Swastika, New York, Is Keeping Its Name

Sep 23, 2020
Originally published on September 24, 2020 1:30 pm

Michael Alcamo lives in New York City but loves cycling through the Adirondack Mountains in northern New York, with their tiny towns and hamlets and historical cemeteries.

He was on a trip like this, winding through a remote stretch this summer, when he noticed something else, a small brown street sign with the name "Swastika."

At a time when symbols and place names with links to white supremacy are being debated across the U.S., Alcamo found the name of the unincorporated hamlet he had crossed into unsettling.

"So the effect was just jarring and profoundly, I thought, disrespectful," he said, especially to the veterans of World War II with graves nearby.

"I think it should be obvious that the town should update its name and should pick a name that is not so offensive to so many Americans and so emblematic of intolerance, hate and tyranny," he said.

So Alcamo reached out to county officials in August to see if they would consider it. He was soon directed to email the town of Black Brook, a town of about 1,500 residents with jurisdiction over Swastika.

The town agreed to add it to their agenda for their meeting this month. And after five minutes of discussion at their Sept. 14 meeting, the town's four councilors unanimously voted against it.

"Swastika was named by the founders of the area who settled there," said Jon Douglass, Black Brook's supervisor, who was at the meeting but didn't have a vote.

None of the councilors returned a request for comment.

Douglass says the hamlet's name far predates World War II and came from the Sanskrit word meaning well-being. The four-sided geometric character that represents the swastika has been used for thousands of years in Indian religions and seen as a symbol of good luck.

The swastika's meaning was overshadowed beginning in the 1930s with the rise of Adolf Hitler, who co-opted the figure as a symbol for Nazism and anti-Semitism.

Douglass says this is not the first time the hamlet's name has been scrutinized.

"There was concern that due to the Germans and everything that people may have a different outlook on the name. And some of the residents that were from that area actually fought in World War II and refused to change the name just because Hitler tried to tarnish the meaning of swastika," he said.

Douglass says the council did not see a reason to change the name despite its widespread use as a symbol of hate and white supremacy today.

"I think that's probably, maybe some viewpoint that it's associated with hate. But then I believe there are others that do not associate it with hate," he said. "Did the Hindus and the [Buddhists] and all them, did they erase it from their religious history because of the Germans?"

Alcamo, the cyclist who submitted the request, was disappointed by the town's reaction.

"I didn't expect a quick, unanimous vote to reject the proposal," he said.

Social media response to the decision has been murkier, with some locals of the region bristling on Facebook at an outsider from New York City trying to meddle in rural affairs.

But Alcamo says he simply wants more people to see the Adirondacks for their natural beauty and deep history, a history he says is at odds with the meaning of swastika today.

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There's a debate in this country over symbols and statues and place names that are tied to white supremacy. So what to do about a small community in rural northern New York called Swastika? This summer, a visitor proposed just changing the name, but local officials opposed the idea. Julia Ritchey from North Country Public Radio explains why.

JULIA RITCHEY, BYLINE: Michael Alcamo lives in New York City but loves visiting the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York to cycle through its tiny towns and hamlets and past historical cemeteries. He was on a trip like this, winding through a remote stretch this summer, when he noticed something else.

MICHAEL ALCAMO: Suddenly, I came to a town called Swastika.

RITCHEY: The hamlet's name was printed on a small brown street sign. He says he found the name jarring and disrespectful to veterans of World War II, some of whom are buried in graves nearby.

ALCAMO: So I think it should be obvious that the town should update its name and should pick a name that is not so offensive to so many Americans and so emblematic of intolerance, hate and tyranny.

RITCHEY: So Alcamo reached out to county officials in August to see if they would consider it. He was soon directed to email the town of Black Brook, which has jurisdiction over Swastika. The town agreed to add it to the agenda for their September meeting, and after about five minutes of discussion, the town's four councilors unanimously voted against it.

JON DOUGLASS: So, basically, Swastika was named by the founders of the area that settled there.

RITCHEY: That's Black Brook's supervisor, Jon Douglass, who was at the meeting but didn't have a vote. None of the councilors returned a request for comment. Douglass says the hamlet's name far predates World War II and came from the Sanskrit word meaning well-being. The four-sided geometric character that represents the swastika has been used for thousands of years in Indian religions and seen as a symbol of good luck. Of course, that meaning was overshadowed beginning in the 1930s with the rise of Adolf Hitler, who co-opted the swastika as a symbol for Naziism and anti-Semitism. Douglass says this is not the first time the hamlet's name has been scrutinized.

DOUGLASS: There was concern that, due to the Germans and everything, that people may have a different outlook on the name. And some of the residents that were from that area actually fought in World War II and refused to change the name just because Hitler tried to tarnish the meaning of swastika.

RITCHEY: Douglass says the council didn't see a reason to change the name despite its widespread use as a symbol of hate and white supremacy today.

DOUGLASS: I think that's probably maybe some viewpoint that it's associated with hate, but then I believe there's others that do not associate it with hate. Did the Hindus and the Budus (ph) and all of them - did they erase it from their religious history because of the Germans?

RITCHEY: Alcamo, the cyclist who submitted the request, was disappointed by the town's reaction.

ALCAMO: I didn't expect a quick - apparently quick - unanimous vote to reject the proposal.

RITCHEY: Social media response to the decision has been murkier, with some locals of the region bristling on Facebook at an outsider from New York City trying to meddle in rural affairs. But Alcamo says he simply wants more people to see the Adirondacks for its natural beauty and deep history - a history, he says, at odds with the meaning of swastika today.

For NPR News, I'm Julia Ritchey in Potsdam, N.Y. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.