“Streets Like Rivers”: Talking New York City with Joshua Jelly-Schapiro

"Often, the question of which place-names stick is about which ones hit our ears right."

New York City is an iconic metropolis that brings together a multitude of peoples and economies. Its Lenape history, the subsequent colonial exploits of the Dutch and British, and the more recent experiences of diaspora and movement, in addition to urban crises and revitalization, all shape its contemporary landscape. Those spatial histories manifest themselves in places both celebrated and paradigmatic and more intimate and hidden.

How do we get at those histories? And what’s in their names? In his recent book, The Names of New York, the geographer and journalist Joshua Jelly-Schapiro explores the role of place-names in shaping our understanding of the city. Names, he reveals, are powerful tools that can illuminate multiple urban pasts and produce the city’s presents and futures. Through exhaustive research of NYC’s vast catalogue of places, Jelly-Schapiro paints an evocative portrait of the city and the way it has been shaped, sometimes surprisingly, by overlapping and competing histories of settlement.

He recently sat down with Sophie Gonick, urbanism editor of Public Books and the author of Dispossession and Dissent: Immigrants and the Struggle for Housing in Madrid, which documents how the Spanish capital has been profoundly shaped by immigrant geographies of emplacement. Here they talk about diaspora and colonialism, monuments and memory, and, of course, the power to name.

Sophie Gonick (SG): Both of our books in some ways have to do with migration and movement and the way in which mobility shapes the city. In your case it’s in the shifting names. So what was the genesis for this book?


Joshua Jelly-Schapiro (JJS): It grew out of this book Nonstop Metropolis that I created with Rebecca Solnit and a bunch of other people, a merry band of writers and artists and lovers of New York City. That was an atlas that was based on the idea that anyone who lives in the city could and does map it their own way, whether consciously or not.

But in working on that book, I necessarily grew immersed in the geography of New York, and more particularly in the place-names. They are the basic building blocks of any map.

And place-names are powerful: they are how we figure out where we are, where we’re going, where we want to go—but also, I think, who we are.

And New York is a particularly rich case and place to delve into and then riff on and think about the names of the city. To think about all that we do with them and can do with them. To think, essentially, about their power: in culture, in ways to access the past and imagine the future.


SG: Yes.


JJS: But this book is also about the power to name, which is closely allied to the power to map—the power that founders of settlements throughout history have arrogated to themselves, to affix names to places. The old Dutchman, for example, who showed up here and said, “Oh, I’ll call this part of Upper Manhattan ‘Harlem,’ because it reminds me of Haarlem back in the Netherlands.”

Many place-names come about because of happenstance. But it’s fascinating to think about what names stick around—because though that’s often about power, it’s sometimes just about what hits our ears right, what we grow attached to.

There are many examples in New York too of when a name is changed but people don’t want to use it. Think of Avenue of the Americas. Mayor LaGuardia forced that through in the ’40s to try and give Sixth Avenue this cachet that could stand up to Fifth Avenue. But people never really took to it.

Harlem is another great example. Harlem of course was named after this town in the Netherlands, and when the English came, they tried to change that part of Manhattan to … Lancaster. Thank God they didn’t succeed, because Lancaster just doesn’t have the ring of Harlem, that word that now of course is iconic of Black culture and pride.


SG: We would have the Lancaster Renaissance.


JJS: And that’d be no good.

SG: As you point out, unlike some other cities like London or Madrid, it’s unusual here in New York for a street to change name partway through its trajectory through the city. That is not the case in a lot of other places. You’ll think: I thought I was on this street but now I’m on this other totally different street.


JJS: Exactly. And that’s really one of the country’s most distinctive contributions to urban placemaking: the ways in which we imagine streets in the US. There was this push essentially to say, no, we don’t want streets to change names every block as they did in the Old World.

We think about streets like rivers. We say that we live on Broadway or on Fifth Avenue not in Fifth Avenue, as they still say in the UK.


SG: Right!


JJS: You write about Madrid. It’s interesting to think about how every place and culture has its own unique tics or ways of placemaking and thinking about naming streets. In Latin America—I don’t know if this is the case in Spain—there’s a whole love for naming streets after dates. In Havana, there’s a neighborhood I love called Diez de Octubre—October 10.


SG: Madrid actually is a case where there has been a lot of political debate over street names and history. Debates about naming and monuments aren’t exceptional to the United States, of course, and, under the previous progressive mayoral administration of Manuela Carmena, there was a push to rename a lot of streets that carried names of Franco-era generals. Which raised all these messy questions about historical memory—about if and how we can resignify places, and take them over and understand them differently; about what’s gained, or lost, in removing a historical name or reckoning with its roots in other ways.


JJS: There are clear factors that we can look at when debating whether to change a name or not.  Among those are when was that name inscribed on public space, for what purpose. What was the resonance of that person while they were alive, and to what uses is their name put now?

Using such criteria, the question of what to do with Confederate monuments down South actually becomes pretty uncomplicated. Because, no, these aren’t mutual markers of history; they were put up decades after the Civil War to assert and affirm white supremacy. It’s not that complicated to remove them.

But not all cases, especially when it comes to street names, are that clear-cut. It’s not at all a given to my mind that, for example, every place in New York that’s named for a person who owned slaves—from George Washington to James Madison to lots of less famous denizens of colonial Brooklyn—should be renamed. And part of the reason why is that places named for these figures, which are markers of history we can’t escape, have gained lots of different meanings. Few people, nowadays, actively associate Washington Square Park or Washington Heights with our first president—their names may make you think of folk music or NYU students, or of “In the Heights,” but not old George and his cherry tree.

As someone who cares about and thinks about place-names and the ways that we can develop attachments to them across time, I’m often struck by how those attachments can frequently have nothing to do with these names’ origins.


SG: Yes. In San Francisco, the name of Cesar Chavez Boulevard just makes me think of the street in the Mission District; I’m not thinking about the Chicano labor leader.


JJS: Right, and that makes me think, actually, of 125th Street in Harlem—which is officially co-named Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. That second name dates from a few decades ago, when many cities and towns around America were naming streets for Dr. King, this deeply admired figure in our history.


SG: I lived around the corner from one in Berkeley.


JJS: There you go, exactly, MLK in Berkeley. But in New York, what’s interesting about our MLK Boulevard is that it was stuck to this thoroughfare—125th Street—that was already iconic, in its name, of Black history and freedom, of the struggle for racial justice with which MLK is associated. It almost felt patronizing of the government; 125th Street, its name already signified what people needed to signify—and no one, today, calls 125th MLK. And it’s the same, in fact, with Lenox Avenue, which 125th Street intersects—it’s officially co-named Malcolm X Boulevard now, but few people call it that. Because over the decades Lenox, that name, became what Langston Hughes called “the heartbeat of Harlem.”

But this honorary co-naming thing, you know, it’s very unique to New York—few other cities do it.


SG: A month ago I was walking by Bleecker, and there was this huge number of police officers wandering around. My first instinct was: Oh shit, what happened? And of course it was that they were honoring someone through place-naming; the intersection of Sullivan and Bleecker is now named after somebody whom I have no idea who he is. You probably have no idea who he is.


JJS: Exactly.


SG: And now he has a nice little intersection.


JJS: It is one of the distinctive things about New York—that the city council made this local law back in the ’90s where it made it very easy for the city council to add these second names. So there is this whole second-order geography—of local heroes, first responders who died in duty’s line, celebrities, or local kids made good—that just blankets the city. And digging into these names, as I do in my book, is a great way to engage in New York history and New York trivia.

But one thing these “co-names” also do, of course, is to obviate the need to actually change every name that may give offense, or doesn’t fit current norms. And of course, speaking of San Francisco, the City by the Bay also became the center of debates about such moves this year, when its school board moved to change the names of 44 schools that, in its members’ estimation, “engaged in the subjugation … of human beings.” For this, and for their specific recommendations—to scrub the names of John Muir and Abraham Lincoln, and dozens of others, from the city’s schools—they earned a lot of ridicule. The problem, or one of them anyway, was the ill-considered and slapdash way that that school board presumed to judge all these complex figures from the past by the standards of the present. It also became clear that their judgments were based, in certain cases, on a baldly ignorant understanding of history—and little consideration at all for the other histories or meanings that those names, for alumni of those schools, might carry.


SG: Part of it is also a broader effort of reckoning with past figures who are problematic and probably on a spectrum from Confederate generals to George Washington, who was a slave owner, but in our collective memory is also a hero of the nation. The question is how do we hold these various truths in balance alongside one another.


JJS: Right. As educators, it’s our job to think about how we can help students engage the past and confront the past in a way that helps us understand the present. And for me there are absolutely good reasons, as I mentioned, to remove certain monuments and place-names from the public square. But as an educator and a citizen, I’m at least as interested in making the past visible, and in thinking about how to do that—whether by engaging where these names on the map come from, or by other means.

Nowadays, when I want to teach my students about New York’s history as a slave port, there’s a site that I’m even more grateful for than all its streets named for enslavers. It’s the new plaque, down on Water Street in the financial district, that marks where the main slave market in New York was in the 1700s. That’s a site where history is made visible in place, and that’s an incredibly important thing to be doing—a vital cause, as we “rethink memorials,” that we should all be getting behind and thinking creatively about how to do.


Whose Brooklyn?

By Benjamin Holtzman

SG: One other thing you write about in your book is the selling of place—and the ways in which place-names, in New York, are often changed or coined by people selling real estate. The change of the Lower East Side to the East Village, for example, was effected by realtors. And then there’s Tribeca. Soho. All the new abbreviations that emerge into our lexicon—you mention some new ones in Brooklyn.


JJS: BoCoCa.


SG: BoCoCa, yes.


JJS: BoCoCa: Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens. That is awful. But there are many—NoMad [for North of Madison], Nolita [for North of Little Italy]. Of course there are neighborhood nicknames that were coined by residents—as Tribeca was, in fact. One thinks today of, say, Loisaida, the Puerto Rican moniker for the Lower East Side.

But absolutely in New York, as in many cities, these people who have a vested interest in selling neighborhoods as commodities—developers and others—have played a huge role in “making place” and shaping politics and history.

Many of the neighborhoods or subdivisions out in Queens, from Jackson Heights to Rego Park—which gets its name from the Real Good Construction Company—to Utopia Parkway, were named by their builders. And then more recently, as you say, we’ve had all these acronyms. Tribeca and Soho were the first ones; they came from community groups, artists, but as those places became salable, they became shorthand for real estate agents, and now we have tons of these names. Some don’t stick. Some, like Dumbo—Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass—do.


SG: Dumbo, yes. In San Francisco, they have Soma [South of Market] and then also Nopa [North of the Panhandle]; it’s always interesting to see these new places be discovered and rebranded and created, essentially. This is also a reminder of how places could be invented through different factors.

And so in New York money is a huge player. Capital is a huge player in shaping how we experience the city and the places that define us. I guess hip young professionals can only live somewhere if it has some snappy title.


JJS: And that’s why it’s not by accident that Brooklyn has received the most proliferation of new place-names recently. Dumbo, BoCaCa, also, now, Stuyshwick—for the Bed-Stuy/Bushwick borderlands.


SG: Makes me think, in San Francisco, of the so-called Tender Nob—the zone between Nob Hill and the Tenderloin.


JJS: Right—rather evocative name, that! But the worst of these I’ve heard lately is in the South Bronx. An impoverished area, historically, that real estate people would love to gentrify—it’s right across the river from Harlem, after all—but that keeps being resistant. Their latest attempt at rebranding: SoBro. Here’s hoping that doesn’t stick.


SG: One of the things that is very interesting about this approach to telling a story about the city is that it very much reveals the city as palimpsest. And often in very surprising ways. And one of the things that’s surprising that we’ve touched on is which names stick.


JJS: Yes.


SG: But there are many names that come from the previous stewards of the land, the native tribes that were here prior to the arrival of and claiming of the land by the Dutch and then the British. All manner of different groups have laid claim to the land and named it accordingly—and, of course, lately we have witnessed the emergence of spaces named by more recent migration.


JJS: Yes, for sure. That’s one thing that, in my researching the book, was most surprising and fun to learn about. Of course there are these layers—the Native American layer (Manhattan, Canarsie, Rockaway); the Dutch layer (Bowery, Brooklyn, Bleecker); the British layer (Queens County, Kings County, Prince Street). That’s easy enough to understand.

But what’s less well known, and more wonderful, are all the place-names that are just riffs on what came before. You may think Gramercy, for example, it sounds vaguely English but it’s basically an English riff on the Dutch krom moerasje—their name for the “crooked marsh” in that part of Manhattan. Coney Island’s name, too, sounds vaguely English. But it doesn’t mean anything in English—it’s just an English riff on the Dutch Conyne Eylandt, the “island of rabbits.” The meaning didn’t matter, but they liked the sound of it. And I love how often that happens—how often the question of which place-names stick is about which ones hit our ears right. Which, as a lover of language and of place, one just has to wonder at—there’s magic in it.


Cities Run by Real Estate

By Gordon Douglas

SG: So you come to this project in part through maps and mapping, which is also not just about what we name places but also how we portray them and make them into 2D consumable images. The question is how we imagine a particular geography versus what its reality is.

This is something that my book is trying to do in a certain way, revealing Madrid to be an immigrant city. At the height of the boom it was also the third-largest Ecuadorian city, because there were almost half a million Ecuadorians living there, second only to Quito and Guayaquil.


JJS: Yes. Beautiful, exactly.


SG: So how do you think about the city within diaspora?


JJS: Cities are places that are made and remade continually—this is the dynamism of cultural capitals, of big cities whose energy is about the ways they attract people. The way, too, they can throw peoples off—their centripetal force, if you like. But New York, like Madrid, is and always will be remade, let’s hope, by immigrants who come here and engage its places and remake them, however they do. That’s so vital—and so vital too, yes, to the stories that both of us want to tell about cities and believe in.


SG: A lot of the narratives that are coming out of cities in the North Atlantic are about gentrification and capitalization through the production of urban spaces. But yet there’s also all these other dynamics going on that are part of urban transformations that don’t fall into the rubric of gentrification and instead create ecologies and economies of movement—


JJS: Oh, without a doubt. If there’s one phrase that I like to use to describe what Rebecca [Solnit] and I have tried to do in our mapping work, and that I’ve had in mind with this project, it’s just thinking about cities as spaces for radical coexistence. That’s what they are and that’s why we’re drawn to them. That’s why they’re magical when they work, that’s why they’re really hard when they don’t. But a city, New York, is a place that’s about mashing together this infinity of stories and histories and people, in one place, and seeing what happens with these processes—these processes that, as a geographer, I think about as only happening in and through place.


SG: And one of the things that’s very clear is that the work that you’ve done in the atlas and then this new book is also uncovering all of these myriad forms of capital, it’s not just finance and economics.


JJS: Absolutely, yes.


SG: Like personal capital and sexual capital and the power of networks of exchange and sociality.


JJS: Amen, yes.


SG: Subcultures like those portrayed in your “Monarchs and Queens” map of San Francisco, which maps butterflies and different LGBTQ landmarks, spaces that provide sanctuary for the city’s queer communities and insect population.


JJS: Yes, that sense of the city as a place to find oneself or lose oneself—this remains key, of course, to the story we tell ourselves of the city. But I’ve also always been fascinated by the ways in which our imagined geographies butt up against the city as it’s actually lived—that point of intersection, the stories that merge from and in it, are everything.


This article was commissioned by Sophie Gonickicon