One Man Is An Island

Roman: This is 99% Invisible. I am Roman Mars.

Sean: So there was this moment in my life when I needed to interview the rapper Busta Rhymes for the radio.

Roman: And this is friend of the show, Sean Cole.

Sean: And so, I tried calling his people which got pretty much nowhere so I then tried googling Busta Rhymes in Boston, which is where I was living at the time so I figured, he maybe is coming on tour and I could ambush him backstage or something. And one of the first results I got was a map, like on Google Maps of a little pond in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, which is this little town outside of Boston, and in the pond, was this teeny speck of land labelled Busta Rhymes Island.

Roman: What?

Sean: [laughs] Needless to say, I was a little confused. I mean, you have to understand like, Shrewsbury is like the least likely, I mean first of all for there to be a Busta Rhymes Island anywhere is pretty unlikely, but Shrewsbury is like this bedroom community for Worcester. It is not even — It is like the most exciting thing to do there on a Saturday night is go to Chili’s after like shopping at Lumber Liquidators. And I was like, “Is this for real?” and then underneath the link for the map, was another link to this short little kind of blurb in the Boston Globe with a headline, Busta Rhymes Island Is For Real.

Roman: [laughs]

Sean: And they interviewed…

Roman: Did they interviewed Busta Rhymes?

Sean: No, they didn’t interviewed Busta Rhymes, they interviewed this guy named Kevin O’Brien who lives in a house overlooking the pond, Mill Pond is the name of it. And who, this is still true, lists his phone number as the number to call if you want to contact the island.

Roman: So he’s the guy who named the island?

Sean: He is the one who named the island and this is a quote from the Boston Globe piece, this guy Kevin says, “It’s a very small little island with rope swinging, blueberries and stuff Busta would enjoy.”

Roman: [laughs]

Sean: He’s adorable. So just to give you a sense of the differences between Busta Rhymes and Busta Rhymes Island.

Roman: You mean, other than the fact that one of them is like an internationally known, really fast rapper with 10 albums to his credit and the other one being…

Sean: Being an island. Exactly.

Roman: A tiny island. [laughs]

Sean: Right. Yes. No man is an island after all.

Roman: Especially not– Especially not Busta Rhymes.

Sean: Busta Rhymes, yep. But also just sonically, Busta Rhymes sounds like this…

[Busta Rhymes rapping]

Sean: And Busta Rhymes Island sounds like this.

[background nature noise]

Sean: So what about this island would you say bespeaks Busta Rhymes?

Kevin: It is just pretty much the kind of feel of it.

Sean: This is Kevin O’Brien. I drove out to Shrewsbury to spend some time with him on the island. It was cold, February. We walked across the ice to get there. A little more about Kevin, he is in his early 30s, works in tech support and DJs wedding on the weekends.

Kevin: You know, if you come in here in the summertime, it is a really nice relaxing place to be. It is dead silent. It is just really, really low key and who would not like…

Sean: Those are not aspects of Busta Rhymes. Dead silent and low key.

Kevin: He meditates.

Sean: Kevin started canoeing out to the island about 10 years ago now, when he and his wife first moved here. The pond is practically in their front yard.

Roman: And when you say it is a teeny-tiny speck of land, you mean?

Sean: It is like 40 feet by 40 feet and there is a rope swing hanging from one of the trees and blueberry bushes, which Kevin planted. 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, drinks beer himself on the island with his wife and their friends, and when you love a place, the way Kevin loves this place, you do not want to refer to it generically, that just does not feel respectful. So, one day…

Kevin: I was sitting around with my friend Brandon, and we just started talking about how we were always coming over the island and he asked what its name was, and its oh, it does not really have a name. So he started saying, “Well, how about Busta Rhymes Island? You love Busta Rhymes! Everybody loves Busta Rhymes.” And I was like, “Alright. You know what? That sounds great.” Because telling somebody the directions to my house, saying, “Oh you know, just look up Busta Rhymes Island on Google Maps and follow your way there.” I think that sounds a lot better than saying Mill Pond. So we want Busta Rhymes and we had a lot of respect for him.

Sean: So how did you get it on Google Maps?

Kevin: We just applied a Geotag to it.

Sean: It’s that easy?

Kevin: It’s that easy.

Sean: And really, the whole thing would seem like a big joke. If it were not for all the effort Kevin went through to try to make the name stick, around the time I contacted him, he submitted a formal proposal to the US Board on Geographic Names, which decides what the federal government is going to call a piece of land. He showed me the proposal. Feature class: island. Meaning or significance: Busta Rhymes is a gravel voiced rapper we all have an incredible amount of respect for. Supporting materials: No. They turned him down. But not for the reasons you might think.

Kevin: The only way you can name the island or a body of land after a celebrity is in a commemorative fashion, so that person has to be deceased for five years. So unfortunately, it really cannot be official until Busta passes.

Sean: That could be a long time.

Kevin: I am willing to wait.

Roman: So someone has to be dead for five years before the board will consider a nameing a place after that person.

Sean: That is right.

Roman: Well, why five years?

Sean: Yeah, I wondered the same thing. So I called up Lou Yost, who is the Executive Secretary at the US Board on Geographic Names.

Lou: Regarding domestic names, names in the United States.

Sean: Foreign names is another committee. Anyway…

Lou: When someone passes away, soon after the person’s death, it is an emotional time, and their close relatives and friends, and feel they wanted to do something to honor this person, and the five-year waiting period just lets it settle.

Sean: Are people disappointed when you tell them about the five-year period?

Lou: Yeah. They are somewhat disappointed, but after we explained the reasoning, while they are disappointed, they agree — or at least say they agree with the policy.

Sean: That it has to be still want to name an island after that person half a decade later type of sentimentality.

Lou: Right.

Sean: Lou Yost says the board actually discourages naming places after people at all. They’d rather the name be feature based. That is having something to do with the way an island or a mountain or a river looks or sounds, or how big it is, rather than who homestead it there. But with the exploration of the west and Alaska, it was bound to happen.

Roman: Oh, so these guys have been around a long time.

Sean: Oh, the board has been around since 1890.

Roman: Whoa.

Sean: And then he told me that six days after JFK was shot, so 1963, Lyndon Johnson announced that Cape Canaveral would be renamed Cape Kennedy to commemorate the president. It was Jackie Kennedy’s idea. Well, people in Florida did not like that at all.

Roman: Why not?

Sean: Well, I mean, it had been called Cape Canaveral for like 400 years. And I did know this, Canaveral is a Spanish word…

Man: Cañaveral.

Sean: It roughly means a plantation of canes or reeds.

Man: Cañaveral.

Sean: Anyhow, 10 years later, the Florida Legislature voted to change the name back from Cape Kennedy to Cape Canaveral and the board went along with it, and it was this event that led to the one year waiting period.

Roman: But there was a five-year waiting period.

Lou: It was one year then and then changed to five years in 1995.

Roman: Gotcha.

Sean: And there has never, never been an exception to the rule since then. No naming places after people who have been dead less than five years, and certainly, no naming a place after someone who is still alive.

Lou: If the board starts naming features for living people, and then they go on and do something heinous, that does not look good.

Woman: Busta Rhymes is being accused of using gay slurs at a fast food restaurant in Miami. This was at a Cheeseburger Baby in Miami Beach and he was apparently there for some promotional purposes and it is a 24-hour restaurant. He went there late at night with his posse and there was a very, very long line–

[background music]

Sean: And I am looking… Oh there it is. But as I was learning about all this, I remember this one place that had been named after someone, not while he was living, but not that long after he died either. And here we are, in Central Square in Cambridge. Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I was born. There’s a black sign in the sidewalk that says, Mark Sandman Square, the corner of Brookline Street and Mass Ave. Mark Sandman is another musician who is the lead singer of the band, Morphine. He died in 1999. He just collapsed on-stage during a concert in Italy. And then just one year later, this sign went up on this corner. Right outside The Middle East. The Middle East Nightclub where Sandman used to perform or just hangout. The sign was Joseph Sater’s idea, who is one of the owners of The Middle East. Do you remember the dedication ceremony?

Joseph: I think just public work call us and they said the sign is ready, you know? So when they put the sign up, we put flowers and invite some friends and you know, we had a little party, you know in his memory and think over the good time.

Roman: Sorry. So how was Joseph able to dedicate that corner to Mark Sandman only one year after he died, when the regulation says that he has to wait at least five years?

Lou: Well from the way you were explaining, it would have been relegated to the city of Cambridge.

Sean: This is Lou Yost again at the US Board on Geographic Names.

Lou: A square or a city park or building would be what we consider an administrative feature and the board has relegated that the authority of the names of those features to the local administrating agencies within the city, it would be up to the city if they wanted to name the park.

Sean: Nonetheless, I explained the five-year rule to Joseph at The Middle East and how especially in that first year, of course everybody wants to name something after their loved one who died.

Joseph: Everybody want to step on the wagon.

Sean: They want to name everything after them.

Joseph: Everything after them.

Sean: You know?

Joseph: I understand. No, it was not like this is my — you know, I mean, definitely we will miss him. He moved on. We will get cheated by not having him around, but it was not emotional, it is, you know, it is…

Sean: It wasn’t an emotional thing is it?

Joseph: No. Not at all. It was like it’s to keep you know friend around, you know? He did a lot for this community. Every time they call on him for fundraising or a show, you know, he is there to play for free or bring any money so, definitely he did due diligence socially, you know?

Sean: What would he think of the sign do you think of the square?

Joseph: He would laugh at us.

Sean: He would?

Joseph: Oh Mark, he would laugh, you know. But it does not matter.

Sean: I also got in touch with the Mayor’s office in Cambridge to ask what the criteria are for naming a corner of the city after someone. They sent me the application you fill out when you want one of those signs hammered into the sidewalk. Mark Sandman would have fit under the category: Distinguished careers by present or former residents who have achieved state or national fame. And then I asked them if the person in question had to be deceased, and they did not respond. But on the application, it says, deceased with a question mark and then a box to check. So that makes it sound like you can memorialize people who are still alive.

Roman: Or it is just like a test. And they just remove all the ones that are still alive, where they automatically–

Sean: Where they automatically kicks those out.

Roman: Exactly.

Sean: Or something. But then, I started noticing those black commemorative signs everywhere. All around Cambridge, there is John T. “Johnny” Collins Square, Commander Francis X. “Buddy” Foster Square, Robert E. Goodman Road.

Charlie: It has been very loose.

Sean: This is Charlie Sullivan, with the Cambridge Historical Commission.

Charlie: Anyone who is interested in having a square named after a family member, like there is one of those signs written on the corner.

Sean: Helen and John Black Square.

Charlie: You could just ask a City Councillor and they would put an a council order, and the city would do it, so we have intersections in some parts of town that have one of those signs on each of the four corners.

Sean: Really?

Charlie: Yeah.

Sean: The preponderance of dedications.

Charlie: Preponderance, yeah. Proliferation of dedications.

Sean: You seem not so pleased with that.

Charlie: Well, it gets to be a little bit of a clutter after a while and they began to lose their meaning. So I think the city council is a little more resistant than they used to be. They are running out of places to put these signs.

Roman: So just to be clear, these places, they are not recognized by the US Board of Geographic Names?

Sean: Right. So they are not on federal maps or used by the federal government in any way, but that said, local usage is something the board takes into account when it is evaluating a proposal, and not just the local authority recognizing the name, but…

Kevin: The locals, like those folks up there…

Sean: In that house over Yonder.

Kevin: Exactly.

Sean: This is Kevin O’Brien again. At Busta Rhymes Island.

Kevin: We would basically have to go to them and say, “Hey do you know the name of that island?” And they would say, “Oh that’s Busta Rhymes Island” or whatever else we are going to name it. Then that would be considered local usage. So if local folks know what to call it, then everybody calls it that, then you have a lot more weight going to the government in saying, “I’d like to name this island this.”

Sean: But as far as Kevin knows, nobody except for him and his wife, and their friends call this island anything. We spent about an hour on the island together. As I would say, it was very cold and just as we are about to leave, these two kids who had been skating out in the middle of the pond came wondering over. Two boys, maybe 10 years old.

Boy 1: Good morning.

Sean: Morning.

Boy 1: What are you doing?

Sean: We are doing a radio story about this island. Do you know anything about this island?

Boy 1: No. I just moved here.

Sean: Oh did you?

Boy 1: Two weeks ago.

Sean: Well, if you look up this island on Google Maps, do you know what its called?

Boy 1: No.

Sean: It is called Busta Rhymes Island.

Boy 2: Busta Rhymes?

Sean: Do you know who that is?

Boy 1: No.

Sean: He is a rapper.

Boy 2: Why would this be named after him?

Sean: He named it after him.

Kevin: I named it after him.

Boy 2: Why?

Sean: Because he is a big fan.

Kevin: Because I am a big fan, yeah. What would you name this island if you could name it something?

Boy 2: Uhm, I do not know. Wait, wait, The Shrewsbury Island, I guess.

Sean: The Shrewsbury Island?

Boy 2: Yeah.

Sean: You have a favorite musician or anything like that?

Boy 2: No.

Boy 1: I don’tt either.

Kevin: Feel free to come to Busta Rhymes Island anytime though.

Boys: Okay. Yeah.

Sean: Good to meet you guys.

Boys: You too.

Sean: Local usage man.

Kevin: Yeah, that is right.

Sean: We just witnessed Busta Rhymes Island being used.

Kevin: That’s right. That’s right.

Sean: I did…

Roman: You just conned them into it. [laughs]

Sean: Exactly. Exactly. Just con him into it. I did try contacting Busta Rhymes again, told his managers all about the island, said I want to interview him and again, they never responded. Also, a few days after I first emailed them, and when back on Google Maps, and the Geotag was gone. I contacted Kevin right away. It was the first he had heard of it, and he said, “Well, I know what I have to do. Add it again and see how long it takes to be taken down again.” Sure enough, a couple of weeks later, Busta Rhymes Island was back on the map. Like Mount Rainier appearing and disappearing with the weather. And not long after that, a friend of mine randomly met Busta in a bar in New York. She was dating a guy who knew him and when she asked him about the island, Busta said, this is quote, “Yeah, I heard about that. Yeah, I heard about that.”

[background music]

Roman: 99% Invisible was produced this week by Sean Cole, with Sam Greenspan, Katie Mingle, Avery Trufelman, and me, Roman Mars. We are a project of 91.7 local public radio KALW in San Francisco and produced at the offices of Arcsine, a brilliant architecture firm that we love, rubbing elbows with every single day in beautiful downtown Oakland, California.

Credits

Production

Producer Sean Cole visited Busta Rhymes Island, where he spoke with namer Kevin O’Brien. Sean also talked with Lou Yost from the U.S. Board of Geographic Names; Joseph Sater, co-owner of the MIddle East nightclub; and Charlie Sullivan, with the Cambridge Historical Commission.

Unfortunately, Sean was not able to speak with Busta.

Music

“Life Is Good 90’s (Instrumental)” — Busta Rhymes
“Gimme Some More” — Busta Rhymes
“I Know You Pt. 1” — Morphine
“Dawna” — Morphine
“Here and Now” — RJD2

Comments (8)

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  1. I always enjoy the show and respect the work the 99 percent invisible team does. However, this episode seems to fall into the unfortunate category of white public broadcasters finding hip hop inherently silly and something to joke about.

  2. J Calkins

    Just caught up on this episode, and I live in Shrewsbury. Completely agree that although it is a pretty large town, there isn’t much here to do. I have never heard of the island before, however.

  3. Good blog! I really love how it is easy on my eyes and the data are well written. I’m wondering how I might be notified whenever a new post has been made. I have subscribed to your feed which must do the trick! Have a great day!

  4. Uwe

    I wonder why you didn’t bring up “Ronald Reagan Airport”, renamed 1998.
    Here in Germany we have similar rules: several years after death. Only (to me) known exception: a “Nelson Mandala Place”, renamed to honor and support a great man in the early 90s.

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