New York, New York

Credit: Gene Han

Get Hyphenated

Branding a Brooklyn subway station is greater than a typographic concern. Weaving a brief history of the dash in America, the Czech Republic, and John Wayne’s poetry.

Historically speaking, it is strange to want one’s name on a subway sign.

The city of Boston once tried to auction off the naming rights to four of its historic T stations and found no bidders. New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority had to spend five years hawking naming rights to its subway stops before they found success, which came last summer when the British bank Barclays purchased the right to have its name appended to the Atlantic Avenue – Pacific Street signs. The bank has agreed to pay $200,000 annually to the M.T.A. for the next 20 years—beginning in 2012 upon the completion of the Barclays Center, a controversial $1 billion sports arena across the street from the subway—for the right to have its name added with either a slash or a hyphen (reported the New York Times) to the end of the already lengthy station name.

“Atlantic Avenue – Pacific Street / Barclays,” the signs might soon read. Whatever the M.T.A.’s decision, the handful of characters purchased by Barclays will have to be printed not only on the station’s signs, but on every mention of the station on transit maps plastered throughout the city.

If Barclays were a city park like Union Square, M.T.A. naming conventions would mandate the dash. If it were an intersecting street, the slash would no doubt be deployed. But Barclays is a corporation and its name on a subway sign is an advertisement. And how to attach an advertisement to a subway sign is a question the M.T.A. has never addressed. The typographical details of the change are, of course, in one sense trivial. Already no one gets past “Atlantic Avenue” when making mention of the station. Yet the M.T.A. cannot simply use a dash or hyphen to attach Barclays’ name; the decision will affect public-owned signs for a public-owned space, and so it must be debated. There is a process. Meetings must be had. Documents must be exchanged. Meanings—of the station, its signs, and the punctuation printed on its signs—must all be determined.


After Communism fell in Czechoslovakia in 1989, President Václav Havel proposed changing the country’s name from “The Socialist Republic of Czechoslovakia” to “The Republic of Czechoslovakia.” Slovak politicians, however, weren’t satisfied. They called for the insertion of a hyphen into “Czechoslovakia,” thus making it “Czecho-Slovakia.” Havel complied, and revised his proposal accordingly. The Slovak addition of a hyphen was, after all, a “superficial issue,” as the New York Times put it in an editorial in 1991 about the “Hyphen War.”

Irish-Americans are not Irish Americans; German-Americans are not German Americans; Czecho-Slovakia is not Czechoslovakia.

And indeed, a hyphen is a minor player in the game of language, and depending on where you are and whose style guide you are following, you can pretty much take it or leave it. The British tend to hyphenate (co-operation, pre-school); Americans tend to do everything they can to avoid hyphenation. Hyphens say as much about the author as they do about the ideas they help express. Of course, this only makes it more interesting that the Slovak politicians insisted on having one. What exactly were they getting at? the Czechoslovakian parliament must have wondered. Because to insist on something trivial is to insist that it is not.


In the early 20th century the expression “hyphenated American” was used to refer with suspicion to foreign-born citizens of the U.S.—to question their allegiance and challenge their identity. When Irish and German citizens called for neutrality in World War I, they were dubbed by many Americans—including presidents—as “Irish-Americans” and “German-Americans,” or more generally “hyphenated Americans” (or more succinctly “hyphenated”). In a speech to the Knights of Columbus in 1915, Theodore Roosevelt clarified the hyphen’s meaning: “When I refer to hyphenated Americans, I do not refer to naturalized Americans. Some of the very best Americans I have ever known were naturalized Americans, Americans born abroad. But a hyphenated American is not an American at all.”

Roosevelt’s point was essentially a grammatical one: Sticking a hyphen between “Irish” and “American” removes from “Irish” its status as an adjective; it creates a new word to denote a person with an unsavory mix of Irish and American blood whose loyalties still rest, at least in part, with his or her motherland. Irish-Americans are not Irish Americans; German-Americans are not German Americans; Czecho-Slovakia is not Czechoslovakia.


Subway maps don’t represent the above-ground world. The depiction of Manhattan is too big, and Brooklyn and Queens are misshapen, distorting the location and size of their neighborhoods. But this matters little to the subway traveler: One needn’t understand that Lefferts Gardens is stuck between Crown Heights and East Flatbush, they need only know that the 2 train to Winthrop Street will get them there. In this way the subway divides the city. The neighborhoods become islands.


By the end of March in 1990, the Czechoslovakian parliament had decided to split the difference with the Slovak politicians. The country’s name would be officially hyphenated when spelled in Slovak and officially not hyphenated when spelled in Czech. So when I.B.M. erected billboards in Prague they read “Good Luck, Czechoslovakia,” and in Bratislava they read “Good luck, Czecho-Slovakia.” Soon, the ambiguity of a hyphen was traded, across both languages, for a simple conjunction, and the country then became: the “Czech and Slovak Federative Republic.” But by the first day of 1993, the country decided to split in two: the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic.

The hyphen, of course, had never symbolized the connection between the two groups; it meant quite the opposite, it seems. The Times’s 1991 editorial tried to understand why the Slovaks fought so hard for their hyphen: “Slovaks, ruled by Hungarians for a millennium, have never enjoyed independence. The closest they came was between the world wars, as partners of the Czechs—who they think often look down on them as country bumpkins. That lack of national history and that sense of inferiority now combine to produce a fierce assertiveness.” The “Hyphen War” had little to do with punctuation.


There are those who support the construction of the Barclays Center and the larger $4.9 billion Atlantic Yards project of which it is but one part. They point to the almost 17,000 union construction jobs and 8,000 permanent jobs that Bruce Ratner, the developer of the project, says the development will create. They call attention to the 6,430 units of affordable and market-rate housing that will be built and they point out that many of the people who protest the project are the upper-middle class who gentrified the area to begin with. And, of course, they cite the 2005 study by the city’s Independent Budget Office that showed that the project would bring the city $500 million over 30 years.

Stalin was the ice cream man; Wayne was the cowboy.

Then there are those who don’t support the Atlantic Yards project. “Develop, don’t destroy Brooklyn,” they chant, because the project means the destruction of many of their homes. They call Ratner’s estimate of 8,000 permanent jobs a fantasy. They argue that only 1,125 of the affordable housing units to be built would actually be all that affordable, and claim that the traffic caused by the upcoming decade of construction will congest 68 of the 93 intersections surrounding the project. They note that architect Frank Gehry’s designs for the project had been discarded after much public support was gained: a bait and switch, they say. Of course, they cite a 2009 revision of the 2005 I.B.O. study, which has determined that the Atlantic Yards project will ultimately result in a $65 million loss over 30 years. And they complain that journalists have been soft on coverage of the project, citing the New York Times’s partnership with Ratner on the development of their headquarters in Manhattan.


It is said that Stalin, although opposed in principle to Hollywood’s westerns, enjoyed watching the greatest American screen cowboys tame the wild frontier. “Stalin the solitary, pitiless, and Messianic egocentric seemed to associate himself with the lone cowboy riding shotgun into town to deal our brutal justice,” wrote Stalin biographer Simon Sebag Montefiore in the Telegraph in 2004. The dictator liked John Wayne, but, probably in the way he liked most things, he hated him also.

One can’t imagine America’s true-grit, original sonofabitch sat all that well with the Socialist leader. “When I was a sophomore at U.S.C., I was a socialist myself—but not when I left,” Wayne said during an infamous Playboy interview. “The average college kid idealistically wishes everybody could have ice cream and cake for every meal. But as he gets older and gives more thought to his and his fellow man’s responsibilities, he finds that it can’t work out that way—that some people just won’t carry their load.”

Stalin was the ice cream man; Wayne was the cowboy.

In the early 1950s, Soviet assassins were sent to Los Angeles to kill John Wayne. Apparently, after a late-night showing of one of Wayne’s films, Stalin decided that the Duke had to go. It is unclear whether or not he actually meant it when, likely drunk, he uttered the order to take out John Wayne. But then, it’s unclear whether such subtlety mattered in Stalin’s regime. Lucky for Wayne, Stalin had a stroke before the orders could be carried out. According to Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor, “that was the decision of Stalin in his last mad years. I rescinded the order.” Khrushchev saved the Duke.

How John Wayne went from a college socialist to perhaps the rightmost man in left-of-center ’50s Hollywood is probably a bit more complicated than his ice-cream-and-cake explanation would suggest. According to his wife, Wayne’s almost comical patriotism was to a large extent a result of the guilt he felt for not enlisting in World War II. Many Hollywood stars enlisted, but Wayne, probably for reasons to do with his career, never quite got around to it. The effect it had on him was clear. He threw himself into supporting the Vietnam War with an unwavering enthusiasm, making perhaps the only major pro-war movie of the ’60s, The Green Berets. Wayne was over-compensating for what he perceived was his downgraded status as an American: He was a stay-home-American. He was hyphenated, he feared, and so he wrote a poem about it. A few lines say it all:

A simple little line, and yet
As divisive as a line can get.
A crooked cross the Nazis flew,
And the Russian hammer and sickle too.


With the fall of Communism in 1991, state-controlled industries in the new Russia had to be privatized quickly and perhaps (or perhaps not) haphazardly. In this way, in November 1995, the 30-year-old chairman of the board at UNEXIM Bank, Mikhail Prokhorov, acquired Norilsk Nickel for his company and eventually became its general director, a position he held until 2007 when he split with the company, suffering a loss not so great as to lose him his title as “Russia’s richest man” in 2009.

This would be the title the American newspapers indulged in when they reported in September of that year that Prokhorov had signed formal contracts to become the principal owner of the New Jersey Nets. For a price of $200 million, Prokhorov will receive an 80 percent stake in the team and a 45 percent stake in the Barclays Center. He bought the struggling Nets from Bruce Ratner, who in 2004 bought the then-less-struggling Nets for $300 million. Also an option for Prokhorov will be a 20 percent stake in the Atlantic Yards development, which will be built in part on land taken from private citizens by the perhaps (or perhaps not so) haphazard application of eminent domain law.


To call New York City’s Atlantic Avenue – Pacific Street subway station ugly is only to speak frankly of the almost-century-old, cracked-tile cavern that is dug under the Midwestern-outpost of a shopping mall whose rough design was once justified by its developer—the same Bruce Ratner who is developing the Barclays Center across the street—with the line, “Look, you’re in an urban area, you’re next to projects, you’ve got tough kids.” The place has not been pretty for a long time.

It was strange of Prokhorov, then, to say in a statement in December of 2009 that he was “looking forward to working with Bruce and his team to bring a world-class entertainment and sports center to the heart of New York City.” It must have been a geographical misunderstanding that caused the richest man in Russia to refer to the area outside the Atlantic Avenue – Pacific Street station as the “heart of New York City,” as it is hard to imagine that anyone outside Brooklyn would consider it the heart of an eight-million-person metropolitan center—if they even consider it at all. That’s not to say there isn’t an argument to be made, but one has to wonder if Prokhorov could possibly be making it from far-away Russia.


All roads lead to Rome. Ten subway services intersect at Atlantic Avenue – Pacific Street, bringing passengers from Coney Island to the south, Crown Heights to the east, and Brooklyn Heights and Manhattan to the west. There these trains meet the Long Island Railroad, which reaches to Montauk on the easternmost tip of Long Island. The station is across the street from a chewed-up construction lot that will soon take the name of a London bank and become the home of a New Jersey basketball team owned by Russia’s richest man.

It seems little clear meaning can be extracted from this peculiar crossroads in the middle of Kings County. The station is trivial—even disposable. Its signs are more so, and the punctuation on its signs more so still. And yet the station is the point at which the neighborhoods of Brooklyn connect. If one can get to Atlantic Avenue – Pacific Street, one can get home.