Political Correctness

Super-Chef Tom Colicchio Changes Name of New Restaurant Because…Phrenology

Where should we stop (and start) with renaming places due to historical crimes?


David Shankbone, Flickr, Wikimedia

Let's hope that Ed Krayewski is right that ESPN pulling sportscaster Robert Lee from calling a University of Virginia football game "because of the coincidence of his name" with the Confederate general is indeed a "turning point in the debate over 'PC culture.'" ESPN's Lee is Asian American and has no connection to Robert E. Lee, whose statue was a rallying point for white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, University of Virginia's hometown.

But hope will only get us so far.

The New York Times reports on another PC controversy, this one involving the "racially tinged" name of a restaurant opened last fall by superstar chef Tom Colicchio. If you're faint of heart, read on with confidence, as the name isn't anything like some old defunct chains or even Lee's Famous Recipe Chicken (like ESPN's Lee, not a callback to the Confederate States of America).

Tom Colicchio is dropping the name of his newest Manhattan restaurant, Fowler & Wells, after learning that it has historically racist connotations. The new name is Temple Court.

Fowler & Wells, which opened last October, was named for a publishing company and scientific institute that once operated in a building on the same site in the financial district; that building was later torn down, replaced by Temple Court, the building that stands there now. The men who started the company, Lorenzo and Orson Fowler and Samuel Wells, were proponents of phrenology, a popular 19th-century belief that the shape of one's skull revealed characteristics like mental aptitude and personality.

The practice was frequently used to justify slavery and to advance a belief in African-American inferiority. Orson Fowler wrote that coarse hair correlated with coarse fibers in the brain, and indicated coarse feelings; that, he wrote, suggested that people of African descent had poor verbal skills and traits that were best suited for nursing children or waiting on tables.

As the Times notes, Colicchio wasn't exactly using the name as a dog whistle to become the go-to meeting place for wealthy white supremacists. Indeed, he is a liberal's liberal who tweets against Donald Trump on a regular basis and told the paper of record, "I have a fairly liberal persona and never in a million years would consider myself a racist, so it never crossed my mind."

Public Domain

So what happened? A January review of the place by the Times didn't just give the place a mixed-to-negative two-star review. It included this passage about the restaurant's site:

Among its tenants were Orson Fowler and Samuel Wells, a pair of phrenologists with a sideline in publishing.

The 19th-century belief that skull shape revealed character provides some amusing, arcane cocktail names. But in its day, phrenology wrapped a gauzy cloak of fake science around the ugly armor of racism. Fowler was close to several abolitionists, but he also wrote that the heads of black people made them "our best nurses" and "excellent waiters" while dooming them to language skills that were at best "middling."

The upshot is that Colicchio has just completed the name-change of his joint, to the bland Temple Court, over a period of months and at a cost between $50,000 and $100,000, according to the Times.

While there's no question that the namesakes of the restaurant were racist—and anti-Semitic, too, with Orson Fowler apparently believing that Jews were "hereditarily aquisitive, deceitful, and destructive"—there is surely a question as to whether it is, in the words of Reason's Krayewski, "the perception of potential outrage rather than the outrage itself that drives these disputes." Colicchio recalled for the Times that once the review came out, "very quickly, internally, we told people we were changing the name of the restaurant." Obviously, Colicchio has every right (and possible good marketing reasons) to change the name of his restaurant (maybe he'll even get a new, more successful review from the Times.)

Should things stop there? The restaurant is located in a building called The Beekman, which sits on Beekman Street in Manhattan. Both are named for an early Dutch settler and politician, Wilhemus Beekman. He was instrumental in the success of what was then called New Amsterdam and was thus directly implicated in the introduction and expansion of slavery in New York.

Perhaps more than many libertarians, I'm sympathetic to renaming of places and names as a way of righting past wrongs; names and meanings are always changing anyway, why not because people are fed up with the past? I'm also general comfortable with at least figurative iconoclasm. But I doubt that many people nowadays calling for the constant and ongoing purification of history are fully aware of the dynamics they are putting into play.