a place—wherever, whatever place that is—is to chart a history of power. The power to name is a profound one: the power to affix to the map—to the landscape itself—whatever names or words you want. It reaches back to the Bible, to the Garden of Eden.

But in a city like New York, to chart the history of names here is to chart, in the first instance, colonial names: the names of those European settlers and colonists from Holland and then from England. They came here and fixed their names to this place. But of course, as we know, it’s also to think about the remnants of Native American place-names here, of which there are many, reaching back to Manhattan itself. A sailor on Henry Hudson’s boat allegedly hears, or writes down in his log at least, a Lenape person referring to this bit of land we’re on as Mannahatta.

What's interesting about that particular place name, and this is something that's replicated across the city, is that it’s unclear exactly what that person said. It's unclear exactly what they implied. There are ideas about—oh, it meant “island of hills,” it meant “place where we gather wood for bows and arrows.” If you speak to some of the last speakers of that language, they’ll give you a different version. But of course, what's involved in this are these essentially colonial parties liking the idea of adopting a Native American place name, whether or not they understand it. So across the city, places like Canarsie, Rockaway, Hoboken, Hackensack—all of these are derived from the Munsee language of the Lenape people who were here at the time of the conquest.

The power to name is one that’s been absolutely tied—on this continent, especially—to forms of colonial violence. That is a truth that we'd be remiss in any spirit to try and sweep under the rug or not engage. But for me, I think the ways in which we look at names as a record of that violence is a powerful way to understand the layers of history, which is to say the layers of violence that created this place.

Another focus of this book is to think about the ways in which the opposite of that is true, especially in recent years, but reaching all the way back centuries ago. As human beings, one thing we do is try to create place. And one way that we try to create place and describe our attachments to places is by naming them. So you have a remarkable record in the city of people creating their own names for places or neighborhoods they live in—or for creating their own meanings for place-names that they've inherited.

A great example of that is Harlem in Upper Manhattan. That's a place name that comes to us from some Dutch settlers who thought that part of Manhattan reminded them of their home in the Netherlands and so stuck this name “Haarlem” to it. A few hundred years later, Harlem becomes iconic of Black freedom and pride because of the community that settles there and creates a new set of meanings for that word. So I'm fascinated by the ways in which we coin new words for where we're from, but also the ways in which we have the power to change the meaning of place-names.

You have a number of examples like that in Names of New York—of marginalized communities finding power in names and naming. Can you talk about how that’s been manifesting in the city in recent years?

Part of my prompt for writing this book is that we are in the midst of a reckoning with certain aspects of our history that we haven't wanted to address head-on as a culture in a large-scale way—namely, histories of slavery and violence and genocide. And often that confrontation, in the last several years, has meant looking at the histories we memorialize in public spaces in the form of statues and other monuments, and those that we don’t. In New York, for example, there's been a push to erect more statues and more formal memorials to women, first and foremost, in a city where there's nearly 200 statues of historical figures who are men. Up until a few years ago, we only had four of women, with some imaginary ones like Alice in Wonderland and the Statue of Liberty.

But in the realm of place names and street names, there's also a robust movement and conversation in New York, in part because of a certain set of liberal policies here about enabling communities to affix honorary street names to the blocks where they live. This has been going on for decades; there has been a real attention to adding new names that honor heroes of particular communities. Whether it’s Toussaint Louverture in Haitian Brooklyn, or on the lower east side of Manhattan, renaming Avenue C “Loisaida,” the name coined by the community’s Puerto Rican residents decades ago. So there is a real attention and energy around histories we inscribe on the city's map through its names.

A protest sign designed by Christina Krysiak, an art student at Wayne State University in Detroit

You were working on this book last summer during the George Floyd protests and—as you mention in the book—those were protests that used the power of names to inspire a massive political movement. What was it like witnessing those protests after spending so many years thinking about the power of names and naming?

I think this is true of any book where you start writing and then things happen: The world changes as you write. It was a remarkable and potent thing to be finishing this book at the very moment when the streets are filling with people literally chanting “say their names” and invoking the victims of racist policing. Obviously that's a social movement of profound importance, but to me, as a lover of names and their power, it was really striking to see the ways in which this movement operated on the invoking of the names of all these people who died: Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and everyone else. It was hugely powerful and moving to me to see this movement spark explicitly around the assertion of names as dignity and as a refusal to forget.

You wrote in your book that “the reason some new names stick and some don't can have less to do with politics than with euphony.” I’d like to end our conversation by asking you: What are some of your favorite-sounding place names? Like, the ones that really roll off the tongue.

How a name sounds, its rhythm, certainly colors its popularity and how and whether it sticks. And some names are just born of sound, or syllables, their coiners like to say. One example of this that I love: Arverne and Arverne-by-Sea, in Queens. These seaside neighborhoods were named by a woman named Florence Vernam, whose developer husband, Remington Vernam, built them up. Mrs. Vernam liked how her husband signed his checks—"R. Vernam"—and riffed on those syllables' sounds to come up with the name "Arverne."

This is also actually the best place to talk about Harlem: When the English took over New York from the Dutch, they tried to rename that part of Manhattan “Lancaster.” And I think we can all be very grateful that they didn't succeed in doing so. Harlem, as we know, has a great store of songs and poems and books, and it has power as a mecca for Black freedom and power and pride. And those syllables—those two syllables: har-lem—seem to work for that purpose.

As much as I'm deeply excited by and love the move to attach new names that celebrate new histories—and it's something we have to keep doing—it's fascinating and important also to honor the ways in which people attach new meanings to the places where they live. For example, there are so many words that began as Dutch ones that became English ones, Harlem being one example. Brooklyn is another: Dutch for “broken lands,” becomes “Brooklyn.” Brooklyn was once regarded as a label for this land of immigrant ethnics. Now it's sort of associated with the self-consciously hip. There are ways in which a word like that—and the ways that it sounds—gains a meaning bigger than itself and becomes bigger than the place that it’s from.

Lily Houston Smith co-edits the Letters section for Laid Off NYC. Get to know her better: @Lily_H_Smith

Thumbnail image: Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, by Marissa Neff, courtesy of the author