Council names the problem: Designating honors without a policy
A proposal to name part of the new Main Library after the late storyteller Brother Blue prodded the City Council into voting Monday to explore its habit — some would say compulsion — of honoring residents by naming things after them.
Usually what’s named are “squares,” known in many communities as “intersections.”
The unanimous move comes after many weeks — those since the election of Councillor Craig Kelley — in which the council votes to name squares knowing there will be one vote in opposition. And Kelley always prefaces his nay vote with reminders that his stand against the naming of squares, based on the lack of a policy, is known by his peers on the council.
The vote on a space for Brother Blue was delayed not only by the move to look at a naming policy, which was raised by Councillor Henrietta Davis, but because, as Councillor David Maher noted, it wasn’t clear the council could name something at the library, which has its own governing body.
(Davis noted after the meeting that before Kelley, she was the one to raise questions and objections to the tradition. Once she backed down from objecting because People magazine had just published an article praising the tradition and calling Cambridge, she paraphrased, the “city that celebrates its people.”)
Tonight’s vote wasn’t meant as commentary on Brother Blue, a universally beloved local character born — and graduated from Harvard — as Hugh Morgan Hill. He died Nov. 3 at 88, and there were two sets of visiting hours before burial the following Sunday.
“I know we’d never say no to Brother Blue,” Councillor Ken Reeves said. “I had occasion to attend his wake, and saw an outpouring of sympathy from people far and wide … we do need policies, but when it comes to Brother Blue, he had far more of a national and international imprimatur than people know. What a day for Cambridge. He really was a piece of the place.”
Kelley agreed that his objections to blanket approval of honorary squares was not about someone with the stature of Brother Blue, but for, as an example, a family “who has lived in Cambridge for three or four generations. Is that really enough?”
Designating the squares with signs costs about $600 each, he said, and there are between 30 and 40 such honors each year. Above and beyond the tough fiscal times, there is also the issue of clutter, with two or three “squares” possible in one spot.
He was skeptical the council would arrive at a policy.
“We will have a meeting to talk about it,” he said. “That it will become policy, time will tell. I think it’ll be difficult for us to find a policy we agree on, and it’s not like the phones are ringing off the hook with residents calling in to complain about it.”
The council also agreed to look at the elections process to allow for more transparency in the counting of votes — particularly complicated this year with a large and successful write-in campaign for Councillor Marjorie Decker. Mayor Denise Simmons asked that the city consider putting out “election results in real time, and that through the use of [public television Channel 8], an improved process will provide the public access to ongoing election results until the final count is available.” That would involve equipping the Senior Center, where election counts take place, for live broadcasts.
“I have the sense that people still don’t know months later who was elected and how,” Davis said in general agreement with the mayor’s proposal.
The theme of public housing also arose several times during the meeting, most significantly with recognition that there are plans for public housing in the city to get multimillion-dollar renovations and to get federal funding for some units that have been state funded. Issues related to the Cambridge Housing Authority — which is independent of the city and gets no city funding, City Manager Robert W. Healy stressed — will be the topic of a 5 p.m. Dec. 8 meeting in Sullivan Chambers at City Hall.