“I still think of this as Logan Street,”
Jim Johnson said as we drove along Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. It was Memorial
Day and we were going to see the parade downtown.
“It’s been more than a decade since the street name was changed
to honor Dr. King,” I replied. “I’m sure Mr. Logan would be
pleased that you still think of him.”
“Logan was a man?” Johnson exclaimed. “I thought
it was the name of a tree, like Pine, Sycamore, Walnut and the other north-south roads
“Nope,” I said. “John Alexander Logan was a Civil
War General from Kentucky who commanded the Army of Tennessee in Georgia and then
became a senator from Illinois. I’m not sure what his name is doing in
“Is that so? I guess the street wasn’t much of a memorial
to him if people don’t know who he was,” Johnson said.
“Ironic, too. I read that he was also the founder of Memorial
As we drove along, Johnson read aloud the names of the cross streets.
“Bailey…Everett…Barnes.” Then he shook his head.
“Who knows who any of these people are? Or were! Trivia. That’s
all it is.”
I agreed. “Logan could just as well have been named after the guy
who developed the loganberry, the late 19th century horticulturist and Supreme Court
justice, James Harvey Logan.”
Johnson was not listening to me. He pondered, then said, “You
know, they should have renamed the street Douglas instead.”
“Douglas?” I exclaimed. “Talk about trivia. Who
the hell is Douglas?”
“It’s a fir,” he answered. “It follows the
tree names scheme.”
think about it, naming a street after a human being is a curious practice –
almost pointless. For one, hardly ever does the honoree have a connection to the
street or anything on it. For another, rarely does anyone seeing the street
label pause and reflect on the memorialized soul. Almost certainly for residents
and visitors those syllables that once pointed at the individual will only
paint a mental picture of that place. And it may not be a pretty picture.
I remember driving down Beaubien Street in downtown Detroit decades ago.
I gawked at the old and uneven three-stories dressed in tattered siding and
peeling paint and trimmed with narrow dirt lawns and vagrant artifacts. I
grimaced at the sight of the poor inhabitants who walked, talked, laughed,
lazed, and played, not knowing the predicament I saw them in, trapped there
on wretched Beaubien Street. If that French settler who farmed a ribbon of
land here two centuries earlier could have peered into the future and seen
the poverty and blight, Antoine Beaubien might have titled his property under
another name, being content to hide his surname in the shadows of history.
A more renowned example is the street duo of Haight-Ashbury that evinces an inelegant
picture of the 1960s hippie movement. Henry Haight,
a prominent local banker in San Francisco who founded the Protestant Orphan Asylum, would surely revile at
the association. (Ashbury comes from a district in England located midway
between Ashfield and Canterbury.)
Countless examples can be given. With good intentions, people’s names get
stuck on buildings and roads with much pride and honor, in hope and memory.
But intentions are momentary, pride and honor evaporate, and hope and memory
fade. The black hole of time sucks the meaning out of the memorial, and the
origin of a name gravitates to trivia, then obscurity. It seems a natural
law of our culture.
That may not happen as quickly with Dr. King’s boulevard. (Perhaps the late
might not have lost his street had it been called General John A.
Logan Blvd.) Even though the syllables “Martin Luther King, Jr.”
are becoming ever diluted as the name gets tagged onto hundreds of streets,
schools, parks and libraries, its meaning as the man who “had a dream”
will not be soon forgotten. On the other hand, rarely does a thoroughfare
have to bear such a train of syllables. Not even George (or was it Martha)
Washington got it all on his (her) avenues in so many American cities.
Can you imagine living on Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. and having to scribble
this epitaph (to the 16th century priest) within an epitaph (to papa King)
within an epitaph (to the assassinated civil rights leader) every time you
wrote your address? This triple commemoration begs to be shortened to M. L.
King, or MLK. One could easily imagine it being jokingly called Milk Blvd. Perhaps it
will end up being called simply King Blvd., whereupon feminists in the future
will demand a Queen Avenue. Someone suggested to me that they should have
renamed the former Logan Street after both the civil rights leader and former
Chief Justice Warren Burger,
thus yielding the compromise street name of Burger/King Blvd.
The odd thing about the City of Lansing renaming Logan Street to MLK Blvd. (See what I mean?)
is that it had as much direct connection to Dr. King as to General Logan – none.
The renaming was simply an affirmative action for street names. Yet there
was a famous black leader who does have links to the city,
Malcolm X. He was
born Malcolm Little and went to school in Lansing, Michigan during the 1930s.
Although he has his detractors, many consider him an important legacy in the
The problem would be just what exactly to name the memorial street. Certainly
not Little Street – referring to that “slave name” he was born with.
Using his Harlem name, Malcolm X, might be appropriate since he liked Malcolm,
and the X refers to his unknown heritage lost with the enslavement of his
ancestors. But then again he might have preferred the Muslim name he took
a year before his assassination. “Could you deliver a pizza to 1173 South
El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz Boulevard?”
I don’t know if his final name had anything to do with it, but you will
not find many streets memorializing him. Other than a Malcolm X Boulevard in Brooklyn,
only in Sacramento, California will you find a street named after him. It
is between W Street and Y Street.
In any case, I doubt there will be any more memorializing with street
names in Lansing for a long while. After King got his boulevard, the residents of
Mexican ancestry persuaded the city council to change the name of Grand Avenue,
a mile-long downtown street, to César Chávez Avenue. An outcry resulted, not
from any disrespect for Mr.
Chávez but because the populace had had enough name changing. A petition put the
question on the ballot and a majority of voters returned the old “Grand” name
to its street. San Franciscans likewise fought to return César Chávez Street
back to its original name, Army Street, but failed.
The same story of community fighting over street names is told across
the country. But the wrangling is not always over a memorial name. In 1998, in
Concord, New Hampshire, there happened to be two Walnut Streets and city authorities
were concerned about emergency vehicles not responding to the correct address.
So the six families of the newer street were asked to come up with another
name for their road. The neighbors decided to make a party out of their meeting,
but after the initial amusement wore off they found that agreement was not
easy. Suggestions like Memory Lane, Woodpecker Street, Lois Lane, and, yes, even
Martin Luther King Way were made. But all were rejected. After some squabbling,
only one name got a majority vote, Black Dog Lane, because so many black dogs
roamed the neighborhood.
But a minority resisted and urged the city council to reject that
name. One woman objected because her son had been bitten by a black dog. Soon some
of the residents of old Walnut Street were not talking to their neighbors. What
had started out as fun had turned into fury. A few weeks later, a new meeting was
held, this one in serious and somber mood. The “Black Dog” faction
relented and in the end the group unanimously voted to live on Orion Path. I
wonder if Harmony Lane was a candidate?
Usually streets get named not by residents but by those with money
enough to stroke their own ego. When agricultural land is engrossed by a growing
suburb, invariably a byway or two is labeled after the farmer who toiled there,
or his wife, or his favorite heifer. Developers, too, often and immodestly
placed their own names on streets in emerging subdivisions. And we must not
forget our pork barreling legislators. In the 1970s, Michigan Senator Garland
Lane was instrumental in providing funds for an upstart university north of
Detroit and so a street was named Gar Lane. Clever, yes, but Gar Lane Lane
would have been devilish.
Buildings, like streets, are magnets for personal names. The profusion
of edifices in our growing culture is like a subway wall waiting for the graffiti
of human labels. But naming public buildings can be a delicate matter. Naming
the State Law Building after a Democratic governor is only possible if the
executive office building is named for a Republican governor. School buildings
once were tagged with a code like P. S. #87, or some logical designation like
Northern High School, but now they get the patronymic of a dead school board
member like Van Pickle Elementary School to the embarrassment of the students.
The vast majority of schools in the United States have memorial names, the
most common being Lincoln, Jefferson, Kennedy and recently King.
Naming a public school after a dead hero of history or late local lion
is about as creative as using the community name, such as Oak Park Middle School
or Eaton Rapids Elementary School. For a comparison, look at the imaginative
names now being given to for-profit charter schools – names like North Star
Academy, Neighborhood House, Landmark Schools and Explorations. A New Yorker
cartoon shows a school building with a sign in front reading “THE KNOWLEDGE
HUT” and in small print underneath “FORMERLY P. S. 102.”
Buildings like streets can run into difficulties in the course of
gaining a name. I worked in what was once the Stoddard Building, formerly owned by
the bank across the street and named after its president
Howard J. Stoddard. Bought
and renovated by the Michigan Legislature, it became the Senate Office Building, or, to
their chagrin, S.O.B. As you might expect, the next prominent person to die got his
name on the building. Fortunately it wasn’t a former senator named Tall.
At the Mt. Clemens
Hospital in Michigan one of the benefactors of the institution was a physician
named Charles Ward. By his contributions and leadership, a new wing was added and
named after him, the Ward Annex – but I like to call it the Ward Ward.
Some surnames just don’t suit buildings. Can you imagine naming a
hospital after Al Gore? And Roach – even though it is not an uncommon name, I doubt
there will ever be a hotel memorializing it. On the other hand, a hospital named
after Nathan Hale would be all right. Not so for Dr. Jack Kevorkian – if they
want to honor him it should be with a dead end street.
Main Street and More
The naming and renaming of streets, buildings, towns, parks and whatnot
after people has been going on for ages. But streets are special kinds of places. They
are moving and static at the same time; you can travel along River Blvd. and live on
Pond Avenue. Streets are part of addresses as well as directions to those addresses.
They belong to residents and visitors alike. And they usually come in bunches, getting
named either systematically like battleships or capriciously like the seven dwarves.
Of all the things that get named, streets seem to get the most diverse labeling.
Nothing in the language is disqualified from being used. We find streets being named after not
only people, but also cities, states, Indian tribes, trees, flowers, and all kinds of fluff
stuff like Skyline, Crestview, and Pleasant This and Pleasant That. Street names can be numbers
or letters, utterly prosaic like North Street, almost poetic like Just-A-Mere Ave, or an
ordinary dictionary word like Stadium, Duty or Electric.
Byways are such an integral part of our lives their names pop up in all sorts
of unlikely places. Madison Avenue
is not only a road in New York City but an icon of the advertising world. Even though
Lover’s Lane is the name of several roads in the United States, it is often the nickname
applied to secluded parkways where couples stop to discuss foreign affairs and such.
Words to Designate a Street
(see Wikipedia entry for a complete list.)
Street signs sometimes reach beyond their roads and have an impact that is
not only geographical but cultural as well. The table, Street Names
in the Language, gives several examples of how a street name can take on a new meaning.
Like people names, streets have a kind of surname, or generic classification,
as well as a first name. The first name is the important part, like 5th, Glendale, or Vine. The
second, or generic, part alone will not help you find an address – words like Circle, Place,
Avenue, etc. – but they do add distinction and perhaps a little color. There are dozens of
these generic designations for streets, “street” being the most common. It originates
from the Anglo Saxon mutilation of the Latin “via strata,” or “layered (paved)
way” and was used to refer to the superior Roman roads.
Other synonyms entered the language because “street” had become redundant.
In large urban areas with numerous thoroughfares (A confused version of the term “through
fare”), more variation was needed. So, for example, in the 19th century, when the city of
Washington was being laid out, the French “avenue” (Avenir) was adopted. This brought
a new sophistication to naming streets and other cities followed the lead, notably New York which
gave the north-south roads the designation “avenue.” By the end of the century, the word
“street” was hardly ever used as part of a street name. But the popularity of
“avenue” was not immune to creeping cultural change. In the 1920s, it was being replaced
by “drive” in the subdivisions of the growing cities.
After World War II, community developers had discovered that houses sold more quickly if they
were located on ways, crosses, lanes, places, and other creative fluff. And the generic designation did not
even have to imply a byway of any kind, just a place, as with words like dale, forest, garden, and valley.
Now it is possible to choose a byway’s generic designation beginning with nearly any letter in the
alphabet as shown in the table to the right.
The biggest impact on American and Canadian cities came with the founding of the
Quaker colony by William
Penn in 1682. When he arrived in Philadelphia, he found that the
few streets there were called after the most prominent person living on them. Like the good Quaker he was, Penn disliked the
aggrandizement of any one person over any other. So he insisted that no personal names were to be used in naming the streets.
Penn devised a rational system of parallel roads that would be given rational designations. The north-south streets would be
given numbers starting with 1st Street near the bank of the Delaware River. 1st Street eventually became Front Street. The
east-west roads would be named after trees, like Chestnut, Locust, Spruce, and Filbert. Over time, however, the pull of chaos
was too strong and eventually roads were named or renamed helter skelter after people, far-away places, and whatnots, resulting
in a Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Christian Street, Passyunk Avenue, Wylie Street, Race Street, etc.
But Penn did start a trend – so many towns followed his example that a compilation of
the most popular street names in the United States finds numbers and trees leading the list (see table Top
20 Street Names in the United States below.) Curiously, First Street is not among the top five on the list
because in many towns, as in Philadelphia, it was named something else, like Front, River, Atwater, Edge, Market
or whatever distinguished that primary road. One of the most popular alternatives to First was Main, but not
enough so as to place it in the top five. Still with the help of Sinclair Lewis the phrase “Main Street”
has become a coin of the language, a symbol of provincial small towns. In Vermontville, Michigan, the streets
of East Main, West Main, South Main and North Main all meet at a point in the town that is mainly not so main.
Top 20 Street Names in the United States|
| 1. Second
||11. Pine |
| 2. Third
||12. Maple |
| 3. First
| 4. Fourth
||14. Eighth |
| 5. Park
||15. Elm |
| 6. Fifth
||16. View |
| 7. Main
| 8. Sixth
|| 18. Ninth|
| 9. Oak
||19. Lake |
||20. Hill |
Among the towns following Penn’s rational urban design was the United States Capitol in
the District of Columbia. The municipality was created by Congress to be the seat of government in 1790 and
was to be located on a site chosen by George Washington. He selected a place as close to his Mount Vernon as
possible, a swampy 10 square miles straddling the Potomac River including 1200 acres of his own.
A Frenchman in the American Army Corps of Engineers,
Pierre Charles L’Enfant,
was given the task of planning the city byways. Using Versailles
as a model he laid out streets in a grid pattern, adorning the intersections with circles and squares. To break the
tiresome symmetry, he proposed grand avenues cutting diagonally across the grid to connect major buildings.
L’Enfante might have had more to do with the scheme, but his ill temperament eventually caused George Washington
to ask Andrew Ellicott to complete the project. But it was
the commissioners of the new city who chose the scheme of assigning numbers and letters to street names. As for
L’Enfante’s majestic avenues, they would be named for the States.
The city grew in fits and starts and the rational approach to street names gave way to all
kinds of aberrations. New lands added to the city brought a potpourri of street names honoring land owners
and their family members. Duplicate names appeared on opposite sides of the city. Some byways changed
names each block or so. After the Civil War it was not just the street names that were a mess. The roads
were rutted and muddy, the parks overgrown, housing inadequate and expensive, and even the morals of the
society were questioned. Washington is not a nice place to live,” wrote
Horace Greeley in July of 1865.
Revitalization came in 1871, and by the end of the century improvements brought respect. In 1899,
Congress enacted strict guidelines for the naming of streets in the District. Among the rules were the following:
- a) North/south streets are numbered consecutively starting at the Capitol.
- b) East/west streets are sequentially lettered, then given two syllable names
in alphabetic order, then three syllable names – names of distinguished leaders
such as presidents, supreme court justices, etc.
- c) Diagonal avenues are given State names.
- d) Streets that are aligned must bear the same name.
- e) Byways not part of the grid and diagonal plan are designated roads, places, courts, drives, etc.
This scheme produces a mirrored duplication of street labels emanating from the Capitol, so that
there would be two 2nd Streets and two A Streets, etc. This required the addition of compass codes such as SW, or NE.
The changeover to the new system caused great headaches for the residents because so many streets
had to be renamed to abide by the rules. 3rd Street became 4th Street, Columbus became 20th, Cincinnati became
Cleveland, S became Cambridge, V became S, and on and on. By 1906, the task was completed and hardly any of the
old names survived. Well, it was almost completed. The designation Indiana Avenue disappeared in 1907 because of
construction, then reappeared as the name of a street that was called Louisiana Avenue because that name was
given to a new street north of the Capitol.
Of course what good are rules without exceptions. For example, there is no J Street (probably
because the letter could too easily be taken to be an I) but there is a Jay Street named after Chief Justice
John Jay. Nor are there any X, Y or Z Streets. Half Street had to be inserted south of the Capitol. The diagonal
South Dakota Avenue turns into 3rd Street, while the eely Michigan Avenue is hardly a diagonal at all. California
and Ohio are “streets” instead of “avenues” like all the other roads named after States.
There are other exceptions to the rules, but you get the point. And it will only get worse. Each
year city planners are confronted with a gale of new names proposed for current streets and new ones being built.
Now you know why the tax code is what it is.
Square Root of Two Blvd.
Sometimes a new era cultivates a new naming scheme. In the 1850s when States were sprouting across
the continent, Penn’s notion of designating roads by tree variety took root and a virtual forest of Oak, Elm,
Pine and Maples Streets arose around the country. After the Civil War, many cities grew outward and new roads
memorialized land owners, war heroes and politicians. In downtown Chicago, for example, the ordinal east-west
streets designations were replaced with presidents’ names.
In the next century, planned communities looked for style by labeling their byways
according to motifs and themes, and later less cultured developers settled for pastoral fluff like
“Glen this” and “Green that.”
In Detroit, the various naming schemes scattered about reveal the spasmodic growth
of the city. Colonial names define the oldest parts of town, then numbered streets the next oldest.
A dozen or so state names appear beyond these. A series of “lawns” such as Cherrylawn,
Greenlawn and Roselawn radiate from center town to the northwest. We find a tribe of Indian names
like Seminole, Seneca, and Iroquois in the south east. But on top of all the schemes, the predominant
motif is patronymic chaos, from Washington to Sobrieski, Jefferson to Hafeli, Wanda to Gallagher.
In 1835, the people of Detroit wanted to honor their first mayor by naming a couple of streets
after him. Thus there is a street named John R and another named Williams. A major thoroughfare honors a
veteran of the War of 1812, General Charles Gratiot.
For some obscure reason, the locals pronounce the
avenue “grass shit” as opposed to rhyming it with patriot.
In the Houston area, isolated groups of numbered streets mark the city’s past like
carcasses in a desert. The rest of the road names are as diverse as the structures that cast shadows on
the roads, everything from Marble to Wood, Big Stone to Tiny Tree. One can meander this booming metropolis
and find street names like Laurel and Hardy, Bombay and Paris, Winter Bay and Summer Dew. There is even a
Cocoa Street and a Cola Street. I wonder if they will ever name a road after that great 16th century German
Augustinian priest, Martin Luther?
In contrast, Phoenix in Arizona has a marvelously consistent numbering scheme for its north/south
roads. Every byway west of Central Avenue is numbered sequentially (1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.) and always called an
Avenue – or sometimes Drive or Lane or Parkway. Every byway to the east is numbered sequentially and always
called a Street – or Place or Road or Court or Way. As a result, there is a 5th Street and a 5th Avenue
instead of a 5th St. N.E. and 5th St. S.E. as in Washington, D. C. The important thing, though, is that there are
no exceptions to this scheme – number names for every single longitudinal road…except Mitchell Street,
and Dayton Street, and Evergreen Street and a few others. Now, the east/west roads have their own scheme –
they are named in a perfectly random fashion. So, if you are driving north on 7th Street, and you cross Oak Street,
you can be one hundred percent sure that Pine or Elm or Cedar will not be the name of the next road.
Helena, Montana probably represents the
typical small city in America. It has numbered streets also, but they are a meager lot, lost in the montage of themes,
personal names, and random labels. Under the big sky you will find streets named after favored presidents like Grant
and Cleveland, several tree types like Pine and Cedar, some female first names like Elaine and Lola, a few states
like Kentucky and Alaska, dozens of surnames like Townsend and Ewing, and the miscellany like Euclid, Big Sky, and
Fleet. In addition, you will find a Main Street, a stretch of which has the name Last Chance Gulch Street. Now there
is a good candidate to be renamed Cesar Chavez Ave.
Everywhere in the U. S., it is clear that numbering streets is not an enduring scheme. Yet isn’t
it ironic that, in a society where so many people dislike number designations, so many communities adopted the numeric
scheme for their byways in the first place. Apparently those early urban planners, hoping to tame nature with rationally
named roads, did not understand that the citizens care more about sentiment than logic. Perhaps the efforts of the
earlier planners would have been more appreciated had they used irrational numbers, like the Square Root of Two Blvd
or Pi R Squared Parkway.
Gloria in Excelsis Circle
It is not just numbering schemes that are thwarted by progress. Any naming motif for a growing
metropolis will fail over time – and for many reasons. Grid plans are particularly vulnerable. Inevitably,
as the town’s boundaries move out, a bend in a river, a crag or hill begins to force roads out of symmetry
and the logical array of street names submits to the sirens of chaos.
Emotional events, too, can induce the populace to change names as happened in
Cincinnati, Ohio during World War I when German Street became
English Street, and Hapsburg became Merrimac, along with other Anglicizing revisions. Deaths and assassinations of
heroes can also cause a rash of street (As well as school) name changes, such as with the untimely losses of
and teacher/astronaut McAuliffe, and the murders of
two Kennedys and a King. In other words, planned naming schemes just cannot stand up to the forces of love and hate either.
Even though some towns have adhered to their schemes quite meticulously, they still end up with a
potpourri of street labels because their naming gimmick is limited or just plain inadequate. For example, using
letters of the alphabet gets you 26 designations, not much for a growing municipality. Using presidents’
names gets you a few more. Tree types, a classic theme, might yield a few dozen unless you get quite specific with
names like Shag Bark Hickory Street and Horse Chestnut Circle.
Where naming motifs work with some consistency is in the relatively small subdivisions that have
been sprouting up across the country since the end of the Second World War. Developers of these communities, knowing
that quaint sells, have adopted themes honoring medieval England, flowers, nursery-rhymes, Indian artifacts, old cars,
race horses and all sorts of other things. When William Levitt
built one of the first communities on the Island Trees farm on Long Island in 1947, he divided it up into sections each
with a theme for its streets. In the bird section, for example, there was Kingfisher Road, Grouse Lane, Magpie Land,
and so on. In the cosmology section there was Polaris Drive, Horizon Lane and other astral names.
My own family used to live in a development called Gettysburg Estates with its
Harper’s Way, Shiloh, Meade, Pickett’s Way and other streets labeled with apt Civil War
references. Quaint? Picturesque? Makes you wonder if the developer wanted homeowners to envision
ricocheting bullets and cannon ball craters, or to hear the ghostly agony of dieing soldiers from
their porches, or to imagine mowing around the bodies and tombstones.
In San Lorenzo, California,
the street naming motif is influenced by the Spanish in its past, thereby lending the mystique and beauty
that so often accompanies ignorance. Its street signs displaying Via Del Sol, Via Encinas and Via Del Prado
would delight even a tract developer on the outskirts of Cleveland. Who would care that Via Pecora means
“Street of the Head of a Sheep,” or Via Milos means “Street of the Earthworm,”
and Via Melina means nothing at all.
Such motifs may seem silly or superficial but it is all a necessary game. You have
to designate the byways somehow so why not have some fun with it. On the other hand, some developers
have gone to the lazy extreme with some particular theme when they use the same word in every street
name in the community. In Waterford Meadows, west of Pontiac, Michigan, you can live on Meadowgreene,
Meadowcrest, Meadowdale, Meadowoods or other such larks including Meadowlark. I suppose they get a
lot of mail mix-ups there; some by postal accidents, some by postal revenge.
But you have to admit that when it comes to small community developments, name motifs
for the roads seem kind of neat and practical. What is your favorite topic? Maybe it is the great
classics of literature. You could give the roads such grand names as Iliad Lane, and Das Kapital
Court or Main Street Street. How about movie stars, or old cars? If I had the chance to create a
community, I would call it Vegetable Gardens with streets like Cucumber Court, Asparagus Avenue,
Broccoli Lane, and Carrot Drive. Or how about a theme of generic road designations? We could have
Avenue Way, Circle Square, Boulevard Lane, and Cul de Sac Court.
Very often the street names are created from fluff words, like View, Grand, Crest, and
Green. Such words are versatile and ubiquitous because they are uncontroversial and inoffensive. There
may not be a street named Glencrest anywhere in the country but you would swear there was because it
sounds like Glenview and Hillcrest, both of which are popular street names. Like elevator music or
cotton candy, these fluff names lack character and spirit but they also are not haughty and overbearing.
They are ordinary, therefore not bad. They are sufficient if not stimulating. And they are, after all,
no less meaningful than the names of the dead and forgotten.
The banality of such fluff names is illustrated by the
Street Name Generator. Simply take one word from each of the three columns and
you get a bucolic name as distinctive as a cud chewing cow in a grazing herd. Of course, we could add many
more pleasant sounding words to the table, like Red, Gentle, Robin, Leaf, Dale, Garden, etc., enough so
that the road network of the entire country could be relabeled.
Imagine Saks Fifth Avenue
having to rename itself Saks Fawn Creek Chase. Or how about that famous crossroads
“Hollywood and Vine” becoming
“Sunny View Glen and Green Haven Run?” (See picture at right.) After awhile, the melodic
quality of these compound fluff names gets to sound like a Gregorian chant. Now there is an idea! Kyrie
Eleison Way, Spiritu Santo Drive, Gloria in Excelsis Circle or Sanctus Dominus
Off the wall names may sound silly, but they are generally more easily remembered
than a triplet of fluff names. Try it. Use any random object you think of as the basis for a name.
How about Cotton Ball Way? Such a creative naming scheme can produce quaint and picturesque labels,
like Lag Bolt Lane, Butter Dish Drive, Shoe Lace Run or Nails Clipper Crest.
In Maryland, in the relatively new town of Columbia,
they used this approach and came up with such street names as Each Leaf Court, Smokey Wreath Way, Fruit Gift Place and Lambskin Lane.
They should rename the town to something like Clever Name City. But even here a whole town of such colorful names begins to sound
just as much like a church litany as the triplets of our street name generator. “Does he live on Round Peg Way or Square
Hole Lane?” In such a town, the people on Second Street would be ones with the unforgettable addresses.
Interstate-I Johnson & Johnson
If urban and suburban roads are like rabbits – multiplying and consuming the
farm – then interurban roads are like snakes, lonely wigglers darting around the countryside,
racing through cities, rarely answering to a name. If you were to ask an interstate highway its name,
it might say something like,
“I Ninety Six.”
It all began when the Romans brought engineering excellence to the barbarians and the
improved byways came to be known as “high streets.” Although these roads were often higher
than the surrounding country and crown-shaped so that water would roll off, the reference more likely
comes from the secondary definition of “high” to mean important, so that a “high”
way was a main thoroughfare. The most popular street name in medieval southern England was High Street.
In the north, the old Norse word for street, “gata,” gave rise to High Gate. Over the ages,
these main thoroughfares became turnpikes, motorways, expressways, freeways, and even skyways –
but most often just highways.
Highway names, unlike street names, were hardly ever a big concern to anyone. They were
generally called by one of their end points, like the Oregon Trail, or some salient feature, such as the
Old Forest Road or Stone Road. In colonial times access to the hinder land was by means of Indian trails
and these often had several names. Only through incidental consensus did the European settlers in the
area eventually choose one name that became official.
The first planned highway in the United States was the
National Road begun in 1810 to move
the people and goods across the vast new nation. This macadamized road, nearly seventy feet wide,
was to be a major route into what was then called the Northwest, later called the Midwest, and now
actually the Mideast. Originating in Maryland and snaking west across steep Appalachian country,
the National Road reached Wheeling in 1818 where travelers had to cross the Ohio River by ferry.
From there the road made its way to Columbus, Ohio, then as straight as an arrow shot to Indianapolis
and beyond. The National Road has since been cannibalized by newer routes, including one designated
as U.S. 40, not exactly a warm tribute to the historically significant byway.
Another notable and historic American road was one called the
Lincoln Highway. It began when
Carl Fisher, a flamboyant Hoosier who made millions
selling gas headlamps for cars, led a caravan called the Trail Blazers from Indianapolis to Los Angeles
in 34 days. The tortuous journey made news and by the end of the year the whole nation was celebrating
the idea of a transcontinental road linking New York City and San Francisco. It took a decade to finish,
but soon lost its prominence in a nation gone crazy with cars and roads. Now the Lincoln Highway lies
old and broken, straggling slowly in and out of quaint towns, wearing historical markers like war ribbons.
Then in the 1920s, when American interurban roads began to flourish, the U. S. government
decided to establish a numbering scheme for interstate highways. The roads were to be numbered consecutively
north to south with odd numbers and east to west with even numbers. Thus, the now famous U. S. 1 traveled
along the east coast from the Maine-Canada border to the tip of Florida.
A few of the roads also carried some heartfelt memorial designation the origin of which
is inevitably lost to obscurity, or they may have had some informal name, such as Old Plank Road
or Indian Trail. But by and large, official maps showed the ordinal designations.
Given the tradition of numbering the national highways in America, it was only natural
that when President Dwight David Eisenhower
proposed a postwar interstate system of roads
in the U.S. a new numeric scheme was adopted. This time, however, it would be utterly systematic, pure
governmental utilitarianism, functional to a fault. It would be as logical as it would be sterile, as
purposeful as it was meaningless.
The scheme was simple. Two digit numbers would be assigned to approved interstate arteries.
East-west roads would be given even numbers beginning from the south. North-south roads would be given odd
numbers beginning in the west. Oh, by the way, sometimes there are spurs or shunts through or around major
cities; each of these is given a three number designation by adding a significant digit of no particular
Now, it is only natural that anomalies should arise in this rational system because rational
systems are unnatural. For example, both I-81 in the Appalachians of the Virginia panhandle and I-85 at
Charlotte, North Carolina cut westward across I-77 even though their designations could have been swapped
at the intersection to preserve the order. Between Atlanta and Montgomery I-85 should be I-18. And I-69 just
outside of Dewitt, Michigan becomes an east-west road on its way to Port Huron.
Then there is I-90 which goes west from Boston. In Elyria, Ohio, it joins up with I-80 from
New York and they share the pavement to Gary, Indiana. There they split up and I-80 takes a new partner,
I-94. But that union lasts only a little while and I-80 heads for San Francisco by itself. Meanwhile, I-90
joins up with I-94 again in Chicago only to separate a bit later. In Madison, they wed again, separate again
upstate, then join up once more in Billings where I-94 dies and I-90 goes to Seattle alone. They should rename
I-90 to I-Elizabeth Taylor, eh?
That is not such an outlandish idea. Hundreds of stretches of the interstate system have already
been renamed, like the Gene Autry Memorial Interchange (I-5) in California, the Dan Ryan (I-90 – I-94) in
Chicago, and the Gerald R. Ford (I-96) in Grand Rapids. And it does not have to be a person. There is Century
(I-105) in California, Black Canyon Freeway (I-17) in Phoenix, and Anacostia Freeway (I-295) in D. C. Even that
old romantic numbered highway, Route 66, is known variously in towns it crosses as Alosta, Foothills Blvd.,
Colorado Blvd., Main St., Broadway, Fair Oaks, and Sunset Blvd.
There are dozens of Veterans Memorial Highways. And there are at least six Pearl Harbor Memorial
Highways, most notably Interstate 10 in the
Grand Canyon State. The Pearl Harbor Memorial Highway in Arizona seems a courteous reply to the
Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii –
like saying “you’re welcome” to “thank you.”
What is a better system you ask for designating over 46,000 miles of interstate concrete and
asphalt? The highway planners might have begun with a three or four digit scheme to encode more information
in the labels, or they could have embedded State references like 69MI, or they could have even used end point
designations, like LA-DC. Or how about naming all the north-south interstate roads after past presidents, the
east-west roads after the deceased chief justices? If we run out of names, no new highways until somebody dies.
I have an even better idea. The federal government could generate significant revenues by
auctioning off the naming rights for segments of the national highway system. Imagine getting the Google Maps
directions to Idaho: Take Interstate McDonalds to I-IBM, then head south until you get to I-Amway in Iowa. Next
take I-“I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter,” and then head west to the intersection of
I- Johnson & Johnson and I-Abercrombie & Fitch.
Well, maybe that is not such a good idea.