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Geo-Joint: Naming Streets

Posted on May 24 2016

A while back we looked into cities where street names were sort of disregarded or never even assigned. Putting a name to a street can give it a useful reference, but names can cause problems of their own.

Many towns across the country took the easy way when they named their streets, and given a grid structure, had numbered streets in one direction and either letters or names in alphabetical order going in the other. Even if not as the first streets laid down, many, many cities have a section of alphabetical and/or numbered streets somewhere on their map. But it rarely ever is a simple, uninterupted, A to Z run, or 1st, 2nd, 3rd to 150th St. The reasons for the lack of continuity are as varied as the cities in which they occur, but changes over time, a need to honor new heroes, and superstition can all play a role.

If roads get closed, or added, a well-planned sequence can develop a hiccup. The bi-state metropolis of Kansas City, for instance, has a load of numbered streets. Between many of the streets are numbered “Terraces” which each take on the number of the street next to them. The system is fairly intuitive, but the “grid” is by no means continuous, with odd angles and short street segments all over the place. You’ll need a really good description of the area of town you’re going to before knowing the street number will be of much help.

New York City has its own numbering peculiarities in Manhattan, where the numbered avenues progress westward as 1st, 2nd, and 3rd, but then Lexington Ave. precedes 4th Avenue, which is called Park Ave., followed by Madison before you get to 5th. The street following 5th is not called 6th, but Avenue of the Americas. The “Streets” that cross the “Avenues” march north quite regularly from 1st to 193rd, after which some of the 190s are missing, and things get discontinuous on their way to 220th St at the top of Manhattan. The famous street named Broadway cuts diagonally across the middle of it all to mix it up, some of the big numbered avenues change to the names of the famous (Columbus, Frederick Douglass, Adam Clayton Powell, Malcom X, etc.) and there are of course innumerable short streets tucked in here and there. In general, it’s a pretty orderly layout, but as with most cities, it takes some time to learn the streets that don’t fit the pattern.

In Washington, D.C., residents and visitors have long puzzled over the anomalies in the city’s alphabetic street names. There are two sets of them as you go either north or south of East Capitol Street, the dividing line. MIssing on both sets are “B” Streets, replaced by Constitution Ave. on the north side, and Independence Ave. on the south. There are other letters missing amongst the alphabetical run, including X, Y and Z at both northerly and southerly extremities.

However, the absent letter that has caused the most speculation, is “J.” Neither set of streets has a “J”, and lacking an obvious explanation, conspiracy theorists and political analysts (there are a few of those in D.C.) got busy on the mystery. It seems that Pierre L’ Enfant, the French-born urban designer who laid out the street plan for our nation’s capital was deemed to be no fan of the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Jay. Jay arranged a treaty with the British in 1794 which contained terms that were seen by some to slight the French. L’Enfant was presumed to be annoyed at this and so left J Steet off his plans in order to take a swipe at Jay. After all, Jay’s initials were J.J. and his last name was the name of that very letter! But this neat story falls apart when the timeline of events reveals that L’Enfant was relieved of his planning duties in 1792, and that treaty didn’t get signed until 1794. Others suggested maybe another prominent “J”, like Jefferson, could have piqued L’Enfant’s ire. But there was, as you might expect, a board which oversaw L’Enfant’s proposals and would probably not have gone along with such manipulations on the street plan based on petty grievances.

If we can’t have our historical snit, why is there still no J Street? It’s likely a result of one of those weird sidelights of the past, in this case, the common usage of letters. At that time, the letters “J” and “I” were used somewhat interchangeably. As handwritten, there was little difference in their appearance, and typography was yet to be completely standardized. Some dictionaries had only one section for both I and J. Yes, I know, I and J make completely different sounds, so how this came to be is confusing to me too, but stranger things have occured in the English language. In any case, the ambiguity led to using only one of the two in the street name sequence, and as we know, that letter is “I.” To further obscure the matter, D.C. residents often refer to I Street as Eye Street…so as not to confuse the “I” with “1.” Washington isn’t alone in forsaking “J” Street – Anchorage, Alaska skips it too. As for X, Y, and Z, it is thought that they were unneeded, given the designed size of the new city. In addition, since “X” was commonly used to signify Christ at the time, it probably wouldn’t have been considered appropriate as a street name.

Lastly, how has superstition influenced street naming? San Francisco provides an example by not having a 13th Street in thelr numbered sequence. Instead, they named it after U.S. Army hero Major General Frederick Funston who, among other brave deeds, kept order and provided aid to the earthquake-stricken city in 1906. A friend of mine from Baghdad by the Bay jokes that kids living there learn to count like this, “…..8, 9, 10, 11, 12, Funston, 14, 15, 16…”

This is just a grab-bag of street name stories – every map is filled with history, favors, prejudice, inspiration, quirks and skulduggery. It just takes a bit of research to uncover the motivations for those puzzling names and arrangements.

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