Street Names

— Andrew Wasson

A lament lurks somewhere buried under the layers of post-modern suburban meta-worry — like a pea under a stack of mattresses.  The suburbanite is the princess.  The street name is the pea.  Everyone instinctively knows that the vast majority of street names are utter nonsense.  They bear absolutely no relationship to any corresponding aspect in the real world.  And everyone agrees that this is no good.  Heads wag.  Fingers point.  But no one can really say why.  Chalk it up to people like your supervisor or manager, or some vague constant threat to hopes and dreams, a target for righteous but unfocused indignation, a fog that creeps through your house with a particular penchant for Individuality, a shadowy figure very much like the Hamburglar — not too scary but just as depressing.

Given the general meaninglessness of suburban street names it is easy to dismiss them as devoid of meaning.  Not so fast.  Given the myriad of vaguely identical street names out there, it is just plain unlikely that so many names could turn out so similar.  There must be a subconscious rubric.  Their striking uniformity belies some pattern.  Sort of like the time that guy tried to defend against plagiarism because his mind just happened to work like an encyclopedia.  Suspicious.

We can draw some preliminary conclusions about the common thread running through suburban street names by pruning away names that won’t work.  Vulgarities are an obvious and forthright example.  I have not once seen a street named after a clear-cut obscenity.  Stephen Levitt, the author of Freakonomics, actually commented on this phenomenon:

The very fact that very few streets have really dismal names like “Massacre Lane,” or “Poison Avenue,” or “Stench Street” does suggest that when cities were first developing the people naming the streets associated some disutility with bad street names. Since it is essentially free to choose a good name for your street when you start, there is no particular reason to saddle your street with a bad name, even if the costs of having a bad name are trivial. So that doesn’t tell us much about the magnitude.[1]

This definitely seems to account for why names with truly objectionable connotations are rare.

Yet, the more one canvasses the universe of possible street names, the more one realizes that the canonical suburban street name typology only occupies a fraction of that universe.  Consider a few neutral but rare examples.  Body parts are usually disfavored.  There are not many streets named after the kidneys or the liver, for example.  In fact, streets are generally not named after scientific jargon of any discipline: Endoplasmic Reticulum Terrace, C. Elegans Street, Shannon-Weaver Theory of Information Drive.  Although a biotechnology office park named the Golgi Complex would be rather sweet.  There are not many streets named after man-made objects, like pocketbooks and shoes, Tie Drive or Shoelace Court.

This brings us finally to an attempt at positively constructing the ideal suburban street name typology.  Sure, people don’t want to live on Depression Lane, but why do they want to live on Shady View Terrace?  This is where history comes in.  To understand the evolution of the stereotypical suburban street name, the origins of the suburbs themselves must be understood.  A vast literature exists on the history of the development of the suburban form. [2]  It might surprise some that the suburb as we know it is a relatively modern invention.  In olden times, the rich lived squarely in the city center: the suburbs were mainly hovels for the lower classes associated with unmitigated rum and prostitution. [3] It was not until the second half of the nineteenth century that they pulled the reverso.  Scholars debate the precise forces that led to suburbanization — there is no one real answer but it probably was a combination of increased population density of the cities, availability of cheap land on the periphery, new technology in transportation that allowed greater access, evangelical views that emphasized the primacy of the family, the perceived moral baseness of city life, and the countervailing moralizing influence of nature. [4]

The key for our purposes, however, is less the forces that moved the middle-class from the city center to the outskirts and more how early suburban designers sought to express the suburban ideal.  The forces that created suburbia had a hand in shaping its design: for example, inexpensive land allowed the primacy of the family to be expressed in a detached house surrounded by a yard.  But how about the gently curving streets, the houses set back from the curb, the shade trees lining the road – how did these become the suburban ideal?

The actual design motif of early suburbs was influenced heavily by a style popular throughout the 1800s known as the “pictureseque.”  The articulated idea of “picturesque” can be traced all the way back to at least 1768 when William Gilpin proclaimed that the picturesque was (somewhat straightforwardly) “that kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture.” [5] Dolores Hayden suggested a more descriptive definition in Building Suburbia: “a style emulating wild or natural beauty with irregular and broken lines.” [6] This is the garden made to look like nature, just a more perfect nature.  Picturesque landscape architects in England like Humphrey Repton, J.C. Loudon and Uvedale Price were immensely influential in the United States.  Perhaps the most celebrated American landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmstead (designer of Central Park, and later, Riverside, Illinois, an early suburban development) admittedly was indebted to their teachings. [7]

The plans of early American suburbs reflected the work of these early landscape architects.  Alexander Jackson Davis and the similarly-named Andrew Jackson Downing were particularly impressionable. [8]  Even by the early 1800s, pattern books were published with the plans for detached houses built on the periphery of cities or in the country.  In Rural Residences, Davis noted, “[t]he bald and uninteresting aspect of our houses must be obvious to every traveller; and to those who are familiar with the picturesque Cottages and Villas of England, it is positively painful to witness here the wasteful and tasteless expenditure of money in building.” [9]  To Davis and/or Downing though, a graceful and beautiful house was embued with something quite mystical:

All BEAUTY is an outward expression of inward good,” and so closely are the Beautiful and the True allied, that we shall find, if we become sincere lovers of the grace, the harmony, and the loveliness with which rural homes and rural life are capable of being invested, that we are silently opening up our hearts to an influence which is higher and deeper than the mere symbol; and that if we thus worship in the true spirit, we shall attain a nearer view of the Great Master, whose words, in all his material universe, are written in lines of Beauty. [10]

Cottage Residences, a Davis-Downing joint, contained the plans of a “suburban cottage.”  The house itself looks very different than what we might find in the average contemporary subdivision: Davis’ suburban cottage was a cross between a barn and a gingerbread house.  However, the general concept was there: detached house, garden-like yard, domestic tranquility, an architecture that embodied nature, beauty and truth and in doing so, somehow rubbed off on its improvement-minded but still imperfect expatriate from the city.

Houses like these, however, were not being initially built en masse as part of some coordinated plan.  In the United States at least, these pattern books detailed single houses built in the so-called borderlands.  That is, until Davis met a similarly disposed pharmaceutical tycoon named Llewellyn Haskell. Haskell was a lover of nature who grew up in the forests of Maine, but after having first-hand experience with the effects of the swamps of New Jersey on health, he decided to relocate to the nearest highlands to New York. [11] He also adhered to Perfectionism, a religious doctrine that held perfect spiritual existence on earth was possible through right living. [12]  In 1850, Haskell hired Alexander Jackson Davis to design a house for him near Belleville, New Jersey. [13]  The two were on the same wavelength and decided to collaborate on a much more elaborate undertaking.  Haskell acquired approximately 300 acres near West Orange, New Jersey in the Orange Mountains overlooking New York City. [14]  The idea was to build an entire community based on picturesque principles.  Davis, Haskell and others accentuated and complemented the physical contours of the land.  “[m]ost of the sites on the lower terraces were randomly placed on gently curved roads and access drives, and the house sites were asymmetrically arranged.” [15] There were no fences – hedges separated property lines, giving the effect of “one large estate.” [16]  Then there was the Ramble: a 60-acre common area that wound through the acreage. [17]  According to Dolores Hayden, “Llewellyn Park introduced to the United States a new residential idea: the heavily landscaped suburb with substantial private houses next to shared parks.” [18]

The street names in Llewellyn Park have an eerily familiar ring.  It is surprising to realize that they were named more than one hundred years ago:

Mountain Ave

Rocky Way

Lynwood Way

Long Branch Way

Bloomfield Way

Chestnut Road

Edgehill Way

Glen Ave

Oak Bend Road

Tulip Ave

Park Way

Honeysuckle Ave

Forest Way

Wildwood Ave

In broadest strokes, the emphasis on nature is clear.  This is consistent with the general focus on natural beauty as a means to higher spiritual perfection.  The grounds were laid out to accentuate this natural beauty, and with great care given to plantings and vantage points, it makes sense that the names of the streets would also be an outgrowth of this same plan.

The paradigm in street naming established by Llewellyn Park is conserved even today.  Streets with names reflecting natural beauty are the norm.  It should be noted that presence of “compound names” like “Lynwood” and “Wildwood” which embody a naming motif widely prevalent through subsequent iterations of suburban development. [19]  Kenneth Jackson, in his landmark Crabgrass Frontier, connected street names with their origins in the picturesque and even identified Llewellyn Park as an origin.  He explained:

Contemporary suburbs, of course, seek to suggest quiet repose rather than commercial importance.  Beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century in places like Llewellyn Park, New Jersey, but becoming important only after the 1920s, residential developers began to name streets after the bucolic and the peaceful.  They abandoned the grid-plan wherever possible and began to name rights-of-way with utter disregard for typography, function, or history.  The result is familiar to us all – the enterprising entrepreneur simply combines acceptable word choices (rolling, fields, tall, lake, view, hills, timber, roaring, brook, green, farms, forest) into a three- or four-word combination.  The new concoction is never followed by the word “street,’ but rather by lane, cove, road, way, fairway or terrace. [20]

While the rules of the street naming game were established in Llewellyn Park, they were then transmitted like a game of telephone from one developer to the next in the hope of selling more houses by striking a chord in the public subconscious.

First, planners of genius like John Nash and Frederick Law Olmstead comprehended the process and devised aesthetic formulas to guide it.  These formulas were then communicated – slowly and incompletely – to speculative builders, who nevertheless managed to capture the basic idea. [21]

Especially in the last fifty years, developers communicated by what they left behind on the landscape.  Even those without any knowledge of history or general naming practices cannot help but pick up the general strategy by navigating their own neighborhoods, by addressing envelopes, by watching television.  And what we end up with is what we all know: interchangeable names with only a tangential, one-dimensional or contrived relationship with setting.

Thus, street names are just one of the many ironies of suburbia.  American suburbs were founded on the belief that human beings could live more enriched lives by surrounding themselves with natural beauty.  The site was picked for its natural beauty and then great effort was expended to heighten and emphasize its unique natural features. Street names were just a natural extension of this belief.  On the other hand, in many recent developments, street names are the main distinguishing feature because each development has been so standardized that nothing else can truly distinguish one from the other.  It is a marketing scheme — a manipulation.  That is the pea.


[1]  Stephen Levitt, Do Street Names Matter, Freakonomics Blog, New York Times, May 1 2007 (http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/05/01/do-street-names-matter/).  Levitt was commenting on a study conduced by two realtors in Austin, Texas They compared the home values and time-to-sale of houses on streets with potentially objectionable names (e.g., Shoot-Out and Shotgun) versus that of houses on streets with unobjectionable names.  The realtors found that houses on the objectionable streets sold for less but stayed on the market for a shorter period of time.  (http://crosslandteam.com/blog/2006/07/13/austin-street-names-does-a-politically-incorrect-street-name-affect-home-value/).

[2]  For those interested, the tip of the iceberg:  Kenneth Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier (1985); Robert Fishman, Bourgeois Utopias (1987); and Dolores Hayden, Building Suburbia (2003).

[3]  See Jackson, Chapter 1.

[4]  See generally Jackson, Fishman and Hayden above.

[5]  Gilpin, Essay on Prints (1762).

[6] Hayden at 26.

[7]  Fishman at 126.

[8]  Hayden at 26.

[9]  Alexander Jackson Davis, Rural Residences, Etc. (1837).

[10] Andrew Jackson Downing, Cottage Residences vii (1856).

[11]  See Hayden at 54; see also Jane B. Davies, Llewellyn Park in West Orange, New Jersey, Antiques Magazine (June 1975); see also Richard Guy Wilson, Idealism and the Origin of the First American Suburb: Llewellyn Park, New Jersey, 11(4) American Art Journal 79 (Oct. 1979).

[12]  Jackson at 77.

[13]  Wilson at 81.

[14]  Id.

[15] Id. at 83.

[16]  Id.

[17]  Id.

[18] Hayden at 60.

[19]  See Erwin W. Schawacker Jr., Street and Road Names in Chester County, Pennsylvania, 43(1) American Speech 40 (Feb. 1968).

[20] Jackson at 273.

[21]  Fishman at 204.

There are 1 Comments to "Street Names"

  • […] Andrew Wasson, writing in Dairy River: Given the general meaninglessness of suburban street names it is easy to dismiss them as devoid of meaning. Not so fast. Given the myriad of vaguely identical street names out there, it is just plain unlikely that so many names could turn out so similar. There must be a subconscious rubric. Their striking uniformity belies some pattern. Sort of like the time that guy tried to defend against plagiarism because his mind just happened to work like an encyclopedia. Suspicious. […]

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