KIRBY: Central thinking on an old street name

Progress is not an illusion, it happens, but it is slow and invariably disappointing.

 

— George Orwell

 

Augusta’s street and road names offer both a sometimes-shifting history lesson and, I suspect, an insight into human behavior.

Take Central Avenue, the east-west street on the backside of The Hill that stretches 2.7 miles from Paine College to the waterworks on Highland. At least twice, according to the archives of The Augusta Chronicle, city council members have attempted to rename it.

A century ago, they tried to make it McKinley Avenue, an honor for the former U.S. president who visited our town in 1898. It didn’t stick. McKinley had no local connection and attracted little loyalty. Central stayed Central.

Then in the early 1930s, they tried again when the city council voted to change Central to Oglethorpe Avenue.

Gen. James Oglethorpe was, after all, the city (and state) founder, and plans looming for Augusta’s big bicentennial celebration in 1935 had him on many minds.

The Chronicle editorially championed the change.

So, why then, is Central still Central?

Shelia Wilson asked me this last week, even sending along clippings from old Chronicle stories about the name change 80 years ago.

The short answer is: They tried.

Through the 1930s, 1940s and into the early 1950s, references in the newspaper to Oglethorpe Avenue often included the additional (Central Avenue) in parenthesis beside it.

Here’s what I think happened. The newspaper valued itself as the paper of record, and as such felt obligated to use the official name – Oglethorpe. But newspaper editors are practical sorts and realize their true value is to inform. So they would add “(Central Avenue)” to their accounts.

In effect, they’re saying: “The City Council calls this street Oglethorpe Avenue and that’s its official name, but everybody calls it Central Avenue and that’s the street we’re talking about.”

Sometime in the 1950s, they gave up. Everybody called it Central, so the newspaper would, too. Oglethorpe went back to being a historical figure. Why?

I suggest human nature.

Many say we resist change. In fact, they say, we hate it. But I’m not so sure we hate change so much as we value familiarity.

Each day is full of changes, after all, and we deal with them. Familiarity helps us out. It gives us precedents. It gives us confidence. We know what worked before and (more importantly) what didn’t.

Familiarity is a shortcut, whether you’re navigating life or trying to get from downtown to the Mall while avoiding the narrow lanes of Walton Way or Wrightsboro Road.

It is central thinking, and through much of the 1900s, Augustans followed this path instead of their politicians.

 

Reach Bill Kirby at bill.kirby@augustachronicle.com.

 

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