The recent news that a soccer stadium in Madrid is to be renamed after the Chinese company that has acquired 20% of the local team’s share capital cannot but arouse some nostalgia if not social upheaval. It seems like all those names of illustrious people that used to grace our sports venues were just being swept away by large-scale business. Actually, it is growing increasingly common for Spaniards to discover that some place they used to know well has disappeared from city maps and phone guides, even if the bricks are still standing on one another. The most commented example was probably that of a classic theater in Madrid which came to bear the unpronounceable name of an ice cream maker – it could just as well have been that of an Ikea armchair. Likewise, a landmark subway station in the same city unexpectedly became homonymous with a well-known phone company – but later got back its old, simple, sunny name, which underscores the merely contractual nature of contemporary urban toponymy.
European societies have always tended to assume that streets, squares, parks and even individual houses should be dedicated to ‘important’ people, basically meaning writers, painters or kings and queens from bygone ages. Given that town mayors and councillors are often unable to come up with any such names, they sometimes opt for granting the recognition to themselves or other similarly prominent members of their political groups. Of course, the problem lies in ascertaining who is to be considered ‘important’ and on which grounds. When a country has undergone a bloody civil war and still indulges in going through it every now and then, one of the many battlegrounds for politicians is which historical figures should or should not be honored by printing their names on street signs. In fact, our ruling elites devote much of their precious time and our precious money to constantly replace and re-replace street names and memorial sculptures. Sometimes they will even pass laws in order to legitimize such practices.
However, and perhaps happily, the advent of Capitalism is making ideological disputes irrelevant, as well as sparing administrations the need to waste all public resources in them. Hey, let’s accept it – no one can claim to be more ‘important’ than those who have the cash. It wasn’t Cervantes or Newton who paved our streets and erected our opera houses – at most they just helped enlarge our brains a little so we could do the rest. I remember walking around the campus of the University of Pennsylvania and constantly coming across unknown names on the front of buildings, which I assumed corresponded to distinguished local scientists and professors. However, over time – and with some help from my indigenous pals - I became aware that the names were actually those of distinguished local millionaires who had donated a few million bucks each in order to help the development of science and education and, in so doing, become immortalized on some wall of an Ivy League school. This is only natural in a society where development is seen as a duty of individuals and not as a mere matter of taxpaying. Such a reinterpretation of academia in transactional terms was rather shocking to a boy from the Old World like me, but not nearly so as my later discovery that even many benches in Central Park, NYC are dedicated to the philanthropists that paid for their installation, earning themselves eternal recognition from citizens’ buttocks.
So let’s start saving that small change and someday we may be able to buy a square foot of immortality in some corner of the planet. And yet, how mundane this all seems.