Roman Mars’ terrific design podcast 99% Invisible covers design questions large and small, from his fascination with rebar to the history of slot machines to the great Los Angeles Red Car conspiracy. Here at The Eye, we cross-post new episodes and host excerpts from the 99% Invisible blog, which offers complementary visuals for each episode.
This week's edition—about one man's mission to name an island after Busta Rhymes—can be played below. Or keep reading to learn more.
A few years ago, reporter Sean Cole was working on a radio story and needed to interview the rapper Busta Rhymes.
Cole was living in Boston at the time, so he did a Google search for “Busta Rhymes” and “Boston” to see if Busta had any upcoming shows that Cole could stake out.
Google didn’t return any relevant tour dates. But it did give Sean a map, centering on a tiny speck of land in a neighboring suburb called Shrewsbury, Mass.
The tiny speck of land was labeled Busta Rhymes Island.
The Boston Globe confirmed that, yes, Busta Rhymes Island is for real.
The Google Maps listing gives a phone number to call the island. So Cole called. A guy named Kevin O’Brien answered. O'Brien is a guy in his early 30s who works in tech support and DJs weddings on weekends.
O'Brien started canoeing out to the island when he and his wife moved to Shrewsbury about 10 years ago. The island, a 40-by-40 speck of land, is practically in their front yard. O'Brien planted blueberry bushes on the island, and there’s a rope swing hanging from one of the trees. He doesn’t just visit the island a bunch, he takes care of the island—he cleans up after the teenagers who leave beer cans lying around. He drinks beer himself on the island, with his wife and their friends.
And when you love a place the way O'Brien loves this place, you don’t want to refer to it generically. You want to give it a a name.
O'Brien and a friend decided on Busta Rhymes Island.
All O'Brien had to do was go on Google Maps and apply a geotag to it. But O'Brien wanted the name to stick, so he didn’t stop there. He wanted Busta Rhymes Island to become the island’s official name.
O'Brien submitted a formal proposal to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, which decides what the federal government is going to call a piece of land. The board turned O'Brien down—but not for the reasons you might think.
For any body of land to be named after a celebrity in a commemorative fashion, that person has to have been deceased for five years. The thinking is that, when someone passes away—especially someone high-profile—it’s an emotional time. Close relatives, friends, and fans want to honor the person. And so the U.S. Board on Geographic Names instituted a five-year cooling-off period, figuring that if someone is still beloved five years after his or her death to the extent that people still want a place named for him or her then, and only then, should naming be considered.
Also, a living celebrity can do something heinous. Like that time Busta Rhymes allegedly used a gay slur in a Miami cheeseburger restaurant.
Then how do you explain Mark Sandman Square in Cambridge, Mass.?
Mark Sandman was the lead singer of the Boston-based band Morphine. He died in 1999 after collapsing on stage during a concert in Italy. And then just a year later, a sign honoring him went up on the corner of Brookline Street and Massachusetts Avenue.
It turns out that the five-year rule applies only to geographic features. Public spaces in cities are a different matter entirely. Those are decided by local municipalities, not the Board on Geographic Names.
It turns out that Cambridge loves naming places after people. There’s a John T. “Johnny” Collins Square and a Commander Francis X. “Buddy” Foster Square. Robert E. Goodman Road.
In fact, some intersections in Cambridge have a different commemorative black sign on each corner.
As for Busta Rhymes Island, it might be a while before it can be officially recognized. But you can help. If you find yourself in Shrewsbury, Mass., and you ask for directions to Busta Rhymes Island, that counts as “local usage”—one factor that the U.S. Board of Geographic Names looks for when considering a naming proposal.