Ad and marketing creatives
In early March 2022, as Russian troops continued their assault on neighboring Ukraine, cities throughout Europe and North America mounted a counteroffensive of their own. Their weapons? Names—specifically, street names.
In Riga, the Latvian capital, the section of Antonijas Street where the Russian embassy is located was renamed Ukrainian Independence Street. In Albania’s capital, Tirana, the Russian embassy now sat on Free Ukraine Street. In Toronto, the area in front of the Russian embassy was re-dubbed Independent Ukraine Square. A global petition attempted to enlist more cities, so that “walking down Ukraine Street to their embassies and consulates, Russian diplomats and citizens worldwide would get a great daily reminder of Ukraine’s sovereignty.”
Even some cities without embassies joined the campaign, as with the temporarily renamed Russia Avenue in a residential San Francisco neighborhood.
Someone has changed Russia Street off of Mission to Ukraine. Solidarity from San Francisco. #excelsior pic.twitter.com/NptvjX3xfl— Ⓒⓨⓝⓣⓗⓘⓐ (@otterlycynthia) March 7, 2022
These efforts remind us of the power of street names to situate us not just within geographic coordinates but on emotional and political maps. Some street names encapsulate whole histories and industries: “Fleet Street” is synonymous with four centuries of London newspapers. “Wall Street” is interchangeable with “stock market.” “Madison Avenue” means “advertising.” Other street names are poetic (Gentle Rain Drive) or whimsical (Mermaid Street) or contentious (streets named for Robert E. Lee and other leaders of the Confederacy).
Because I study and work with names, I’ve given some thought to where place names come from. But it wasn’t until I picked up The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power, by Deirdre Mask, that I discovered how much I hadn’t known about the street names we often take for granted.
Mask tells us that in parts of the world, and for much of human history—continuing to the present day—street names have been rare or nonexistent. The streets in slums and sparsely populated rural areas are often unnamed. The ancient Romans named their arterial roads—Via Appia, or Appian Way, was named in 312 BCE for its builder, the wealthy and powerful Appius Claudius Caecus—but the majority of streets were nameless; instead, people gave directions by referring to some local landmark. That system still prevails in modern-day Japan, where, Mask writes, “instead of naming its streets, Tokyo numbers its blocks”—the spaces between roads—to the eternal perplexity of non-Japanese visitors.
In medieval European towns and cities, street names, when they existed, were usually descriptively literal. Frankfurt had Badergasse (“physician’s alley”); many English towns had (and still have) a Church Street, a Market Street, a Baker Street, and so on. But the New World’s new cities provided opportunities for a more ordered, possibly even mathematical approach.
William Penn, who had been jailed in his native England for his unyielding Quaker beliefs, started over in America in 1680, where he established Philadelphia, “the city of brotherly love,” and directed a surveyor to design it in a grid—a novel idea at the time, although not completely unprecedented. (Several cities in colonial Mexico and ancient Pakistan and Greece were gridded.) The surveyor wanted to name the grid’s streets after people, but Penn “rejected the idea as immodest,” Mask writes. Instead, following the Quaker tradition of numbering months and days (January is First Month, Thursday is Fifth Day), “Penn prescribed numbers as names for streets running north-south—Second Street, Third Street, Fourth Street—matching the rational, straight lines of the grid.” He started another nomenclature fashion when he named the cross streets after “things that Spontaneously Grow in the country,” which is why Philadelphia—as well as many American cities that followed its example—has streets named Cherry, Chestnut, and Mulberry.
A century later, the new United States capital was laid out on an American-style grid (broken up by European-style circles and plazas); its street names, writes Mask, are “maniacally rational.” Numbered streets in Washington, DC, run east to west, lettered streets (A, B, C) north to south. “After W Street,” Mask writes, “the pattern starts again, with each name now two syllables—Adams, Bryant, etc.—and then at the end, restarting with three-syllable names, Allison, Buchanan, etc.” Alphabetical order also prevails in Alphabet City in Manhattan’s East Village, although only from A through D; and there are eleven complete or partial street alphabets in San Francisco. (The system makes it easy to navigate; as a bonus, it’s more fun to memorize names than numbers!)
During the 18th century, political upheavals and Enlightenment philosophy combined to change how European streets were named and ordered. In 1770, Empress Maria Theresa implemented a radical plan to introduce house numbers throughout the Hapsburg Empire; her primary motive was easy identification of potential military conscripts, but house numbers also aided postal delivery and tax collection. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, many citizens rebelled against what people a couple of centuries later might call “creeping numeralism.” Across Europe, Mask informs us, “house numbers were defiled with excrement and hacked away with iron bars.”
After the French Revolution, some members of the nouveau regime wanted to raze Paris and start anew. In the end, writes Mask, “they decided to rebadge it instead,” A revolutionary young priest, Henri Grégoire, submitted a 17-page proposal for renaming every street in the capital city. Paris’s new names would be short, melodic, and evocative of civic virtues: Place de la Révolution would lead to the rue de la Constitution and thence to the rue du Bonheur (happiness). In the end, Grégoire’s plan was too sweeping for an ancient city like Paris, and while some streets were renamed, most remained unchanged.
Nevertheless, the revolutionary idea of ideological and political street names managed to take root around the world. “Modern street names do more than describe; they commemorate,” Mask observes. Mexico has more than 500 streets named for the peasant-revolution leader Emiliano Zapata; the capital has a major thoroughfare named 16 de septiembre, the date marking Mexico’s independence from Spain. After Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, it took the Dutch city of Haarlem only a week to name a street after him. (It took MLK’s birthplace, Atlanta, eight years.) Today nearly 900 streets are named for King in the U.S.; still more can be found as far away as France, South Africa, and Israel.
What about current street-naming trends? In the U.S., real-estate developers usually have the first and last word on street names in a new neighborhood. “It used to be common for developers to name streets after their kids,” noted a 2018 article in the Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Argus Leader. (That trend seems to have passed.) One Sioux Falls neighborhood has a lot of Irish-themed street names because the developer’s parents had recently returned from a pleasant trip to Ireland. The city also has a private road named Man Cave Place and an intersection of Grinn and Barret streets.
But if certain private companies have their way, in the future we’ll do away with street names altogether in favor of algorithmically generated coordinates. Google’s open-source Plus Codes, based on longitude and latitude, assign unique alphanumeric strings to every spot on Earth, including, most critically, places that lack conventional addresses. What3Words, founded in 2013 and based in London, uses randomly generated dictionary words, separated by periods, to identify every three-meter-square patch on the globe—aquatic as well as terrestrial. The system, which supports 50 languages, has proved helpful in providing emergency services.
What3Words is ingenious, but it isn’t perfect. The three-word geotag for my California residence, for example, is prime.lend.bath, but that will get you only as far as the front door. My building has 44 units, and to find me among them you’ll need more than three words or even a street name—you’ll need a number.