The Stories Behind the Names of NYC’s Streets
Among New York’s many numbered streets and avenues, Lexington Ave, Canal Street, and Broadway, and a handful of roadways still bear more traditional titles. These street names make reference to historic individuals, landmarks, and events that helped to shape the city in its early days, even as centuries and layers of pavement have obscured New York’s original topography. While many of these streets have taken on new connotations—Wall Street, for example, has more or less become a metonym for the city’s financial industry—their origins provide a fascinating insight into what life in New York used to be like.
NYC Street Name History
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Financial District’s best-known thoroughfare takes its name from an actual wall that used to mark the northern border of the city back when it was still the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam. Standing approximately twelve feet tall, this wall was erected in 1653 to repel attacks or invasions from pirates, English forces, and displaced Native Americans. New Amsterdam became the English colony of New York in 1664, and the wall was ultimately torn down in 1699 to accommodate expanding city limits. The street’s name, however, persisted.
No “street” or “avenue” designation is necessary—The Bowery is acknowledged by modern New Yorkers as an entity beyond such titles. Prior to its renaming in 1813, however, the street was called “Bowery Lane.” Centuries prior, the road had originally been christened “Bouwerij,” the Dutch word for “farm,” by the Dutch East India Company in reference to the farmland that dominated the area when they set up shop in Manhattan in the 1620s. The current name is an anglicization of the original Dutch and is yet another relic of the city’s turnover to English hands.
When examining a street map of the city, a casual observer might be puzzled to note that there is no 4th Avenue to be found between 3rd and 5th Ave. That’s because most of the street that formerly bore this name was rechristened Park Avenue in the 1850s—through a six-block stretch of the boulevard running from NoHo to Union Square is still known as 4th Ave. In spite of its proximity to Central Park, Park Ave was in fact named for a park that was built to cover the semi-subterranean New York and Harlem Railroad line after a portion of the railroad was discontinued in the mid-19th century.
Canal Street is yet another NYC road named for a now nonexistent landmark. A large reservoir known as Collect Pond once served as a source of freshwater for downtown Manhattan residents until tanneries began using the pond as a receptacle for their waste in the late 1700s. To help drain away the polluted water, the city dug a canal in 1808 that opened out into the Hudson River. Ultimately, the smell of the tainted water became unbearable for residents, and plans were made to turn the canal into a covered sewer by paving over it. The resulting road became Canal Street.
Any New Yorker worth their salt knows better than to mispronounce the name of this street as “HYOO-ston.” However, few realize that Houston is not only an eponym of Constitutional Convention delegate William Houstoun but that the street has misspelled the name of the man it is intended to honor. Houston Street was originally named by Houstoun’s father-in-law Nicholas Bayard III in 1788 while Bayard was in the process of dividing his sizable downtown estate. It is speculated that the second “u” was dropped from “Houstoun” at some point in the last several centuries due to a mix-up with the name of Sam Houston, the famed general and senator who gave his name to Houston, Texas.
Christopher Street has long been synonymous with the emergence of the LGBTQ rights movement and the flourishing queer nightlife of Greenwich Village. In its early days, the street was known as Skinner Road after English Colonel William Skinner, son-in-law of Greenwich Village landowner Vice-Admiral Peter Warren. When Warren’s heir Charles Christopher Amos took over the family estate in 1799, he had the brilliant idea of renaming the road Christopher Street after, well, himself. Amos also very generously gave his name to nearby Charles Street and Amos Street (the latter of which is now known as 10th Street).
SoHo’s Crosby Street was named for millionaire William Bedloe Crosby, the adopted nephew of Revolutionary War hero Henry Rutgers (who himself gave his name to Rutgers University). Crosby became known for his philanthropic generosity to needy individuals and organizations across New York’s historic 7th ward during the mid-19th century, so, unlike Charles Christopher Amos, he had no need to name the street after himself—grateful community members christened it for him.
This boutique-lined street in Greenwich Village takes its name from the Bleecker family, a notable part of Manhattan’s upper crust in the 18th century. Prominent members of the Bleecker clan include Anthony Lispenard Bleecker, businessman and Trinity Church warden, and his son Anthony, a well-respected writer and historian. When the family fell on hard times and was forced to sell off parcels of their land, the property along Bleecker Street was among the portions of their estate ceded to the city.
It’s difficult to picture the modern Financial District as a picturesque grassland dotted with springs and streams, but that’s exactly how it appeared back when New York was still New Amsterdam. It was the Dutch that first gave the name “Maagde Paatje,” or “Maiden’s Path,” to what was then a footpath winding its way alongside a cheerful brook. The spot was a favorite place for the Dutch settler’s young daughters to wash the family laundry, and it’s pleasant to imagine how the serene landscape of the area must have looked to them when traversing the now-pavemented Maiden Lane.
Anyone who recalls studying the Revolutionary War in high school (or who has recently had occasion to listen to Hamilton: An American Musical) has doubtless heard of the essayist Thomas Paine, who fanned the flames of patriotic spirit with his 1776 pamphlet Common Sense. Today’s Barrow Street initially bore the name Reason Street in honor of The Age of Reason, another of Paine’s celebrated works. As public opinion of Paine cooled toward the early 19th Century, in part because of his scathing public remarks toward celebrated figures such as George Washington, locals instead began referring to the road as “Raisin Street.” Ultimately, the street was renamed entirely as Barrow Street in 1828 to honor Thomas Barrow, an artist and vestryman at the nearby Trinity Church.