Nature Notes: Department of Naming

One of the first women to have her name engraved on a stone here, was the late Cathy Lester

Naming has come a long way since the days of yore. Now it is used to immortalize individuals, mostly politicos, famous athletes, fallen war heroes, and firemen and police shot in the line of duty. It is also used to name new roads in new subdivisions before they exist and to rename existing roads, beaches, parks, libraries, bridges, museums and the like. There are so many things to name and rename it boggles the mind — so many names that there should be a department of naming.

Very few places and streets are named after women. It is only recently that women have begun to be given their rightful due. Remember that in America freed male slaves following emancipation were given the right to vote, but women here didn’t start voting until 50 years later. It should be noted, however, that when naming landmarks, females have come before pets. One of the first women to have her name engraved on a stone here, was the late Cathy Lester, a former town supervisor, who had an East Hampton nature preserve on Soak Hides and Springy Banks Roads named after her.

In the past and nowadays, too, one has to be dead before achieving that place in history, and in early America, dead for a fairly long time. That has changed. When John Kennedy was assassinated, his name began identifying buildings, streets, schools, and places within a year of his death. It’s pretty much still that way on the national level, but closer to home, names of those still living have been bestowed on monuments. The H. Lee Denison building, the Suffolk County seat in Hauppauge, was so named while H. Lee was still very much alive. Very locally, Debra Foster, a retired teacher of Springs School, former town councilwoman, and former town planning board chairwoman who can walk faster than I can run, has a couple of local parks in her name.

When naming new subdivision roads, the Nancy Goell rule is often followed. You name the road after something the subdivision helped eliminate. For example, there are no more blueberries along Blueberry Knoll Lane off Hand’s Creek Road in East Hampton’s Northwest. You’d be hard pressed to find a woodcock in the vicinity of Woodcock Lane in Springs or a pheasant around Pheasant Woods Lane, Northwest. But, yes, there are still deer in the neighborhood of Northwest’s Deer Path and lots of the invasive bittersweet vine from Asia on Bittersweet Lane in Amagansett.

In one of the most recent name changes on the South Fork, the East Hampton Town “fathers” and “mothers” renamed a street in downtown Montauk after the 1920s developer Carl Fisher. Naming and renaming and re-renaming are not only here to stay, they’re an increasing phenomenon.

Take Promised Land or Lazy Point, two of my favorite names from the past, referring to neighborhoods on Napeague. They both conjure up nice mental pictures of the past, but what does Montauk Boulevard in central Springs bring to mind? Certainly not Montauk. Then there are the venerable names derived from the Algonkian language that hopefully will never be changed. Not only Montauk, Napeague, Sagaponack, and Tuckahoe on the South Fork, but also Aquebogue, Mattituck, Peconic, and Cutchogue on the North Fork. Most of the Indians who lived in those areas are long gone, but the names salute their ancestors.

We live in the “here and now,” in a whir of coming and going, fast times, and the fear of our own mortality. There is no time for allowing a community or neighborhood to take years to evolve its own name, one that befits its character, one that evokes its past and best explains its situation and identity. And shortening existing place names can be worse than renaming them. Most of the summer crowd knows Bridgehampton as “Bridge,” Sag Harbor as “the Harbor,” and East Hampton and Southampton have become one mega-community, “the Hamptons.” When I moved to San Francisco and used the word “Frisco” to refer to my new setting during a dinner date, my father-in-law to be almost made me leave the table.

 I have to laugh. When the Wilkinson administration in East Hampton Town was purging staff, certain councilpeople were forever asking me to leave. In separate last-ditch efforts, both intimated that if I would quietly retire, the town board would name something after me. That was a very bad incentive to bring to the table. I have always loved old names, names that fed the imagination, not stifled it, while invoking a sense of history and a pleasant mental image. Kennedy Airport in Queens is not the same as Idlewild Airport, neither is the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge the same as the Triborough Bridge. The H. Lee Dennison Building is one of the ugliest buildings on Long Island and began the build-upward trend in western Suffolk. The Perry B. Duryea state building right next to it is a fitting companion. Neither were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

A rose is a rose is a rose, so there.

Larry Penny is East Hampton Town’s former director of natural resources. He  can be reached via email at