Street Names: Where Policy and History Meet
Wherever you travel the names of the local streets can help you find your way, confuse you, demonstrate a remarkable lack of imagination, or very often tell you a bit about the unique history of the community. The name may relate easily to the history in an obvious way or it may require some sleuthing to uncover its meaning.
In my time working in local government, I’ve encountered more than a few examples of when the historical and geographical meet in street names, and not always in a way you’d expect.
Cole Street: Clean up on aisle 3
The main business street in a city I once worked for was known as Cole Street, and the local merchants were called the “Cole Street gang.”
However, in researching the title on a potential property acquisition, the city’s engineering staff discovered that the street had originally been platted as Coal Street. They did a little digging, no pun intended, and discovered that at some point in the early 20th century, the local business community wanted to create a cleaner image for the downtown and “Coal” became “Cole.” Not earth shattering but interesting, and possibly one of the first achievements of the “Cole Street gang.”
Adams Street: Would that be the former president?
Like many early communities, ours was laid out on a street grid and the founders chose to honor national historical figures in assigning street names. Many of the streets bore the names of early presidents like Jefferson, Washington, Adams, Garfield, Harding, Monroe, etc.
After WWII, the community built a hospital on a block bounded on the south side by Adams Street. One of the physicians who served the community for many years, including as the city’s Health Officer, was Dr. Gordon Adams. When he died the city council considered some way to honor him and…Viola! What could be more appropriate than renaming the street next to the hospital after Dr. Gordon Adams instead of President Adams? It seemed like it was meant to be, but as time passes, will anyone remember?
Hawk and Hunter: Bridging competing community needs
A large, regional home builder was developing the first, fairly significant residential development in our city in some time. The houses were going to be a nice addition to the community and the approval process appeared to be going smoothly. City staff were taken aback, though, when the local Veterans of Foreign Wars Post suddenly objected to the development’s approval.
We were even more surprised when the VFW explained their objection: The city, they stated, had a “policy” of naming any new streets after local service members killed in the line of duty. In the 15 years I had worked there no one had ever mentioned such a policy. It was probably rediscovered by the VFW in old records but since the city had never codified it, there was no way for the current staff or elected officials to know it existed. However, the mayor and the members of the city council thought it was important to respect the memory of community members who had died in service to our country.
I contacted the developer’s project manager, and while he was sympathetic, he was adamant that they weren’t going to change the development’s street names because these had been carefully chosen (at some considerable expense by their marketing consultant) to reflect a northwest outdoor adventure theme centered on nearby Mt. Rainier.
The VFW was equally adamant.
I carefully looked over the VFW’s list of deceased service members. Two names struck me, Hawk and Hunter. Both could easily fit into the theme of the development as well as honor the men. I called the developer and the VFW and proposed a compromise: The developer would substitute two existing street names with those from the VFW list. The deadlock was broken and the project moved to completion.
Welfare Avenue: Not what you might think
Shortly after the city I worked for annexed a large area of formerly unincorporated territory, we received a petition from a group of property owners living on Welfare Avenue. The homeowners in this fairly affluent community thought the street name reflected poorly on them and were requesting the city change it.
Like me, many of the city staff members were unfamiliar with local history and would have been willing to consider this request. Fortunately, however, an active historical society member read about the issue when it appeared in the local newspaper. The member promptly informed city staff that the street was named after an early family of settlers with the last name of Welfare.
City staff informed the both the city council and the property owners before any action was taken. The petitioners accepted the historic significance of their street name and withdrew their request.
Lesson number one: If you adopt a policy, write it down, and follow it.
Potentially embarrassing disagreements, like the one between the VFW and the developer, can be avoided if a jurisdiction’s street naming policy has been formally adopted and codified. Our Naming Public Facilities and Streets webpage offers sample ordinances.
Lesson Number Two: Document the history and rationale behind existing street names.
Work with the community, such as a local historical society, a Scout troop, school classes, or a senior center, to get research help. This can be especially helpful for street names whose origins aren’t obvious. The results can be inspiring, informative, and even humorous.
As generations pass, the reasons behind the names given to streets can be lost or obscured, yet they are still part of a town’s legacy and worth remembering.
Having a logical, local policy on street naming (or renaming) can prevent mix-ups and provide some insight for future generations so that the original meaning isn’t lost, especially if the name was intended as a tribute to someone.
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