Yes we can: Schools, streets renamed for Barack Obama

Good morning, Barack Obama Elementary School!" That is what children attending the former Ludlum Elementary in Hempstead, New York have been hearing ever since the local school district board voted unanimously to change the name to honor the United States’ first black president.
Barack Obama took office barely 10 days ago, but already schools and streets are being renamed. In the Hempstead case they didn’t even wait until Inauguration Day, re-christening the school back in November — the first in the nation to do so.

For the students, it’s music to their ears, gushed school principal Jean Bligen.

They "want to keep this interest, this high belief that we can really make a difference, that we can change our community, that we can change our nation, that we can make the world a better place," Bligen said.

Experts say this baptizing phenomenon is unique to an incoming American leader riding a wave of optimism at the beginning of his presidency.

"This is highly unusual," said Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University professor of popular culture.

"Usually this thing doesn’t take place until the president is out of office and often until the president has actually died."

But the "hope for some kind of utopia" during the Democratic Obama administration after eight years of Republican president George W. Bush has proven too powerful for some to wait, Thompson and others said.

Many American communities have rules forbidding the naming of streets or monuments after the living, explains Stuart Mack, director of Rutgers University’s Center for Government Services.

Yes we can: Schools, streets renamed for Barack Obama

The rush to re-christen stems more from a communal wish to honor an historic victory as opposed to recognizing a leader’s set of accomplishments, he said.

Does Mack expect more re-namings early in the administration? "Oh yes, there’ll be more, that wouldn’t surprise me."

And there are plenty more, already completed or in the works.

In Opa-Locka, a majority-black Miami, Florida suburb of 25,000 people, street signs already reflect a Barack Obama Avenue. The name will be inaugurated on Presidents Day, February 16.

"We are proud of the accomplishment of the 44th president and we want to leave a legacy for the next generation to embrace, and to make sure that we embrace diversity," local commissioner Dorothy Johnson, who proposed the measure, told AFP.

St. Louis, Missouri has also named a street after the president, and in Hollywood, Florida residents Thomas and Theresa Smith embarked on a crusade to have a thoroughfare renamed Barack Obama Boulevard.

"We want to leave something behind that our children can see as a marker, that an African-American can be president … to show the kids that with education you can achieve anything," said Thomas Smith, 55, after his wife canvassed Hollywood seeking the 10,000 signatures required for a street name change.

They hope to obtain the signatures by summer.

In Hempstead, where the elementary school’s new sign will be unveiled Wednesday, the name change was a result of dedicated children who "embraced the political forum," Bligen said.

"They began working on this particular project after the mock debate that we had organized" between Obama and rival John McCain, she said. "It was phenomenal."

But while young students spurring community change is impressive, Syracuse’s Thompson eyes a worrying trend.

"The idea of naming a school after a political leader still in office should always make us nervous," he said.

"It implies the … endorsement of that political leader" in an institution that is "presumably a place where children are educated and learn to think for themselves."

Yet Thompson concedes that Obama’s election was a "singular" event in American history that yielded a "deliciously optimistic period" in the country.

Rare are the figures who live to see their names adorn public institutions.

President George H.W. Bush has an airport named after him in Texas, and Washington’s National Airport was renamed for president Ronald Reagan on his 87th birthday.

Only two poets, Carl Sandburg and Gwendolyn Brooks, were entitled to schools in their names while still alive, and the US presidents whose names most commonly adorn street signs are Kennedy, Roosevelt and Washington, who died long before most of the honors were bestowed.

Last year a measure in liberal-leaning San Francisco was put forward to rename a waste treatment facility as the George W. Bush Sewage Plant, but the measure was rejected.


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