The D.C. Department of Recreation and Parks gets a new start under an assumed name.

When Mao Tse-tung overthrew the Chinese government in 1949, he proclaimed that the Middle Kingdom was now the People’s Republic of China. When North Vietnam overpowered Saigon, that former imperialist outpost became Ho Chi Minh City. And not long after Boris Yeltsin ousted Russia’s Communists, their Leningrad was re-christened St. Petersburg.

For revolutionaries, the power to rename is almost as popular as the power to guillotine: Erase the ancien regime’s titles, the logic goes, and you erase its bad memories. Proclaiming a new name is the first step to creating a new world order.

In the year since Anthony A. Williams became mayor, D.C. has made its own stab at a nomenclatural revolution. Williams turned the dull Office of the Ombudsman into the crusading Office of the Public Advocate. The city’s main switchboard, 727-1000, became the dramatic-sounding Citywide Call Center.

But none of these changes could have prepared the calcified bureaucracy for the administration’s latest assault. Remember D.C.’s rec department, with its reputation for broken infrastructure, ghost Little League teams, and mysterious outlays that triggered three separate FBI investigations, according to department sources and parks activists? Last month, those bad memories toppled like an oversized statue of Stalin. Newly installed Director Robert P. Newman officially changed the department’s name from the Department of Recreation and Parks to the Department of Parks and Recreation.

Think Steve Martin in My Blue Heaven. “If you’re putting someone in the Witness Protection Program, you change everything, including their name,” Newman explains. “You’ve got to change the name to complete the process.”

Before moving to Washington, Newman served as manager of administration and operations for New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation—not Recreation and Parks, mind you. (Newman worked for the Academy for Educational Development, an educational nonprofit located in the District, before switching to the D.C. government.)

Newman admits that some might consider the alteration vain cosmetic surgery. After all, a guy who really wanted to shake things up might have done a little better than reversing two lousy words in the agency’s title. But Newman insists that the change is more of a heart transplant than a nose job. “Most other urban cities have a Department of Parks and Recreation, but that’s not reason enough [to change the name],” he says. “Parks and open space and natural resources have not received a high level of priority in this city. Before, parks was ancillary to the mission, but it is now the core.”

He makes a good point. Until 1987, the city’s Department of Public Works mowed the lawns and scooped up the Colt 45 bottles that litter the city’s open spaces. But in that year, jurisdiction over physical maintenance of the city’s parks switched to the Department of Recreation, which tacked the privilege onto the end of its name. Good open spaces and natural resources beget good recreational opportunities, Newman argues. The old name suggested otherwise. “It put the horse in front of the cart,” he says.

Those who rely on the department hope Newman’s attention to semiotics will amount to more than just that. “I hope this means that they’ll start cutting the grass on a regular basis,” says Mary Ann Floto, former president of the Babe Ruth League, which fields youth baseball teams citywide.

Newman’s linguistic jihad might take a while to implement—even in its physical manifestation. The sign in front of department headquarters on 16th Street NW still reads, “Recreation and Parks.” So does the bulletin board in the front entryway that lists Newman as director. And all public notices from the office—say, the announcement of this week’s community meeting on the ABCs of permit procedures—still bear the mark of the old regime.

Newman says that change will come about slowly but surely. “Hopefully, by next week, you will go to the Department of Parks and Recreation building,” he says.

Around the holidays, Newman delivered each rec department “family” member a card and signature pin debuting the new name. “We are family going through changes, including our name, but, we will ultimately be a family that is bound by the common interests of creating communities through people, parks, and programs,” Newman wrote.

The turnaround will have no fiscal impact, Newman claims. “It won’t be a situation where we will change all the signs at once,” he adds. “As we order new signs, we’ll put the new name on them.” CP