What Chink’s Steaks and the Confederate South Have in Common

Name changes that made news in Philly and Memphis.

Here’s some truth: A rose by any other name probably wouldn’t smell as sweet. Branding matters. Call the beautiful red flower a pissbush or a shatflower, imply something unclean about it, and ABC’s Bachelor would conclude each episode by bestowing sunflowers on a special lady.

It’s worth mentioning because of two items in the news today, one local, one national:

• In Northeast Philly, Chink’s Steaks will re-open on Monday as Joe’s Steaks & Soda, following years of criticism by Asian-American groups and a series of critical Daily News articles in 2008. Joe Groh, the store’s owners since 1997, said: “It is very important to me, my family and the entire staff that we no longer inadvertently alienate anyone in the Philly community.”

Down in Memphis, the City Council has come under fire for removing the names of three of its city parks—Confederate Park, Jefferson Davis Park, and a third honoring Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general who was later the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

“I’m not afraid of our history,” said Lee Harris, a member of the Memphis City Council. “But I’m afraid of excluding some people from our parks and celebrating the conduct of the Confederacy.”

Good for Joe Groh. And good for the Memphis City Council.

In both cases, we’re likely to see some grumblings by old-timers about “heritage” and the need to preserve the old names. In Memphis, at least, that desire is manifesting itself on Saturday with a march by the Ku Klux Klan. Which might, in Memphis’ case, be a really good reason to drop the old names from its parks: If you’re appeasing racists and alienating the rest of your constituents—and Memphis’s population is majority African-American—you’re probably doing it wrong.

That’s not, of course, to be saying we should be hiding our history and putting it out of mind. (Though anybody who has spent, say, five minutes in Memphis can tell you that—park names or no—the air there is thick with history.) But there’s a difference between cultivating a memory of history and celebrating it. We name parks for our heroes and the causes that we actively value; the Confederacy—a nation whose defining feature during its short life was its enslavement of black people—doesn’t deserve that honor. The troops who fought for the Confederacy? They fought for a tainted cause; they don’t deserve the honor, either.

Back in Philly, the grumbling over “Chink’s Steaks” wasn’t quite so fraught, but it was still problematic; the name originated in kidding insults about the original owner’s “almond-shaped eyes.” Over time, Groh—who started out as an employee of the shop—must’ve realized he was losing sales over a name that had nothing to do with him or his personal history. Let people focus on the cheesesteaks instead.

In his case, the decision was a private one. In Memphis, it’s made by a public body. But in both cases the lesson is the same: Sometimes a bad name can get in the way of somebody enjoying your product or your park. In both cases, the name change is appropriate. And sometimes, it helps the roses smell a little sweeter.