How much do you know about the street names we speak every day? The streets we live on, drive down, punch into Google Maps?
The new book Names of New York, by geographer and writer Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, tells the stories behind New York City street names, and reveals many surprising and little-known tales from Brooklyn.
To write the book, Jelly-Schapiro spent time digging through research, with a particular interest in the ways street names can be portals to understanding the past.
“Brooklyn has an immense amount of rich history and toponymic history,” Jelly-Schapiro said.
One well known part of our toponymic history — the history of our place names — is that Brooklyn was once Breuckelen, named by Dutch colonists after a town in the Netherlands.
Things start getting interesting when you zoom into certain neighborhoods. “There’s some fascinating clusters of street names,” Jelly-Schapiro said.
For example, when the old Lefferts Farm was being subdivided in Crown Heights, surveyors and developers decided to name all the streets for towns upstate: Troy, Utica, Albany, all the way across to Buffalo.
“They are actually in geographical order,” Jelly-Schapiro said. “They evoke a journey up and across the Erie Canal.”
In Williamsburg, a potential misspelling has left us with Keap Street, when it probably should have been Kean Street. When the surveyor, Mr Williams, laid out the streets in the early 1800s, a whole set of streets were named after the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Jelly-Schapiro said.
However, Thomas McKean was one of the last ones to sign, and there wasn’t much room left to scrawl his name on the document. The illegibility likely led to the misspelled Keap Street. “It was a hilarious accident.”
Down in Red Hook, the neighborhood was named by the Dutch for the iron-rich, reddish land at the spit (hoek in Dutch). A little further south was Yellow Hook, named for a sulphuric tint in the earth.
“But later on changed it because there was a yellow fever outbreak and it became an unsavory thing to call it Yellow Hook,” Jelly-Schapiro said. “Now it’s basically Bay Ridge.”
The history of power and prejudice can be read as much by whose names were used, as whose were left out.
In Brooklyn, by one count there are still 70 streets that are named after or honor people who were slave owners and traffickers. As people become aware of this, the question of what to do about it arises, Jelly-Schapiro said. Is the name removed, or do we provide education to highlight the centrality of slavery to the region’s history?
What’s just as vital is commemorating other histories and individuals involved in shaping resistance to different forms of oppression, he said.
“Celebrating other people who haven’t been celebrated in our public spaces: Notably women, people of color and activists for social change.”
Jelly-Schapiro is also co-author with Rebecca Solnit of the City of Women subway map, a map that renames every station after a notable woman with a New York connection.
He said it was exciting to see so much space and energy right now for highlighting these repressed histories, making them part of public space and how it shapes our sense of where we live and what’s possible.
One thing that is unique to New York is our ability to add secondary or honorary street names to the city, with more than 2,000 additional street names added across the city since a law allowing the renaming was passed in 1992.
“Some people think its too much, actually,” Jelly-Schapiro said. “But it’s a wonderful way to honor people who haven’t received their dues.”
Jelly-Schapiro is also the author of Island People: The Caribbean and the World, co-editor of Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas and is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books.