The importance of naming rights has long been evident in Massachusetts. From Harvard College (named in 1636 for the young minister who bequeathed his 400-volume library and £779 to the fledgling school) to Fenway Park (named to promote the Fenway Realty Company, whose owners bought the land on which the stadium was built), prominent facilities have often borne the names of private benefactors or sponsors. But it doesn’t follow that every public space ought to be turned into a billboard, and not every public surface is appropriate for a corporate advertiser’s logo.
The MBTA is proposing to sell naming rights for 11 Boston subway stations, among them Downtown Crossing, South Station, and Park Street. The plan would raise an estimated $18.4 million per year, or $147 million over the eight-year duration of the naming contracts. The name of the sponsor would be added to a station’s existing name, so that passengers might find themselves (for example) taking the Green Line to Dunkin’ Donuts Park Street Station, then switching to the Red Line to get to Liberty Mutual South Station.
The T is one of only two subway systems in the country — the other is Chicago’s — with a plan to auction off station names to the highest bidder. But it is hardly alone among public authorities and municipalities in trying to turn public places into advertising venues. As The New York Times recently reported, “dozens of other financially struggling cities, transit systems, and school districts around the country . . . are trying to weather the economic downturn by selling advertisements, naming rights, and sponsorships to raise money.” Fire hydrants, turnstiles, police cars, toll booths: the variety of public properties now being rented out for advertising is truly impressive, and useful in helping to fill public coffers without tax increases.
But there should be limits, and they should start with place names, including train stations. The T’s aggressive campaign to sell ads or naming rights wherever a private logo can be emblazoned may be lucrative financially, but it comes at a serious cost to what Americans traditionally respected as the public realm. Subway stations are part of our common civic space; like courthouses and fire stations, schools and City Hall, they help shape and define the physical contours of our shared public domain. Whatever else might be said about Park Street Station, it belongs to all of us. Its name must belong to all of us too.
Private commerce is not incompatible with public infrastructure; there is nothing wrong with letting vendors rent kiosks in South Station or putting advertisements on MBTA buses and trolleys. But commercializing the very names of public facilities is not benign. It is a slippery slope with no easy stopping point. If there’s a JetBlue Copley Square Station, why not the Shreve, Crump & Low State House or the Emerson College Freedom Trail? For that matter, why not the Starbucks Bunker Hill Community College? Why not the Jordan’s Furniture City of Boston?
This is at least the third time the MBTA has proposed to sell naming rights to subway stations. It pushed a similar scheme in 1997 and another in 2001. Neither got off the ground, and this one shouldn’t either. The T’s financial troubles are certainly real, and will require a comprehensive solution next year, as the governor and Legislature have long promised. But trying to monetize every square inch of the public realm isn’t going to obviate the need for a longer-term fix.