The best way to memorialize beloved New Yorkers? Name a city street after them

S. Jhoanna Robledo

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As the city mourns the loss of quintessential New Yorker Bill Cunningham, the photographer who captured NYC's ever-changing fashion landscape in the New York Times, fans are petitioning Mayor Bill de Blasio and the city to rename a spot in Midtown—57th Street and Fifth Avenue, specifically—"Bill Cunningham's Corner." (Gothamist reports that art dealer Nicholas Nicholson is behind the petition.)

If the petition is successful, Cunningham's corner will join an illustrious collection of blocks and thoroughfares memorializing the city's beloved. According to Essence Magazine, West 33rd Street will be temporarily named "Muhammad Ali Way" to honor the iconic fighter. Last February, the City Council approved the re-christening of West 103rd Street and Broadway as "Norman Rockwell Place," which came to be after students at the Edward A. Reynolds High School a block away campaigned for the change. Per DNAInfo, students there had discovered Rockwell's stint on the block while on a field trip to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. (The block west has already been designated "Humphrey Bogart Place.") And back in 2007, a stretch of 53rd Street was christened "Jerry Orbach Way" after the beloved actor.

Most of the people who inspire a renaming aren't famous, though: A 2009 City Council list of streets up for new names shows that for every Sugar Ray Robinson (a stretch of Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard in Harlem was suggested to carry the great boxer's moniker—see the unveiling of his street sign in the video below) there are handfuls of locals, like a Queens man who died trying to help a neighbor who was being robbed, set to be memorialized on the city's thoroughfares.

Interested in honoring a New Yorker with a street renaming? It's a somewhat circuituous route: A video produced by the city walks through the steps.

• First, the person that petitioners choose to be honored be deceased, and must have made "a significant contribution" to the neighborhood.

• Moreover, 75 percent of locals must sign the petition, though it's not clear how the city geographically defines who the locals are for that given thoroughfare (Community Board 2 in Brooklyn asks that "the number of signatories proportionate to the length/section of the street proposed to be co-named." Though it's unclear if CB2's position is universal, it also requests that the person to be honored to be deceased for at least three years, as "this period provides all parties with the perspective provided only by time"). 

• The petition is then submitted to the local Community Board for approval; if it passes muster, it's handed over to the parks committee of the City Council, after which the Council has to vote on it. (Bills are up for voting two to four times a year, per CB2.)

• The mayor is the final key to the administrative side of the equation, approving or vetoing the decision.

For more on getting a street renamed in your neighborhood, CUNY's Journalism School offers an illustrated how-to guide here.


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