Such is often the goal of campaigns for commemorative namings of public spaces. Yet however benign or well-intentioned, these commemorations are often contentious — as fought and fraught and fretted as history itself. Anthropologist Maoz Azaryahu, specifically concerned with memorialization of political figures, has written of “the power of commemorative street names.” A 1995 study (pdf) by Azaryahu held that the power of urban-grid tributes “stems from their ability to implicate the national narrative of the past … in numerous narratives of the city.”
With the names of our avenues, plazas and towns, we laud our founders, generals, diplomats, philanthropists, activists and artists. Columbus is regarded, for better and worse, as our founding pioneer. Biggie Smalls isn’t a national hero, perhaps, but in local lore, he’s undoubtedly one of Brooklyn’s finest. In fact, in some corners of the borough — and in some corners of America — “the only Christopher we acknowledge is Wallace.” A kid who, indeed, “grew up a screw-up.” A man who, indeed, escaped the hustler’s dilemma and, for a while, lived to tell.
For the uninitiated members of Brooklyn Community Board No. 2, no Wikipedia entry will, or could, make account of the inspirational weight of Biggie’s music to his enduring fans and neighbors. Just as no surfeit of MLK Boulevards will, by itself, vanguard the legacy and strides of the civil rights movement. But as a generation still defining itself, we can plant our respects in concrete and point to the signs. Teach the music as history, history as pride, pride as inspiration.
I spoke with the petitioner leading the campaign for Christopher Wallace Way, LeRoy McCarthy, with whom Biggie’s art and legacy clearly resonates a great deal. And according to McCarthy, he’s hardly the only person to pay his respects. “The thousands of handwritten supporters in the neighborhood, plus over 3,000 online supporters, appreciate how BIG MC’ed and represented BK to the fullest,” he said. “A Christopher Wallace Way would show that a son or daughter of Brooklyn is capable of great accomplishments, even if they come from modest beginnings.”
That’s a role model if there ever was one. Ready to Die is hardly a sanitized account of a human life, but then, if Christopher Wallace hadn’t sold dope, and hadn’t prevailed over that life of crime and regrets, what would the Notorious B.I.G. mean to us, really? That an artist was snatched too soon, too violently from these streets — snatched from grace and creative heights — is all the more reason to stake Biggie’s legacy, the good and the bad, to one immortal corner of a borough that he repped, indeed, to the fullest, and to the very end.
The American narrative is laced with adversity of all sorts. On our most neglected boulevards, adversity does often read like a rap sheet. Fury and funk: what Biggie spit best. Of course there’s shame in the man’s past — that’s the crux of his importance. It’s precisely what we cherish of Biggie’s music. It’s why Big Poppa sang the blues.
Justin Charity is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y.