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Naming disaster: When home becomes shorthand for heartbreak
NEW YORK (AP) — As the neighborhood where she grew up became national news, as the synagogue where her bat mitzvah took place 37 years ago became the font of a thousand unwelcome tears, Sarah Bloom watched TV — and listened.
What she heard as she sat in her Florida home last weekend made her very sad: news anchors discussing what “Squirrel Hill” means to the national political debate. Talking heads analyzing what implications “Pittsburgh” will have on anti-Semitic activity in the United States. The names of her hometown and beloved neighborhood, suddenly a national shorthand for bloodshed and heartbreak.
“If you hurt Pittsburgh, you hurt me. If you hurt Squirrel Hill, you kill me,” said a still disbelieving Bloom, 49, who lives a few miles from the site of the Parkland shooting eight months ago. “It doesn’t fit — Orlando, Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, Pittsburgh. Not my city. Take that out of there.”
Shanksville and Newtown. Waco and Charlottesville and Aurora. Kent State and Columbine and Lockerbie and Oklahoma City. Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima. And now: Pittsburgh and Squirrel Hill.
When the name of the place you hold dear suddenly becomes synonymous with tragedy, the emotional impact can be searing and the aftereffects can linger for months, years, even generations.
“Charlottesville is now known for the tiki-torch carriers,” says Waki Wynn, 47, a private-school athletic director in the Virginia town where a “Unite the Right” march last year drew white supremacists and led to violence. The events etched the name of his community indelibly onto the national psyche.
Unsurprisingly, there’s a term for this: metonymy, or using a word as a stand-in for what it represents. We do it a lot in America, and to some extent it’s natural. A busy society with complicated ideas to express needs shorthand sometimes.
Thus we say we have problems with “Washington” (the American government). When baseball players talk of making it to Cooperstown, they’re talking not just about the community but the larger notion of baseball immortality. And when astronauts out in space reach out to “Houston,” it’s not the city where Mission Control is located but the institution where problems can be solved.
“It’s a way of encapsulating a whole series of ideas that are complex, that we don’t have to explain,” says linguist Alan Juffs, who heads the English Language Institute at the University of Pittsburgh.
But it is tragedy that seems to repurpose place names into monikers for traumatic events most freely, and our modern, quick-draw media society has only accelerated this.
“Squirrel Hill has become one point on a long continuum of increasingly common moments like this,” says Robert Hayashi, an associate professor of American studies at Amherst College who studies how stories about places shape local identity.
“Those place names become a kind of simplistic kind of label for this kind of event that doesn’t allow us to delve into the history and context behind it,” says Hayashi, a Pittsburgh native. “People can talk about their community, but it gets overwritten by this larger narrative.”
Bigger towns where bad things happen don’t suffer this syndrome the same way because their identity, to the rest of the country and world, is much more multifaceted.
Say “New York” today and no one will think of 9/11 as they do with Shanksville, the crash site of United Flight 93. And “Las Vegas” doesn’t only mean “mass shooting” a year after the worst one by a single assailant in the country’s history took place there. Same with Orlando, which still means “Disney” more than it does “nightclub massacre.”
Even “Pittsburgh” is a big enough, familiar enough place that it will likely regain its status as a city, rather than an event, in relatively short order.
But with smaller towns and schools — or, in the uniquely named Squirrel Hill’s case, a distinct part of a larger town — it is harder to shake the reputation.
Kent State and Columbine, both names of schools, remain stand-ins for larger social issues. The communities of Auschwitz and Dachau will never shed global recognition for what happened there during World War II, though Auschwitz’s reversion to its original Polish name, Oswiecim, was a step in that direction. Same story for the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; in the West, at least, they remain metaphors for atomic devastation.
Sometimes the name of an entire nation is the traumatic event. In Hanoi in 2015, a senior Vietnamese journalist leaned over a table toward a visiting American speaker. “I look forward,” he said, “to the day when you hear the word ‘Vietnam’ and you think of a country, not a war.”
How do communities move on? Time helps, but not always.
Pearl Harbor will still mean a day of infamy a century from now. The upstate New York neighborhood of Love Canal, virtually wiped out today, will forever be synonymous with toxic waste. And a generation after the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 rained bodies over Lockerbie, Scotland, townspeople are still trying to shake the reputation.
“Lockerbie is known for one night, but people have been here for 6,000 years,” Joanne Dalgleish, a resident there, said a few years ago.
Shannon Berg worked in the Detroit mayor’s office as the city tried to rebrand its notorious, arson-saturated “Devil’s Night,” the night before Halloween, into an effort called “Angel’s Night.” Its strategy: Not merely moving away from the unpleasant storyline but replacing it.
Each year, the city planned for months to stem the tide of arsons, deployed volunteer patrols and held events, art competitions and block parties.
The problem obviously was only one of many that plagued Detroit, but in this case the solution worked. This past week, after many successful years, Detroit abandoned “Angel’s Night” in favor of its new, if slightly precious, replacement: “Halloween in the D.”
“It was a community redefining a moment for itself. And it took a long time, and it took a lot of political and civic participation,” says Berg, who now runs a Portland, Oregon, communications firm that deals with crisis response. “But Detroit wasn’t known for Halloween arson any longer.”
She adds: “I think it is possible, and for me it almost feels like that’s redemption for a community.”
Wynn, who used to run an African-American newspaper in Charlottesville and now also works as a real-estate agent there, gets a different reaction now when he’s traveling and he utters the one word that tells people where he’s from.
“They’ll say, ’Oh, my God. Charlottesville. Are you OK?” he says.
“I don’t think it will ever go away, because race is such an intertwined component of the American fabric,” Wynn says. Charlottesville, he says, is not perfect when it comes to race — but it’s a good place to live. “So when they respond that way, it gives me a chance to say how wonderful Charlottesville is. It represents an opportunity to talk to people about this place and how great this city is — and how I have no intention of leaving.”
Ted Anthony, director of digital innovation for The Associated Press, writes frequently about American culture. Follow him on Twitter at @anthonyted