A Street by Any Other Name…

By Bruce Cherry

…would be equally confusing, as Bruce Cherry discovers in his look at New York’s honorary street names.

Our perplexed correspondent. Photo by Emmy Rivera.

Our perplexed correspondent. Photo by Emmy Rivera.

Want to confuse a New Yorker? Ask him to meet you at Sixth Avenue and Henny Youngman Way. It’s easy to find, since it’s just three blocks north of W.C. Handy Place.

Even the most experienced cabbie would probably be mystified by this, unless he’s a huge aficionado of Borscht Belt humor or early blues. But Henny Youngman Way (a block of 55th Street) and W.C. Handy Place (part of 52nd Street) are real, official addresses, thanks to New York City’s propensity for bestowing honorary street names on the famous, the infamous, and some who, at this point, are simply baffling.

Some honorary designations occur in addition to whatever number or name the street usually goes by, while others are either named for someone from the outset, or have replaced the original name completely. Harlem leads the way in official redesignations, naming streets after notables such as Frederick Douglass; Malcolm X; Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.; and, oddly, St. Nicholas. The latter street is now named for two people, since Mayor Giuliani renamed a section of St. Nicholas Avenue “Juan Pablo Duarte Boulevard,” after one of the founders of the Dominican Republic, in 2000. Genuine tribute, or part of the War on Christmas? You decide.

The vast majority of street renamings are honorary, with the original street name retained for practical use. This avoids confusion, and also avoids arousing the ire of merchants who have to buy all new stationary and business cards because their establishment suddenly resides on Gilda Radner Way.

Show business legends loom large in our city, and as such, New York streets include Charlie Parker Place, Nat King Cole Walk, Leonard Bernstein Place, Run-DMC JMJ Way, and Duke Ellington Circle, to name but a few. There is also an Edgar Allan Poe Street, which presumably has a comfortable gutter. A block of 54th Street at Broadway is known as Señor Wences Way, after the ventriloquist whose dummy was a face painted onto his hand. It would be a nice touch to put lips and eyes on the hand in the “Don’t Walk” signal at that corner, but that may be asking too much.

Its not just streets, but thoroughfares that honor our dignitaries, from the Joe DiMaggio Highway (the official name of the West Side Highway), to the FDR Drive, to tiny Asser Levy Place off of 23rd Street. FDR gets a more impressive roadway, but Asser Levy was the leader of the first Jewish settlement in what became the United States, right here on Manhattan Island in 1654. Personally, I think anyone named Asser deserves a street name just for the teasing he must have endured as a child.

I don’t begrudge Franklin Roosevelt or Joe DiMaggio their major arteries, since it’s not easy to crush fascism or to hit in 56 consecutive games. But I do wonder how it’s decided who gets a “street” and who gets stuck with a “way” or a “place.” Bob Marley has an entire boulevard in Brooklyn, while W.C. Handy and Charlie Parker, who are just as important to their respective genres, each gets only a place. A street in Greenwich Village is named for Dave Van Ronk, a musician known chiefly for his association with Bob Dylan. But Dylan, a legend who wrote a song called “Positively 4th Street,” doesn’t get so much as an alleyway. How does it feel?

While street renamings must be approved by the City Council and the Mayor, there are also temporary renamings made at the discretion of the Department of Transportation. The Department’s guidelines say that renamings cannot promote “products, commercial entities, political parties, and/or political candidates.” So you won’t find a Michael Bloomberg Boulevard, which is good, because I assume he’d never let the street end.

The department is somewhat lax on the bit about not promoting commercial entities, though. New York has briefly had an MTV Music Awards Street, People Magazine Way, and even a Barbie Street — and that was Wall Street, which was officially renamed Barbie Street for one day in 1999 to celebrate the doll’s 40th birthday. One can only hope that her dream house wasn’t purchased with a subprime mortgage.

Other temporary street renamings last for up to a month. In the case of Tiny Tim Place, that was pretty much longer than his career.

Of course, having a street named for you isn’t the same as actually being remembered. Many of the ancient streets of Lower Manhattan were originally named for people who are now all but forgotten, while their eponymous streets have literally become part of the landscape. Their names endure on subway stops and in shouted instructions to cabbies, but precious few people know who John Broome, William Houston, Richard Varick, or Anthony Bleecker were. Other streets, like Leonard and Thomas in Tribeca, are merely named for the children of 18th-century landowners. John Street in the Financial District is named for a shoemaker who had a shop there in the 1600s. I’m sure he made excellent shoes, but he basically achieved street name immortality by getting here first. Those who are several hundred years too late will have to achieve great things to have a street with your name on it — or you could just change your name to Henny Youngman.

Last 5 posts by Bruce Cherry

Posted on 31 Mar 2010 at 12:29pm
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