I’ve probably known this for a long time, but just recently have articulated it clearly: Places that have significance have names. Most of the place names we use today were given in the distant or recent past. I live on Tower St. (that’s the name of the developer of the area, given some 110 years ago), in the Spring Hill neighborhood (we also have Winter Hill) of Somerville (a made-up name after the city separated from neighboring Charlestown in 1842), Massachusetts (from the name of the native settlers, dating back to the 1600s) in the United States of America (first used in print in 1776). Those are names of places other people thought were important. Of course, now that I live within them, I find these places important, too.
But even more important to me are the places in the local geography that my friends and family have named. When I was a child, the neighborhood kids carefully named some “points of interest” (POI) in a neighbor’s huge, meticulously manicured garden. I knew that the owners, the Cronin family, didn’t want us playing there, but we could not stay away. I can only remember one POI name 35 years later: “Under the spreading chestnut tree.” It was, in fact, the location of a chestnut tree. (We got that indirectly from Longfellow via the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” cartoon show, I believe.)
As I grew older I spent less time in that garden and more at “the wall.” The stone wall marked the entrance to a private “green” that formed a commons for the four houses, including the one with the garden, diagonally across from my house. My then (and now) best friend spent hours sitting on the wall making sense of parents, life and the world. Too many distracted, or otherwise impaired, drivers crashed their cars into the wall; it was always eventually repaired. The wall is both a location and a state of mind. Melissa and I, now pushing 50, joke that we are still sitting on that wall.
I still run on many of the same roads I did as a high school cross country team member. The names of landmarks along the six-mile-long running route we travelled in high school included the “flat field,” “the hill” and “the rotary.” Back then, when six miles was a significant distance to me, those waypoints were crucial. Remember that back then we had no GPS to track our progress, just watches. Today, I barely give those locations any notice, mostly because these days six miles is barely a run at all!
When I bought my house with a friend in 1995 we quickly named two important locations on the property. The side yard, a dense jungle of Japanese knotweed, was deemed and is still known as “Area 51.” The extra storage room on the third floor that at one time was a nanny’s bedroom became and remains, “the servant’s quarters.”
What prompted my realization that a place must have significance to have a homemade name? The Fembots. That name requires some explanation, too. Just about a year ago a group of women in my running club began meeting at 6:30 a.m. to run six miles. We did not select the name; it was borrowed from a comment a male runner made describing a weekend-long run on which he was the only guy. While we have invited men to join the Fembot runs, I understand only one has done so.
A boardwalk along “the Florentien” or “the Greenway” Photo by and used courtesy of Jessica Mink, Masspaths.net
When the Fembot runs began, we had a classic route: “the squares.” It begins at Davis Square, heads to Inman, Central and Harvard Squares, passes Porter Square and returns to Davis. We later added “the river,” which is not a great name since most of the run is getting to, then returning from, the Charles River. We probably run less than a mile on the actual river. There’s “Fresh Pond,” which unlike the other water body run, includes a full two and a half miles at the water’s edge. The latest addition to our route list is “the Florentien,” (See photo above) named after the woman who introduced it. Last week, in a cold, dark fog I joined the ladies on that route for the first time. After a few miles, I realized this was not “the Florentien” but “the Greenway.” I’d run it many Wednesday nights with the Arlington Runners. That group uses that “more official” name for the new addition to our local Minute Man Bikeway. It’s officially called the Alewife Brook Greenway and was named by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation.
The names we choose for the places of importance in our lives provide valuable and useful shorthand for complex routes and simple points of interest. Those names, however, do not provide the deep context of these places, the why, when, how, and particularly, the who of those special points, lines and areas on the earth.