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Naming Gotham: The Villains, Rogues, and Heroes Behind New York Place Names by Rebecca Bratspies L’92

March 02, 2023

Bratspies takes readers on a place-based, intimate, historical journey on a human scale.

Each day, millions of people “take” the Major Deegan, the Hutchinson Expressway, the Outerbridge Crossing, and the Holland Tunnel. Few travelers remember that, before these names became an urban shorthand for congestion, they were actual people. But who were they?

This quirky New York City history uses the naming of the city’s roads, bridges, and civic institutions as a unique window into urban social structure and the City’s ever-changing inhabitants. The lives of Revolutionary War figures, civil rights heroes, robber barons, and Tammany Hall politicos introduce readers to the outsized roles that power politics, corruption, and the slave economy played and continue to play in New York City.

The book is full of fun facts.

For example: 

  • Peter Cooper (beard guy in upper right of cover) not only founded Cooper Union, fought against slavery, and ran for president, but also invented JELLO?
  • Artist Gertrude Whitney was not only awarded the French Legion of Honor, but she is also on the National Dairy Association’s Honor Roll.

By starting with the lives of individuals and the structures that bear their names, Naming Gotham offers an accessible entry point into the complexity of multiracial, multicultural New York City. It uses people like Major Deegan, Ann Hutchinson, Eugenius Outerbridge, and Clifford Holland to explore a bigger story about New York City racial and class politics and what the process of naming tells us about who we think we are.

Bratspies is a Professor of Law at the CUNY School of Law where she is the founding director of the CUNY Center for Urban Environmental Reform.

In conjunction with her book, Bratspies has written “What’s in a Name? Urban Infrastructure and Social Justice” for the Yale Journal on Regulation (republished by the Center for Progressive Reform) about the themes of social justice that the book raised for her. She has also published a related piece at The Metropole Bookshelf and has another forthcoming at The Nature of Cities.

Bratspies has also recorded a radio interview with WBAI about her work.

Explore more books written by alumni at the Digital Bookshelf.