It took three years, two mayors, and, ultimately, two city blocks, but tomorrow New York City will finally rename part of one of its streets after George Carlin.
And the Catholic Church isn’t even complaining. At least, not anymore.
Carlin, the comedian and iconoclast known for his profanity-laced rants skewering, among other things, religion and government, grew up on 121st Street and Broadway in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights. A few years after his death in 2008, comedian Kevin Bartini — who idolized, but did not know, Carlin — learned that he lived only a few blocks from where Carlin grew up. When he walked over to Carlin’s street and located his building, he was shocked to find nothing nearby commemorating the trailblazing comic.
“It seems like such a no-brainer, right?” Bartini says. “There was no plaque, no sign, nothing. He’s a New York legend. He’s a comedy legend. It just didn’t seem right.”
Bartini, who works as a warmup comic for The Daily Show, says he contacted Carlin’s daughter in 2011 and asked if she would mind if he tried to work something out with the city to rename the 500 block of 121st street — between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue — after her father. She agreed, and Bartini got to work.
“I had no idea what to do, really,” he says. “I remember initially naively thinking that I could just pass it along to Jon Stewart and he could just call the city and that would be that. I found out it’s a lot more involved.”
And then some, as it turned out. In October 2011, Bartini talked to members of Community Board 9, which would ultimately have to approve any proposal to rename the street. They advised him to collect as many signatures as he could. One of the board members also told him that if he could get the blessing of the Corpus Christi Church — the Roman Catholic parish, which is located on the same block and is where Carlin attended both school and church services — the measure would sail through. The signatures were easy. The church’s blessing, not so much.
Bartini’s conversation with Reverend Raymond Rafferty, the longtime pastor at Corpus Christi, was discouraging.
“He chewed me out,” Bartini says. “He’d known George as a kid and had a personal grudge against him. [Rafferty] really read me the riot act. He did not want this to happen.”
Throughout his career, Carlin famously attacked both organized religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular. He even called out Corpus Christi on his 1972 album, Class Clown.
“The church’s argument was that they were trying to protect their students against dirty words,” Bartini says. “They didn’t want students to see the street sign, wonder who George Carlin was, and look him up and be exposed to the themes and messages he spoke about — things like questioning authority and the dangers of blind faith. If you’re the Catholic Church, those kinds of things are bad for business.”
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Representatives from Corpus Christi did not return messages left seeking comment, but in a 2011 interview with CBS New York, Rafferty, who is now retired, said that Carlin’s early work “made a mockery of this particular place,” referring to Corpus Christi. “He was also an extremely vulgar person,” Rafferty added.
Rafferty originally told Bartini that while he opposed renaming the street, he wouldn’t fight him on the proposal. But the church quickly changed its tune. Bartini says when he attended the next community board meeting to present his “hundreds” of signatures from neighborhood residents, Rafferty was there, flanked by a team of “old church ladies.” They were there to voice their objection to Bartini’s proposal. And so the fight had begun.
“Half of them didn’t speak English,” he says. “Most of them didn’t even know who George was. They called him George Carmen.”
The next day, Bartini set up an online petition and within a day had collected more than 2,000 signatures in support of renaming the street. That number would eventually mushroom to 10,000. For its part, Corpus Christi gathered about 80 letters from members of its congregation written in opposition to the proposal. The community board told the two sides to work out a compromise. Soon, one was reached: A sign commemorating “George Carlin Way” would be hung from the east side of Amsterdam Avenue, which would effectively rename the 400 block of 121st St — between Amsterdam and Morningside Drive — rather than the 500 block, where both Carlin’s childhood home and Corpus Christi are located.
“It’s a great solution, when you think about it,” says comedian Colin Quinn, who is hosting a Carlin tribute show at Carolines on Broadway on Wednesday night. “It’s like an old neighborhood solution: Take it down the block. Have your fight there. George would love it.”
New York City councilman Mark Levine, who helped shepherd the proposal through the council as part of a twice-annual omnibus bill that renames several city streets at a time, says the compromise has made both sides happy. “It’s very fitting, though, that George found himself in the middle of a controversy right to the end,” he says. “But I think this works for everybody.”
Does it? Bartini sank more than three years and probably “more than $5,000” into his effort to memorialize Carlin on 121st Street. Was he happy with the outcome?
“For a while [it bothered me],” he says. “But it just dawned on me recently that this is the perfect way to go. Symbolically, the sign is hanging somewhere else just because the powers that be didn’t want you to know who George Carlin was or what he said. It cements even more what a counterculture icon he was. And still is.”