History in Green and White: Stories Told by New York City’s Streets


Photo by Julius Motal

By Emilie Pons and Chau Ngo

In 1888, the wealthy furniture-man-turned-politician James J. Coogan woke up a day after losing a mayoral election to discover a potent signal that his influence over the city had disintegrated. Someone, presumedly his opponents, had taken down all the street signs on his street, Coogan Avenue, in what is now Harlem.

Like many streets in New York City then named after wealthy landlords, Coogan Avenue was only unofficially named when Coogan posted the signs himself. The Board of Alderman soon officially named the street Bradhurst Avenue, after another landlord. That name remains unchanged to this day.

Coogan’s political fall from grace and subsequent elimination from the city’s streetscape is one of the stories that Don Rogerson tells in his book, “Manhattan Street Names Past and Present.” The story of how the city’s streets were named offers “a framework to trace back to the city’s history and culture,” according to the Iowa-based author.

“Street names are a directly accessible link to the history of a place,” he said. “Every time we give a street address we push that history forward. They give us an easy opportunity to transform something usually thought of as mundane and practical into a regular reminder of our place in history.”

Modern New Yorkers may see the names of those streets on green signs or mobile mapping apps, but few know where those names came from. They remain oblivious to these artifacts of New York City’s history and culture dating back to the 17th century, when the earliest city maps were made.

Each street name tells a story, and it’s not always the one you may expect. New Street is ironically among the city’s oldest, built by the Dutch in 1679. Delancey Street, the iconic dividing line between the Lower East Side and the East Village, took its name from James Delancey, a New York chief justice and colonial governor who stood against the Americans in the Revolutionary War.

New York street names: A matter of practicality

Naming the streets in 17th-century New York City was a matter of practicality for Dutch businessmen. They named the streets after whatever natural or manmade features were physically there. Mill Street had a mill on it, and Stone Street was paved with stone.

“We have many names that come from obvious characteristics of the streets,” said Gilbert Tauber, a retired city planner and creator of the website oldstreets.com, which catalogues the city’s street names.

Broadway, the symbol of the city’s theater world, was named by the literal-minded Dutch to describe the street’s girth, Rogerson said.

Battery Place ran along the old battery on the southern tip of the island.

The name of the legendary Wall Street, which has become synonymous with the financial world, had nothing to do with money. It came from a wooden fortification built in 1653 around the city that protected the Dutch from Canarsie tribe attacks.

New York streets: From royalty to locals

Over the last 400 years, the naming of the city’s streets has seen a populist shift, from well-known and influential people to many who possess neither wealth nor power.

Under British rule, from 1664 to 1783, streets were named after royalty, including King Street and Little Queen Street. They were later renamed Pine Street and Cedar Street, said Sanna Feirstein, author of the book Naming New York: “Manhattan Places and How They Got Their Names.

“The City Council wanted to eradicate associations with the British aristocracy,” she said, adding that in the last few decades, the populist trend has intensified, with more and more streets taking names after regular people, she said.
“They are people who are important to each community.”

Street signs as a commemoration

In more recent years, city street signs have increasingly commemorated victims of tragedies, whether they died on  9/11 or in an accident that prompted a tightening of road safety rules.

Our analysis of the last 15 years of “honorific” street naming (co-naming a street in tribute to someone deemed worthy by the city) found that around 14 percent of New York City “co-named” blocks or streets were named after 9/11 victims, while another 15 percent took their names from the police officers and firefighters who were involved in rescue efforts following the attacks.

As the writer Joan Didion recalled in her essay “Goodbye to All That,” the street names themselves are deeply evocative, even to non-New Yorkers: “To those of us who came from places where no one had heard of Lester Lanin and Grand Central Station was a Saturday radio program, where Wall Street and Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue were not places at all but abstractions (“Money,” and “High Fashion,” and “The Hucksters”), New York was no mere city. It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself.”