Master of the Map: 1600 streets, 1600 stories

Photo by Julius Motal

Photo by Julius Motal

This post has been corrected.

By Terence Cullen

After retiring from a 40-year career in urban and environmental studies, Gilbert Tauber dove into researching the city’s historic street names. Late last year, Tauber, 78, got into the backstory of the honorific co-named streets in the city – sifting through New York City Council documents for the 1,600-plus names for their ties to the Big Apple.

This piece is edited and condensed from an interview.

Last October, I got an email from Manhattan borough historian Mike Miscione that he’s lately been getting a number of questions about honorary street names. I looked into the matter. I found there was no easy way to find out about them.

The largest part of the task was reading through and digesting the biographical information that’s in these City Council documents. One of the evident things about honorific street names is it’s a way for City Council members to serve their constituents.

The unfortunate thing about these honorific names is that the great bulk of them are people who died untimely deaths. A significant fraction of those killed on 9/11 are memorialized. There was a conscious effort by the city government to give honorific street name recognition to at least all first responders.

My estimate is that 400 out of 1,600 honorific streets are named for people who died in the World Trade Center. Staten Island had the most named because you have a lot of first responders who lived there. Then you had a lot of people living on Staten Island who commuted to the World Trade Center — a lot of people who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald and Marsh McLennan.

Then you have policemen who were killed in the line of duty other than 9/11, crime victims and many people who died untimely deaths.

I can’t remember the name of the guy, but this was in Brooklyn. He[Joseph Rollino] was the last of the Coney Island Strongmen, and once lifted like 600 pounds with his teeth. He was out taking a walk when he was hit by a van, and he died at the age of 104.

When we look at the names of the people who were honored by honorific names, you find a much more diverse group of people ethnically than you do in the traditional street names. Certainly in Manhattan, the great bulk of the street names are Dutch or British or Scottish ancestry. Then there was a surge of naming streets after African-Americans – this probably would be the 70s and 80s.

I’m kind of a history buff and I was interested in this stuff. It was an extension of my hobby. But a hobby that’s related to my profession. I have to tell you there is a certain advantage to being retired and not having either a job or any final exams to go to.

Correction: An earlier version of this story identified Gilbert Tauber as a career urban planner with New York City. Mr. Tauber worked in the Convention and Visitors Bureau for six years, before moving on to work with non-profits and consulting firms.