How Do Streets Get Named?

How Do Streets Get Named?

Do you live on a road? Or a lane? Or maybe you live on an avenue? What’s the difference? Who decided whether your motor pathway is called a street or a boulevard? And how did it come to be boring “Maple Dr.” or too-clever “Tennis Ct.”?

As I can personally attest, there are millions of streets in the US of A.  Sometimes I feel like I have seen every one of them….on paper, anyway.  But there weren’t always so many streets here, and back when there were fewer, they were often named for the landmarks that they passed by, such as Church, or Market, or River.  They came by their names as a result of common usage and were almost always called “street”, a generic and suitable urban word, and usually not capitalized.  The landmark was the important factor, thus, “Court street”, or Hill street”.

Rural roads were generally not given official names.  Streets were commonly named for prominent statesmen like Washington or Adams.  Early in the 19th century a cultural phenomenon came into play wherein nature, formerly thought to be a wild adversary, began to be extolled over the dreary urban crowding that had come to exemplify city life.  Because of this, new street names took on all the Oak, Pine, Walnut, Elm, Beech, etc. monikers that fill so many maps.

As cities continued to grow, real estate operators were designing whole new neighborhoods and placing their own surnames, or those of their colleagues and financial backers, on the streets.  In the West, where entire towns might spring up at once, the checkerboard of streets commonly had letter or number assignments – easy to navigate, but uninspiring.  In the later 1800s, the suffix “Street” began to be supplanted by “Avenue”, a more upscale sounding term.  Similarly, towards the 1900s, the use of Boulevard, Park, Court and Terrace lent an air of the upper class.  As the automobile began its climb into the role of essential element of the culture, Drive was appended to more and more byways.

Into the 20th century, developers seeking to imbue their neighborhoods with a certain cachet, began to add “–wood” or “-stone” to the ends of innumerable root words.  Crossingstone, Bravestone, Griffinwood, Rainwood, and even…Stonewood.  The proliferation of housing developments in the last few decades has really strained the production of unique names, and the “namers” have stretched far beyond the names of flowers, universities, world cities, and animals.  I have seen neighborhoods of famous jazzmen, astronauts and racehorses amongst a host of others.

In the shot below, have a close look and see if you think the person who named some of these streets in Atwater CA may have been paying homage our fair city and county, however badly spelled.

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