The Secrets That Street Names Can Tell You About a Neighborhood

published Jun 23, 2021
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Growing up, I lived on Horseshoe Place, a quirky Nebraska street name that inspired the kids in the neighborhood to put our own unique spin on the basketball shooting game HORSE. (We played HORSESHOE PLACE, which took much longer but was, in our estimation, also more fun.)

Games aside, street names can actually tell us a lot about our neighborhoods and cities. Some are fairly standard — letters, numbers, and tree names, for instance — but others are more elaborate or symbolic, named for a city founder or an influential person in town. Some are a total mystery, even to local historians.

In many cities, street names are snapshots of a particular moment in time, offering a portal into the past — if only we take the time to notice them.

“I use them as a history lesson: who was this person? Why did they get a street named for them?” says Tom Noel, professor of history and director of public history, preservation, and Colorado studies at the University of Colorado Denver.

In the early days of the U.S., a city’s settlers or leaders decided on the street names, often using their own last names for simplicity or out of pride, Noel says. Later, developers primarily took over this role, often strategically picking names that would create a positive association with the new neighborhood

“You don’t often find a street called ‘Swamp’ or ‘Muddy Bottoms’ or a negative name,” Noel says. “Instead, you have ‘Paradise Road’ or ‘Heavenly Drive’ or whatever.”

Though some street names remain fixed for decades, others change over time. As cities grew, their leaders often undertook a project called street rationalization, which involved re-naming and re-numbering streets to be more consistent, especially in cases where entire thoroughfares were broken up with several different names. This was particularly helpful for utility providers and emergency responders, Noel notes. (So if your street name seems a little boring, that may be why — and you may be able to figure out its original name with a little digging!)

Street names also change because a community’s values and priorities have changed, Noel says. Because the United States sits on land stolen or taken by force from Native Americans, for example, many street names commemorate those events and the people who lead them. For example, Denver’s Market Street was originally McGaa Street, named for one of the city’s founders, William McGaa. But, as it turns out, McGaa was an unsavory character who, among other things, somewhat sneakily settled Denver on land belonging to the local Native population. City leaders gave his street a new name, Holladay Street, which later became Market Street. (The second name change came about because the street became a hub for sex work, so stigmatized at the time that the Holladay family didn’t want to be associated with it.)

Across the country, from Asheville, North Carolina to Brooklyn, New York, activists are advocating changing the names of streets that celebrate the confederacy and people who owned enslaved people.

Phoenix recently changed two street names, one that glorified the Confederacy and one that used an anti-Native American slur. University City, Missouri, is considering 200 offensively-named street name changes, while Santa Barbara recently renamed a street to remove anti-Native American language. Minneapolis is renaming a portion of Chicago Avenue in honor of George Floyd, killed by police on that street in May 2020.

In the same vein, new street names are a way to honor important figures, contemporary or historical, or draw attention to a city’s historically overlooked residents. David Heighway, county historian for Hamilton County, Indiana, recently selected new street names for a development in the city of Noblesville. For one of them, he chose “Hoard Drive,” named for three Black brothers who enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War. One brother, John Hoard, returned to Noblesville after the war and ran for the elected law enforcement position of city constable in 1880. He won the election handily and served in the role for four years.

“These are stories that aren’t being told, and they’re an important part of the county’s history,” Heighway says. “It’s just clarifying the historic record. There’s this hugely important person who, just through cultural amnesia, has disappeared. We need to bring them back and talk about them.”