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A street by any other name: Group tackles monikers as art

When it comes to renaming Cambridge streets, members of the Institute for Infinitely Small Things would have to admit that, compared with the late Mayor Alfred E. Vellucci, they're pygmies.

A political legend many times over, Vellucci -- who loved to torment Harvard, especially when there was political gain to be had -- once threatened to rename the world-famous intersection outside its gates Christopher Columbus Square. ``What the hell," he fumed. ``That guy Harvard never did anything for Cambridge except give the city six lousy books on Protestant theology."

When he heard a rumor in 1981 that the school was planning to downplay the name of the Kennedy School of Government, Vellucci declared war. ``I'm going to slap Harvard around until it hurts them," he said. Soon, the City Council, at his urging, had renamed the thoroughfare at the school's front door John F. Kennedy Street -- ``JFK Street" to the locals. And the Kennedy School, for whatever reason, remained just that.

A year after Vellucci's 2002 passing stilled a giant voice on the inherent power of given names, the small grass-roots institute arose from the same Cambridge soil to tackle, if somewhat more cerebrally, some of the same touchy issues. A loose collective of young professionals and filmmakers, college instructors, and graduate students in their 20s and 30s, the group invited people to suggest alternate names for streets and other locations in Vellucci's former republic.

``A street name is an infinitely small thing in social and political terms," said Catherine D'Ignazio, a group member who has written on new ways of looking at geography. ``Our goal is to get people to think about the factors behind the names -- who has the power to name a street; why is it the way it is now?"

``Do you have these names now and have to preserve them?" asked Savic Rasovic. His roots have sensitized him to the issue: An immigrant from what is now Montenegro -- once part of the former Yugoslavia -- Rasovic grew up in a city called Titograd -- which, a dozen years ago, reverted to its former name of Podgorica.

Since the spring, the group has been setting up at community events and soliciting names. Having borrowed the term ``infinitely small things" from mathematics, they take their title one highly visible step further at such events, all wearing white laboratory coats.

``It's how we get into character as performance researchers," said Jim Manning. ``And it gets people to ask questions," added D'Ignazio.

``The important thing," said Rasovic, ``is that people don't have to guess what we're doing. We tell them, and talk with them about what it means."

Among previous projects were a video informing people of ``57 Things to Do for Free in Harvard Square," and another titled ``Corporate Commands," in which members of the group responded to imperative commercial messages on billboards and in store windows by acting them out within sight of the messages.

A sign reading ``Rollover" in the window of the Cingular cellphone store in Central Square early last year, for example, prompted members to gather outside, lie down on the sidewalk, and, literally, roll over -- in the snow.

That project prompted a request from the Cambridge Arts Council that the group do something citywide. And, said Rasovic, ``we wanted to do something that embedded us in Cambridge."

In the renaming project to date, close to 200 names have been offered, each accompanied by a brief reason for renaming.

Some of the suggestions have been on the whimsical side -- like changing Ware Street to ``Where Street."

There are some that attempt to clarify geographic confusion -- like changing the Cambridge end of Day Street that crosses the Cambridge-Somerville line to ``Night Street."

Many come from people knowledgable about the city's history, such as changing Cherry Street to ``Fuller Street" because the 19th-century Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller grew up there.

And several would replace present-day generic names to reflect the street's history, as renaming Fairmont Avenue ``Creek Street," because a creek flowing into what is now Hoyt Field ran through that Cambridgeport neighborhood.

One renamer even suggested restoring the name of Boylston Street -- which had previously been renamed from ``Wood Street" to honor Harvard benefactor Ward Nicholas Boylston.

And that's the problem with renaming streets in Cambridge, as Charles M. Sullivan, executive director of the Cambridge Historical Commission, told institute members: There's just too much history involved.

Reflecting the hold that history has on Cantabrigians, D'Ignazio noted that at events where the group has set up its booth, ``We've found a lot of resistance to renaming streets. We have a wonderful history in Cambridge, but we've had a lot of conversations assuaging people's feelings."

``It's not that we're taking an eraser to these names," said Rasovic.

``What we're doing," added D'Ignazio, ``is promoting a whole discussion."

But even if none of the renaming suggestions ever make it past official review -- Historical Commission, Police and Fire departments, City Council -- by next year, the group hopes to be able to publish a map of what they will call ``The City Formerly Known as Cambridge" -- and formerly known, in the 17th century, as Newtowne.