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It’s come to this: The MBTA wants to sell naming rights to its most visible stations. The transit agency is always cash-starved for reasons we’ll go into another day, so selling the names of 11 stops including iconic stations such as Park Street, Downtown Crossing and South Station would, we’re told, fund improved maintenance and more Wi-Fi in rail cars.

Here’s another opinion. Changing the names of those stations, indeed selling marketing rights to public property — T stops are public property — is a lousy idea. Sure, we’ve seen baseball stadiums like Chicago’s venerated Comiskey Field changed to U.S. Cellular Field, and once the Houston Astros thought it would be a good idea to change the name of their stadium to Enron Field. That didn’t work out very well.

But now comes this new way for marketers to get the names of their companies in front of consumers. Maybe it’s just me, but somehow it doesn’t feel right to give visitors directions like “Going to the airport? Hop on the Green Line at the Apple MacBook station in the Back Bay, change to the Blue Line at the Wal-Mart station and get off in East Boston at the SpaghettiOs’s stop.” It’s bad enough that Dunkin’ Donuts advertisements encircle and disfigure the pillars that support Logan Airport’s swooping – and publicly funded— traffic ramps.

Michael Sandel, the Harvard philosopher and author of “What Money Can’t Buy,” argues that the worship of markets in recent decades has made us hesitant about bringing our moral and spiritual convictions into the public debate. He says the era of “market triumphalism” has been largely empty of moral substance. “As naming rights and municipal marketing appropriate the common world,” he says, “they diminish its public character.” And that, he concludes, diminishes the democracy we cherish.

Sandel is right, of course. Market values suffuse American life. But are they the only kinds of values we want? He asks, “Do we want a society where everything is for sale?”

We said a loud collective no to that question when Boston built a magnificent public library, architecturally distinguished courthouses and, of course, Bulfinch’s majestic State House. These are public buildings whose architecture makes a statement about the kind of city and state we want; they have an air of dignity befitting institutions funded by the free citizens of a democracy.

We’re all subject to hundreds of messages a day crafted to catch the eye, fire the imagination and inspire us to open our wallets. But shouldn’t there be a commercial-free zone? Surely the conversion of publicly financed properties into marketing tools should be subject to debate that all of us — not just the temporary stewards of the MBTA— control.

Here is where things now stand: The city once called the Athens of America may change the name of a T stop honoring the memory of one of Boston’s and the country’s greatest painters, John Singleton Copley, to – well, we don’t know. Maybe it will be the Toyota stop or the Starbucks stop or some other corporate Goliath’s name. But chances are that once the mortgage is signed, the station will never again honor the artist whose name has graced it for a century — and that’s a public disgrace.

Tags: Boston, MBTA

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • Gentlewomanfarmer

    Well, now that we know what we are, it’s only a matter of price.

  • J__o__h__n

    I think we should sell the naming rights to Rich Davies. He always gets a lot of press so would be good corporate branding. That is if you want your corporation identified with price increases, rude service, tardiness, and excuses.

  • JT

    For people unfamiliar with the city, the T can be a bit confusing. I often see tourists staring at the maps with puzzled looks. Changing names on the stations just to get a few extra bucks will only compound the problem.

  • Rick

    It’s my understanding that the Newton Public Schools are also thinking of selling naming rights to buildings, etc. Why don’t we all just put billboards on our cars like taxi cabs? Or maybe we should fund the military this way – “this war brought to you by Frito-Lay”…..where does it stop? Mr. Sandel’s book is excellent by the way.

  • http://twitter.com/markrotoole Mark O’Toole

    It all depends on the conditions for sponsors. Park St. should remain Park St., but it can be Park St. by Fidelity. But if these sponsors are charged with adding innovation to their stations, improving ambiance (better lighting, signage, overall experience), cleaning stations, and improving station technology, then maybe we have a winning plan. If not, then it’s just much less meaningful short-term revenue.

    • Tom L

      The sponsors won’t be charged with improving the stations. The MBTA’s goal is to balance their budget so they will want to allocate any such sponsor money elsewhere in the system.

      It would only make sense to the MBTA if the sponsors ponied up for the capital improvements on top of the naming right fees. Even then, I foresee complications for the MBTA to implement such projects. For example, what happens if such a project goes over budget? Who is responsible for the overage?

  • Ballpark E-Guides

    Certainly, Kenmore Station on the Green Line could be renamed Red Sox Station, and the Sox should be more than willing to pony up the dough for it. If the stations could be tied in with their location in some way, it might not be a bad thing.

    • vito33

      Smith and Wesson Mattapan Station?

  • Allan Morrison

    They changed the name of Boston Garden and we still called it Boston Garden. They knocked it down and built another one. Same thing. Names of Public Institutions cannot be changed by fiat lux. It’s just Marketing mistaking itself for reality again.

    • Tom L

      No. It’s not the same thing. For a while it was called the Shawmut Center and then later the Fleet Center. It didn’t become the “Garden” again until Toronto Dominion Bank bought the naming rights and officially called it the “TD Garden” with an advertising campaign that featured the tag line “You can call it the Garden again.”

      And even then, it’s a private, not a public, institution. They _can_ call it anything they like. Not that I’ve paid close attention, but broadcast announcers for the sporting events there (i.e. Bruins and Celtics) no doubt call it the TD Garden in Boston Massachusetts. Probably a condition of the broadcast contract with the sporting teams.

  • Marty O’Malley

    Charlie
    handed in his dime

    At the Goldman Sachs Station

    And he changed for the Chick Fil A Plain

    When he got there the conductor told him,

    “One more nickel.”

    Charlie could not get off that train

    Now
    you citizens of Boston,

    Don’t you think it’s a scandal

    That the people have to pay and pay

    Vote for George O’Brien!
    Get Charlie off the MTA.

  • Jim ODonnell

    Comiskey Field?

  • Tom L

    Renaming MBTA stations wouldn’t make any more sense than renaming public roads. Dare we rename Park Street, Tremont Street, Bunker Hill Monument or the Zakim Bridge?

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