Start with your own name.

Maybe it carries the weight of some family expectation. We’re named after our grandmother who persevered despite odds that make our current travails seem trivial. You might be a junior, expected to live up to the standards your father set. The Dylans and Marleys among us give baby boomers a smile of recognition. As often as not, our names are obscure references. I’m named either for the original Lone Ranger or my dad’s high school buddy, depending upon whom I ask.

Important places are often named for mere men (and, as we will see locally, they were almost always named for men). These monikers weren’t always bestowed with love. They sometimes were meant to connote power — power over our surroundings or others. Sometimes they convey a subtle message that is lost on the oblivious but perfectly obvious to others.

Take anything named for Christopher Columbus, for example.

Today, in this newspaper and in the On the Coastside magazine that is included for subscribers, we take a look at why some local landmarks carry the names they do. If you’ve ever wondered why San Gregorio is San Gregorio or who Hatch Elementary School is named for, this edition is meant for you.

It all started with a query from El Granada resident Pamm Higgins. She has been closely following work to turn the Burnham Strip into something other than a largely unsightly dirt parking lot and she wondered why folks seem to just assume it would continue to carry the name of a Midwestern architect with few ties to the Coastside beyond his professional work on the Midcoast.

“We’ve already got these markers for Daniel Burnham,” she told us.

Higgins’ simple question comes in the midst of a national reckoning. Place names and political symbols are no longer accepted as immutable. Dozens of Southern towns have been dismantling that statue of the old rebel general (often somberly facing north from the courthouse steps as if in perpetual battle for the Lost Cause). University buildings, municipal bridges, local streets — they are all suddenly subject to a term of art that could also use a better name: geographical renaming.

We did not find prominent locations named for rapists or slaveowners. We did find plenty of ambiguity, though.

“There is not a lot, if anything, to be ashamed of,” Half Moon Bay History Association founder Dave Cresson told us.

Is that comforting? It likely depends on your point of view.

Clay Lambert is editorial director of the Half Moon Bay Review.

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