Early morning in Reykjavík, I wade through the fog along a deserted street in the Tún neighbourhood, en route to work. The overnight chill has coated the road in a thin layer of invisible ice. At an intersection, I take a left. I walk this way every day and know it well. Today is different though; something is afoot. I pause, take three steps back, and turn my head to the street sign hanging feet above my head.
Today I see not one but two signs advertising the same street’s name, one below the other: the higher reads Skúlagata, the lower reads Bríetartún.
The absurdity of the sight isn’t immediately obvious and most would pass by without noticing a thing. But for those with a keen eye, or those in need of direction, the new sign would only incite confusion.
Moving house (sort of)
Meet Sigurður Þór Guðjónsson. He lives in the Tún neighbourhood of Reykjavík with his two cats, where he runs a weather and climate blog from home. Last month Sigurður went from living at Skúlagata 68 to living at Bríetartún 24 overnight.
“I didn’t know about it before I saw it on the news,” he says, disgusted. “There was no information about it given to the people who live on the street.”
Skúlagata is one of four streets in the neighbourhood that the Reykjavík City Council recently renamed to commemorate the first four women to sit on the City Council in 1908.
Sætún is now Guðrúnartún, after Guðrún Björnsdóttir; Höfðatún is now Katrínartún, after Katrín Magnússon; Skúlatún has become Þórunnartún, after Þórunn Jónassen and Skúlagata east of Snorrabraut is now Bríetartún, after Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir.
The old street signs will remain alongside the new signs until 2014 to ensure a smooth transition, but official addresses have been changed.
The changes are particularly problematic to residents of Skúlagata who, like Sigurður, will not only have a new street name to get used to but also a new house number.
“As Skúlagata was cut in two halves through Snorrabraut, it is a very necessary change to give this part of Skúlagata a new name. So we also have to give it new numbers,” says Jón Halldór Jónasson, a member of the Reykjavík City Council who was part of the planning committee behind the change.
What’s in a name?
Sigurður, who has lived on Skúlagata for over two decades, believes the change is completely unnecessary and that it destroys the identity of his street.
He sighs deeply over the phone, bemoaning his new address: “It’s not the name; not the proper name.” Sigurður can’t understand how the council could alter the history of his home without so much as a word to residents. “It’s one of the oldest streets in Reykjavík,” he says desperately.
Jón Halldór tells me the Tún area was chosen as it was under construction at the time the four women were elected. “It’s a symbolic way to commemorate them,” he says.
“The previous names of the streets, like Sætún, which means sea for example, were not of much significance,” Jón Halldór says. “except for Skúlagata, which is named after Skúli Magnússon, and the biggest part of which will remain as Skúlagata of course.”
Jón Halldór says it has taken several years for the name changes to come into effect because some residents protested the decision. “The City of Reykjavík of course listened to them, but it can’t take everything into consideration,” he says. “We tried to minimise the problems as much as possible.”
No big deal
Meanwhile, just down the street from Sigurður lives Guðmundur Rúnar Svansson, who is not too bothered by the changes. “I think it’s such a small issue,” he says bemused. “I don’t understand why this is a big deal to the people who live here.”
Not only does he not mind the change, he thinks it’s a practical one, especially in the case of Skúlagata, which is already split into two sections. “It’s two completely different streets and to me it makes sense they have a different name,” he says.
“When giving people directions to my house they sometimes get lost, especially foreign guests,” he laughs, hoping the name change will make directing people to his house easier.
Contrary to what Sigurður says, Guðmundur says residents were informed and given ample notice of the changes. “Obviously we knew about it. I think it’s been about two or three years since they started talking about it. I mean, I read the news.”
After the initial notification, a second letter to residents followed to inform them that the change had been postponed until all legal proceedings had been completed with those who wanted to file complaints.
“I remember one of my neighbours knocked on my door with a list asking for some sort of protest signature,” Guðmundur says, “but I did not want to protest.”
Guðmundur has a positive attitude toward the change. Being self-employed, he says he will need to change his company’s registration at the tax office, but he says it’s a minor inconvenience. “I’m not going to be rushing to do it,” he says.
“Even if I don’t do it in the next two years it’s not going to be any big deal, everybody’s going to find the address,” he says coolly. “I’m of the generation who does not really get much mail the old-fashioned way. It’s just stuff from the bank anyway,” he says cheekily.