Of New York’s many numbered streets and avenues, Lexington Ave, Canal Street, and Broadway, as well as a handful of roads still bear more traditional titles. These street names refer to individuals, landmarks, and historical events that helped shape the city in its early days, even as centuries and layers of pavement obscured New York’s original topography. While many of these streets have taken on new connotations – Wall Street, for example, has more or less become a metonym for the city’s financial industry – their origins offer a fascinating insight into what life was like in New York. .
History of NYC street names
Unsurprisingly, the Financial District’s best-known thoroughfare takes its name from an actual wall that marked the northern border of the city when it was still the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. About twelve feet high, this wall was erected in 1653 to repel attacks or invasions by pirates, English forces and displaced Native Americans. New Amsterdam became the English colony of New York in 1664, and the wall was eventually demolished in 1699 to accommodate expanding city limits. The street name, however, persisted.
No “street” or “avenue” designation is necessary – The Bowery is recognized by modern New Yorkers as an entity beyond those titles. Before its renaming in 1813, however, the street was called Boery Lane. Centuries earlier, the road was originally named “Construction,” the Dutch word for “farm”, by the Dutch East India Company in reference to the farmland that dominated the area when they settled in Manhattan in the 1620s. The current name is an anglicization of the original Dutch and is still a another relic of the city’s turnover in English hands.
When examining a city street map, a casual observer might be surprised to find that there is no 4th Avenue between 3rd and 5th Avenue. This is because most of the street that once bore that name was renamed Park Avenue in the 1850s– through a six-block stretch of the boulevard from NoHo to Union Square is still known as 4th Ave. Despite its proximity to Central Park, Park Ave was actually named after a park that was built to cover the New York Semi-Underground Line and Harlem Railroad after part of the railway was discontinued in the mid-19th century.
Canal Street is another New York road named after a now nonexistent landmark. A large tank known as Collect the pond once served as a source of fresh water for residents of downtown Manhattan until tanneries began using the pond as a receptacle for their waste in the late 1700s. To help drain polluted water , the city dug a canal in 1808 which flowed into the Hudson River. Eventually the smell of contaminated water became unbearable for residents and plans were drawn up to turn the canal into a covered sewer by tarring it. The resulting road became Canal Street.
Any New Yorker worth their salt knows not to mispronounce the name of this street as “HYOO-ston”. However, few realize that Houston is not only the eponym of Constitutional Convention delegate William Houstoun, but that the street has misspelled the name of the man it is meant to honor. Houston Street was originally named by Houstoun’s father-in-law Nicholas Bayard III in 1788 as Bayard was in the process of dividing up his substantial downtown estate. It is assumed that the second “u” was dropped from “Houstoun” at some point during the last centuries due to confusion with the name of Sam Houstonthe famous general and senator after whom Houston, Texas is named.
Christopher Street has long been synonymous with emergence of the LGBTQ rights movement and the thriving queer nightlife of Greenwich Village. At its beginnings, the street was known as Skinner Road after English Colonel William Skinner, son-in-law of Greenwich Village landowner, Vice-Admiral Peter Warren. When Warren’s heir, Charles Christopher Amos, took over the family estate in 1799, he had the brilliant idea of renaming Christopher Street after, well, himself. Amos also very generously named neighboring streets Charles Street and Amos Street (the latter is now known as 10th Street) after him.
SoHo’s Crosby Street was named in honor of millionaire William Bedloe Crosby, the adopted nephew of Revolutionary War hero Henry Rutgers (who gave Rutgers University his name). Crosby became known for his philanthropic generosity to people and organizations in need across New York’s historic 7th Ward in the mid-19th century, so unlike Charles Christopher Amos, he didn’t have to give his name. on the street – grateful members of the community named her for him. .
This shop-lined street in Greenwich Village takes its name from the Bleecker Family, a notable part of Manhattan’s upper crust in the 18th century. Prominent members of the Bleecker clan include Anthony Lispenard Bleecker, businessman and director of Trinity Church, and his son Anthony, a well-respected writer and historian. When the family fell on hard times and were forced to sell portions of their land, the property along Bleecker Street was among the portions of their estate turned over to the city.
It’s hard to imagine the modern Financial District as a picturesque meadow dotted with springs and streams, but that’s exactly what it was when New York was still New Amsterdam. It was the Dutch who first gave the name “Virgin Paatje“, or “Maiden’s Path”, to what was then a winding path alongside a merry stream. The place was a favorite place for the young daughters of the Dutch settler to wash the family laundry, and it’s nice to imagine what the serene landscape of the area must have looked like to them as they crossed the now cobbled Maiden Lane.
Anyone who remembers studying the Revolutionary War in high school (or who recently had the opportunity to listen Hamilton: an American musical) no doubt heard of the essayist Thomas Paine, who fanned the flames of the patriotic spirit with his 1776 pamphlet Common sense. Barrow Street today originally bore the name Reason Street in honour of The age of Reason, another famous work by Paine. As public opinion of Paine cooled towards the start of the 19th century, in part because of his scathing public remarks towards famous figures such as George Washington, locals instead began calling the road “Raisin Street”. In the end, the street was entirely renamed Barrow Street in 1828 in honor of Thomas Barrow, an artist and sexton of nearby Trinity Church.