A Walk Down NYC’s Re-Named Streets
In the wake of protests for racial justice following George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis by police in 2020, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged to rename five streets, one in each borough, in honor of the movement. In Manhattan, Black Lives Matter Boulevard was co-named at 1 Centre Street, a block that is home to the city’s Municipal Building, City Hall, and the Department of Education. In addition to these namings, the city funded a Black Lives Matter Mural on Fifth Avenue in front of Trump Tower, a mere five blocks (and six-minute walk) from the AAG’s Hilton Midtown hotel conference center. University of California Berkeley Professor Brandi Thompson Summers has examined Black Lives Matter murals like these around the country, and notes many of them are “visually stunning.” Yet she writes with concern how they “superficially stylize Blackness rather than respond to Black demands for justice” and employ what she calls “Black aesthetic emplacement,” coopting struggles for justice while political and economic elites obscure historic and ongoing structural injustices that hurt communities of color. Indeed, the first Black Lives Matter street painting in New York City was on Fulton Street, in the historically Black Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, organized not by city leaders but by a local nonprofit theater and designed and completed by local activists and artists.
Also at 1 Centre Street is the eastern historic extent of the African Burial Ground National Monument, the resting site for the remains of over 15,000 free and enslaved African-American and Black New Yorkers; it was in use from the 1630s through 1795. The visitors’ center at the site, on the ground floor of the Federal building built there in the 1990s, has a section on the extensive activism from that same period, which led to the establishment of the National Monument.
New York City’s efforts to engage its layered history through street renaming is characteristic of efforts around the country in recent years, where geographer and past AAG president Derek Alderman—who has tracked nationwide street renamings to honor Martin Luther King and other Black leaders1—has noted in an interview with Bloomberg City Lab, “a bit of catch-up going on.” Founded on the systematic dispossession of the Indigenous Lenape People, New York City has quite a lot of catching up to do, especially in light of its long history of ties to slavery and the slave trade, repressive violence against Black New Yorkers such as during the 1863 Draft Riots, and systematic Black dispossession and erasure during Title I Urban Renewal and today as residents face eviction and displacement. Indeed – many of the city’s central streets—Houston (pronounced How-ston), Stuyvesant, Delancey, Duane, Mott, and Schermerhorn, to mention but a few—have connections to and profited from the slave trade. Although these street names remain, racial-justice movements are among the key catalysts in contemporary street renamings. We can see these contestations unfold, in various layers, by walking New York City’s named and renamed streets.
New York City has renamed over 1,600 of its streets, parks, plazas, highways, and other public infrastructure, according to retired urban planner Gilbert Tauber.2 In his recent book, Names of New York, Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, an American geographer and writer, connects street names with stories of how various populations leave their mark on the city. Writes Jelly-Schapiro in The New York Review of Books: “If landscape is history made visible, the names we call its places are the words we use to forge maps of meaning in the city.”
Types and Forms of NYC Street Renamings
New York City is in a constant state of flux and remaking, with street renamings no exception. In the 18th and 19th centuries, as encroaching colonization overrode the ancestral landscapes and place-names of the Lenape people, and then the succeeding pastoral places of New York like Bloomingdale, functions and landscapes of place were entirely transformed and renamed (to what we know as the Upper West Side, in the case of Bloomingdale).3 Starting in the 20th century, distinctive city procedures evolved for renaming processes, with distinct purposes, politics, and means of recognition.
Co-names (sometimes known as secondary names) for community leaders, as defined by Community Boards, are named for local activists who have passed away. Those outside the neighborhood might not know them, but residents from the area will have appreciation for their work, and these community leaders represent New York City’s diverse populations. For example, consider the portion of Morningside Drive in Manhattan, co-named Marie Runyon Way. Runyon was a tenant activist who fought the wholesale demolition of Single-Room Occupancy (SRO) buildings on her street. Many of Morningside Drive’s SROs have since been demolished, but her legacy remains on this street sign.
Co-names for well-known public figures, by contrast, can boost property values and accelerate processes of dispossession and erasure through place-making and what Bourdieu might refer to as ”distinction.”4 Brian Goldstein’s book Roots of the Urban Renaissance examines the coalition of racially inclusive economic-development boosterism that emerged from initial 1960s’ battles between capitalist developers and radical social movements in Harlem. Rose-Redwood looks at name changes in Harlem including the changes from 125th Street to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in 1984, and from Lenox Avenue/Sixth Avenue to Malcolm X Boulevard in 1987. Note both Goldstein and Rose-Redwood, renaming in Harlem was part of a nationwide movement calling for the cultural recognition of African Americans, even as this movement saw re-naming as a device for economic-development and increasing property values elsewhere in New York City, including on the city’s Upper West Side.
Finally, honorific re-namings might serve as placemaking devices or commemorate city history, even when not named for an individual or institution. This was precisely the impetus for renaming 6th Avenue “Avenue of the Americas” in 1945, to highlight the establishment of the United Nations and the location of its headquarters several avenues east, and as a nod to the Organization of American States. In the context of the World Trade Center, collective memory of trauma and loss loom large in renaming processes across the city that memorialize those lost in 9/11.
Analysis of Renaming and Its Functions in New York City
Lessons emerge from the different types of NYC street renamings and co-namings. First, (1), co-naming rarely replaces the old (and renaming does not always do so, either); the old name often lingers on as a palimpsest. (2) Name changes are often advanced for placemaking and economic-development boosterism. And (3) Name changes can emerge from genuine efforts to foster a more inclusive city, honoring local communities and advocates.
1) renaming as palimpsest
Street renamings – whether co-names, secondary names, or, in some cases, full renamings – do not always fully “replace” the city streets’ original names. Indeed, by contrast, the new names often layer on top of the old. In some cases, residents will continue to refer to streets by their original names, including Harlem residents who say “Lenox” and not “Malcolm X” Boulevard (Google Maps, perhaps an arbiter of authority, recognizes both). With community co-names, there are typically two street signs, one placed atop the other, to designate the simultaneous presence of multiple names. Palimpsests, as scholars like Schein and Bloch discuss, are layered tapestries where the past never disappears but melds or joins with new layers to produce a different image or subjective experience (Schein explores “erasure and over-writing and co-existence” of American suburban landscape imaginaries in the Lexington, KY suburb of Ashland Park, and Bloch considers layers of mural and graffiti art in Los Angeles). Likewise, New York City names have residues informed by residents’ memories and life experiences; they cannot easily be decreed away. Yet just as how “modern” New York and its residents are in constant and rapid flux – experiencing new development, large-scale projects, and displacement – city streets change. That longtime residents in particular sometimes resist name changes speaks to their embodied memories of times before name changes, and community resistance to top-down government or developer tactics (as in section 2, below). Street renamings also speak to residents’ political struggles and activism. As an example, renaming 125th Street in Harlem to Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. speaks to the activism and experiences of central Harlem residents, and resident efforts to prevent developer-backed name changes like “South of Harlem,” or SoHa, have largely been successful. General Lee Avenue (named for Confederate General Robert E. Lee), which runs through the Fort Hamilton military base in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, has yet to be changed. Yet some renamings do successfully and fully replace former names. The horrific subway wreck on Malbone Street in Brooklyn in 1919 led to the renaming of that street to Empire Boulevard, and with time, the new name stuck. Fully renaming streets may affect memory different than secondary or co-naming actions, as might the conditions under which the renaming takes place (in this case, a tragedy).
2) renaming for profit
As Rose-Redwood explores, renaming numbered streets such as Amsterdam Avenue in the Upper West Side helped cultivate a sense of “place” in the neighborhood, which drove up property values. Such placemaking efforts also explained the city council’s impetus for renaming 6th Avenue “Avenue of the Americas.” Today, apartment-hunting websites like Street Easy are keen to explore street renamings and their roles in city placemaking.
Perhaps even more cynically, we could think of renamings by New York City public officials as small-scale symbolic politics that distract from material politics of inequality and redistribution. The New York City Department of Transportation has comparatively full control over streets, and name changes can be more affordable and less politically controversial “wins” for city leaders than major changes to political economy or democratic representation. Sharine Taylor, writing on the case of Toronto, worries that renamings might even be employed to “quell concerns” by residents demanding more structural material changes.
3) renaming for inclusion
In a city that is majority nonwhite and nearly 37% foreign-born, changing street names can make New York City feel less alienating and more inclusive, especially when streets are co-named for community heroes with local ties. In that frame, and especially when the changes are demanded by local residents, a renaming can be an act of cultural citizenship. Renaming also offers an important opportunity to think about the gender politics of street names in the past and present.5 And importantly, long after name changes are enacted, we are all left with an intricate palimpsest of street names that better reflects the demographic diversity of New York City.
Even in the context of over 1,600 streets, parks, plazas, and highways that have been re-named in just the past 200 years of New York City’s history, we might consider just how many streets have not been renamed. Houston, Stuyvesant, Delancey, Duane, Mott, and Schermerhorn are just some names intimately tied into New York City’s identity that are also associated with Dutch and English settler colonialism and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. These names are not peripheral to the city’s political geography: Peter Stuyvesant, as one example, enslaved over 40 people and was a renowned bigot, with white supremacist values and a desire to expand slavery across the hemisphere. NYC places continue to bear Stuyvesant’s name: the Stuyvesant Town housing developments, the historically Black (and gentrifying) Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, and the top-performing Stuyvesant High School.6
A full renaming of problematic New York streets or public infrastructure is not possible or likely. Instead, they present New Yorkers and visitors an opportunity to examine the city’s origins, which reveal how racism, genocidal projects against Indigenous Peoples, and the slave trade played major roles in structuring the city and its place-making. Yet street renamings also reveal efforts by city residents and elected officials to create a more just city and built environment, adding to that history. When in town for the 2022 AAG Annual Meeting, come discover the contradictions and narratives of New York City’s many streets and places for yourself.
Stefan Norgaard is a PhD candidate in Urban Planning at Columbia University and a member of the AAG2022 Arrangements Committee. The author would like to thank his colleagues on the committee, Tamar Y. Rothenberg, Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Bronx Community College-CUNY; and Jason B. Greenberg, Professor of Geography at Sullivan University, for their reading and suggestions for this article.
1 “Street names and the scaling of memory: the politics of commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr within the African American community,” Area 35(2): 163–173).
2 For a map showing the long churn of renaming in New York since the colony was founded, see Constantine Valhouli’s map of early place names.
3 The story of the Bloomingdale district is related to the 1811 Commissioners’ street grid plan and the eventual development of Manhattan and 125th St. Thus, renamings erased the informal farm-and-estate community when development crept north.
4 Indeed, notes Rose-Redwood (2008) in his article “From Number to Name: Symbolic Capital, Places of Memory and the Politics of Street Renaming in New York City”: street (re)-naming can advance an “elite project of symbolic erasure and forced eviction, on the one hand, and the cultural recognition of a historically marginalized group, on the other” (438).
5 There is a nascent, yet growing interest in scholarly literature at the intersection of street naming and gendering the urban streetscape. Scholars and activists in recent years are exploring efforts at naming more streets after women. Bigon and Zuvalinyenga offer a review of such efforts in Global South city streets, and Rose-Redwood in his article “Number to Name” considers the NYC-specific example of Mary McLeod Bethune Place.
6 Stuyvesant Town was built over demolished gas tanks in what was called the Gas House District (now there’s a renaming for development reasons!) in a public-private partnership with Metropolitan Life Insurance. The complex was offered as affordable housing for returning WWII veterans and their families and has its own racist history, as African-Americans were barred from renting there; activists sued, and lost. Bedford-Stuyvesant slightly overlaps the northern extent of Weeksville, a village of free Black property owners founded in the 1830s that is mostly in Crown Heights, but with overlap. 3. Stuyvesant High School, established 1904, is one of NYC’s so-called specialized public high schools, and requires an extremely competitive entrance test; this policy is very controversial, as very few Black students qualify for admission, and the percentage is declining.
NEW YORK CITY PLANS: A BRIEF BACKGROUND
Two massive planning efforts in New York during the 19th and 20th century framed the direction for the city’s intensive development during the next two centuries. First, New York’s 1811 street grid plan mapped out Manhattan’s transformation from mostly bucolic field and farmland to rapidly growing city. Among other things, the grid plan established Manhattan’s system of numbered streets and avenues from south to north. Coming about 100 years later, “the insane 1915 renumbering system in Queens,” says AAG member, geographer, and historian Tamar Rothenberg, “was intended to create borough-wide order from the independently developed merged towns and villages of Queens and Brooklyn,” the two western boroughs/counties on Long Island that were incorporated into New York City in 1898. By that time, the City of Brooklyn had already incorporated all of Kings County, but Queens was still a county of separate cities, towns, and villages. Rothenberg says, “There are some funny takes on how that plays out today,” and recommends this overview from 2000 in the New York Times. —compiled with information provided by Tamar Rothenberg
For further reading, consider:
- Names of New York, by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro (Penguin Random House, 2021).
- The Political Life of Urban Streetscapes, edited by Reuben Rose-Redwood, Derek Alderman, and Maoz Azaryahu (Routledge, 2018).
- Manhattan Projects, by Samuel Zipp (Oxford University Press, 2012).
- Roots of the Urban Renaissance, by Brian Goldstein (Harvard University Press, 2017).
- “Naming New York City,” by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro (New York Review of Books)
- Other People’s Money, by Charles Bagli (Penguin Random House, 2014).
- Black in Place: The Spatial Aesthetics of Race in a Post-Chocolate City, by Brandi Thompson Summers (UNC Press, 2019)
- Aboriginal Placenames: Naming and Re-Naming the Australian Landscape, edited by Luise Hercus and Harold Koch (ANU E Press, 2009).
- Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State, by Samuel Stein (Verso Books, 2019).
- The Street Book: An Encyclopedia of Manhattan’s Street Names and Their Origins, by Henry Moscow (Fordham University Press, 1990)
- Naming New York: Manhattan Places and How They Got Their Names, by Sanna Feirstein, (NYU Press, 2001).
- Manhattan Street Names Past and Present: A Guide to Their Origins, by Don Rogerson, (Griffin Rose Press, 2013).