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Shawn Vestal: Surely Spokane needs a better name for new bridge

Shawn Vestal writes that the proposed names of the new bridge being built in the University District lack creativity and verve. Spokane deserves better for a bridge that will be an important landmark east of downtown. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Shawn Vestal writes that the proposed names of the new bridge being built in the University District lack creativity and verve. Spokane deserves better for a bridge that will be an important landmark east of downtown. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Wow, does that bridge needs a better name.

A real name. A Spokane name.

As it takes shape on the east end of town, the new bike and pedestrian span connecting East Sprague to the University District promises to be an exciting, attractive and practical addition to the city. It really is going to change that end of town profoundly when it opens in the fall.

It’s too bad that almost every option put forth for a name thus far is so lifeless and generic.

With the exception of a proposal to use the Salish for “Spokane Way,” the naming options proposed by a Plan Commission subpanel are dispiriting illustrations of how a committee can smother creativity with consensus, stripping away personality, individuality and local color so thoroughly that everyone can finally agree not to care about it at all.

So, for your consideration: University District Gateway Bridge. The U Crossing. The U District Nexus. People’s Unity Bridge.

Those are names for Anywheresville, not Spokane. You could attach them to a project in Denver or Athol or Des Moines or Miami, and they would serve just as well as they would serve here, which is not well at all.

As the proposed finalists for the bridge name start to work their way through the guts of the bureaucratic snake – stopping for approvals at the Plan Commission and then the City Council – someone must get out a red pen, cross out those dreadful proposals, and start again.

A five-member subcommittee picked the name options from more than 400 nominations submitted by the community.

A city presentation said, “The subcommittee did not come to consensus on any individual or entity name and agreed that the community would be best served by a bridge name that expressed the aspirations of the community rather than any particular individual or event and was tied to the district in which it will be located.”

Which seems like the opposite of what would best serve the community, if you’re trying to serve the community a name that is meaningful and memorable.

What these four names lack is names – language representing the people who have made Spokane what it is, language reflecting the features and creatures that define the region, language that makes Spokane not Denver, not Athol, not Des Moines.

Harold Balazs. Chief Garry. Tom Foley. Margaret Hurley. Jim Chase.

What the proposed bridge names lack is community personality – any hint of the features of regional particularity that distinguish this place from any other.

Ponderosa. Scablands. Basalt. Waterfalls. Potholes.

What they lack, these names, is any sense of Spokane history – stuff that’s well-known as well as stuff that’s worth a second look.

Qualchan, the Yakama chief hung by George Wright (whose name lives on in our infrastructure). Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the labor leader and communist who chained herself to a lamppost in Spokane during a free-speech battle in 1909 (whose nomination would be fun simply for the response it would generate at the City Council.) Otto Zehm, the man whose death provoked a widespread re-examination of our criminal justice system.

None of those names – or any of the many, many other people or places or phrases that help make up the city and its history – are perfect, consensus choices to hang on the bridge. Some are already overused, some are obscure, some are silly. But all could be effortlessly turned into a much better, more vivid and memorable name than, say, The U Crossing.

Heck, “The Spokane Bridge” might be more vivid and memorable.

Of the names put forth by the committee, the Salish proposal is the notable exception. Using Salish language would, in fact, have the particularizing effect you want in a good name – it sure wouldn’t work in Miami.

As now proposed, it’s a tricky bit of pronunciation for those of us whose Salish is not so good: “sp̓q̓n̓íʔ Way” or “sp̓q̓n̓íʔ šušw̓éł,” which is said to translate as “Spokane Way.”

Maybe that’s good – or maybe there are other ways to more accessibly and powerfully honor the region’s indigenous history. But that option, with its rich, unique connections to the people who first lived on this land, is better than the rest of the bloodless, bureaucratic sleeping pills the committee prescribed.

Part of the problem may reside in the city charter itself: It calls upon the Plan Commission to seek consensus in choosing names.

But personality, individuality, memorability, relevance and verve are all subjective qualities, resistant to consensus. Not everyone will agree on them. And when you seek to produce a consensus, what results is almost always a shrug – something everyone can agree to neither hate nor love.

The bridge needs a better name, and the city can still give it a better name. This is not an argument in favor of any particular option – lots of the local figures nominated by citizens would be worthy, and virtually all of them would create a more interesting name for that bridge than those proposed so far.

A true consensus favorite is probably impossible.

But a name that’s nobody’s favorite is a bad name.