“Names of New York: Discovering the City’s Past, Present, and Future Through Its Place-names” by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro. New York: Pantheon Books, 2021. 246 pages, $22. Hardcover.
When I first saw this title listed, I assumed the book would be alphabetically organized and provide a kind of dictionary of individual New York City place names. Reference works of that nature can be very useful, but they are not the kind of book that one can sit down with and enjoy reading through. This volume is very different, however, in that it provides a kind of conversational discussion of various place names in each of its eight chapters. It is enjoyable and informative reading and conveyed a lot of details about the city that were new to me.
Joshua Jelly-Schapiro is a geographer and writer whose previous books include “Island People: The Caribbean and the World” and “Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas” (co-created with Rebecca Solnit). He is a scholar-in-residence at New York University’s Institute for Public Knowledge.
Chapter one, “The Power of Names,” initiates discussion of place names and reasons behind their selection and why they may change over time. The author points out that when the British conquered Dutch New Amsterdam in 1664 they were not in the habit of naming their colonies “new” anything. However, Richard Nichols renamed the town for his patron, the Duke of York. Jelly-Schapiro also discusses some of the classics in New York City place naming, including John J. Post’s “Old Streets, Roads, Lanes, Piers, and Wharves of New York” (1882) and Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes’ “The Iconography of Manhattan Island (1915-1928).” The author suggests that the Buttermilk Channel, which one crosses when going from Wall Street to Red Hook’s Atlantic Basin, “may have won its name from long-ago Brooklyn dairy farmers, who imagined the milk they floated to market might be churned to butter by its waves.” He goes on to express this wish: “Whatever streets you’re near or whatever you hold dear, my hope is that this book might perhaps help you see their names – and what they do – anew.”
The second chapter of “Names of New York” is called “The Names Before” and collects names connected with the Dutch and British periods in the city’s history. The author explains that Englishman Henry Hudson was working for the Dutch when in 1609 he sailed up a broad river that the Mahicans called Muheconnetuk because it flowed both ways. Hudson named the river Mauritius after the Dutch noble Maurice of Nassau, but the Dutch West India Company called it the Noord Rivier (North River) to distinguish it from the South River, the Delaware. That name would stick through much of the 19th century and only gradually was replaced by the Hudson. Jelly-Schapiro relates that Henry Hudson continued his search for the Northwest Passage and in 1611 during an Arctic voyage his crew mutinied and “chucked him to the walruses.”
The author also explains that the Dutch landscape term “hoek” meant a promontory or spit of land. The Dutch Roode Hoek became the English Red Hook, “a seaside neighborhood long known for its public housing projects and its artists, but more lately for IKEA.” He goes on to comment: “As I walk up the Bowery – an avenue whose name evokes street gangs and punk rock but which is now lined with boutiques selling $200 T-shirts, and whose name is an Anglicization of the old Dutch term bouwerij, for a road leading to a farm – I approach a swish neighborhood whose name sounds appropriate to the London-style leafy square at its heart, but doesn’t come from London at all.” He then explains that Gramercy was an English attempt to sound like the Dutch words for crooked marsh. Jelly-Schapiro explains that a man names Samuel Ruggles had drained the area in the 1830s to “implant the stately town homes and elms of Gramercy Park.”
The Revolutionary War and the early republic also had its impact on place names in the city. Houston Street was originally named in 1808 for William Houstoun, one of Georgia’s representatives to the Continental Congress, but a few decades later as city directories were printed the name changed to Houston, perhaps from the exploits of Sam Houston in Texas. In chapter five, “Leaving Shore: City of Islands,” the author says that, since Queens and Brooklyn were part of Long Island, of New York City’s five boroughs only the Bronx is linked by land to North America. The two-mile-long island on Manhattan’s east side has since 1973 been known as Roosevelt Island. The Dutch called it hog island before the British named it Blackwell’s Island. In 1839, it became home to the New York City Lunatic Asylum. That institution was soon after joined by the main prison for hardened criminals, a workhouse for pettier offenders, and the main charity hospital for the poor. The name then changed to Welfare Island, but for those who lived there it was called damnation island. Journalist Nellie Bly asked to spend time there and then revealed in 1887 in her book ‘Ten Days in a Mad-house’ that the island was a human rat-trap … easy to get in, but once there it is impossible to get out.”
The sixth chapter focuses on New York’s neighborhoods and subdivisions. In the late 1700s, New York’s first families, such as the Stuyvesants, Delanceys and Bayards, realized that their large farms were worth less when raising wheat than if they were chopped into blocks and built on or sold off. The Delanceys still have their name on a street in the Lower East Side, but the family were loyalists and ended up losing their property and being run out of town. Also in lower Manhattan, Elizabeth and Hester Street still exist today, but few New Yorkers realize that they were named after two daughters of the Bayard clan, whose farm had been in that area. Greenwich Village was named from the Dutch words for “green district” and this neighborhood was old enough that it retained its crooked streets before the Roman grid was imposed on creation of future streets. In 1821, the Erie Canal opened and ensured that New York City was now “joined by water to the astonishing resources and materials of a vast hinterland.” Oliver Wendell Holmes called it “the tongue that is lapping up the cream and commerce and finance of a continent.” In recognition of the Erie Canal’s success, several streets in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn were named after cities in the western part of the state: Buffalo, Utica, Schenectady and Troy.
Mayor Fiorello La Guardia convinced the city council in 1945 to rename Sixth Avenue the Avenue of the Americas to honor the sister republics of Central and South America. The name never really stuck with New Yorkers and in 1984 the Sixth Avenue signs returned. However, putting new names onto old streets to honor some individual or group has become a New York tradition and in 1992 the city council passed Local Law 28 that made it easier to award honorary second names to streets or places instead of formally altering the official city map. The list of honorary names includes actors, musicians, writers, a lot of unknown names and even a Sesame Street. A list of more than 1700 names that have been added since 1992 can be followed at the Oldstreets.com website. In the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens, there is a sign honoring Scrabble Corner and the creation of that board game.
The last two chapters of “Names of New York” on honorary names and names of the future can be a little tedious because there are so many little-known names discussed, but these chapters are still relevant and necessary. The author has also included an index of where specific place names are mentioned. Overall, “Names of New York” is well-researched, well-written and interesting. I recommend it for anyone interested in better understanding the growth and expansion of our largest city and many of the individuals involved in that history.
– Reviewed by Richard Weigel, Western Kentucky University History Department.