Brooklyn Boro

Streets of Home

October 22, 2015 By John B. Manbeck Special to the Brooklyn Eagle
Corner of Elizabeth Place and Doughty Street, Brooklyn Heights, 1940. Photos courtesy of the Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library
Share this:

This article is being paired with the telecast on NY1 of “What’s in a Name?” for a week beginning Sunday, Oct. 25.

Part One:

“How long would it take a guy wit’ a good map,” said the narrator, “to know all deh was to know about Brooklyn?” The story ran in The New Yorker on June 15, 1935. It was written by Thomas Wolfe, a resident of Montague Terrace; the title was “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn.”

Maps often are the bane of travel — particularly in Brooklyn. There’s a good reason why Manhattan taxi drivers dread exploring Brooklyn’s streets, although today’s GPS softens the blow. A glance at the history of Brooklyn’s development can show why.

Brooklyn did not emerge on this earth fully matured. It grew in pieces and jumps and starts. The only entity here was the County of Kings created in 1683. This land mass was divided into six sub-sections, the largest being Flatbush.

A paucity of imagination prodded settlers to name streets after themselves, associate them with nearby geographic sites or honor local celebrities. Failing that, they resorted to numbers and letters. In turn, this led to duplication; with the incorporation of the City of Brooklyn in 1896, streets became a hodgepodge.

But history had been preserved. Many of the streets have names of Dutch ancestry, particularly those in Brooklyn Heights, formerly Brooklyn Village. There the names of the holders of farm tracts have been retained: Henry, Hicks, Joralemon, Pierrepont, Middagh and Remsen.

Kings Highway, which rambles across Brooklyn, was rumored to be an original Native American footpath before it received its British patronym, as was Flatbush Avenue. Lady Deborah Moody, who was invited by the Dutch to settle Gravesend as a buffer against Native American attacks, left us with Lady Moody Triangle and street names outlining the original stockade now called Village Square East, North and South.

Almost reluctantly, only a few tributes to local Natives have emerged in Canarsie, Gowanus and Manhattan, although neighboring communities and states have openly endorsed naming places and streets after Native Americans.

Military figures benefited with recognition from the American Revolution through World War I. This naming rite was particularly true near bases such as the Brooklyn Navy Yard or Fort Hamilton. Most of those who were honored served in the Army, but half of the names were naval officers. Few names come from wars after World War I.

Several streets are named for weapons. Among these are Gatling Place for Richard Gatling (and the Gatling gun), Parrott Place for Robert Parrott (inventor of a cannon), Dahlgren Place (for John Dahlgren, a naval commander and gun inventor) and Battery Avenue, all near Fort Hamilton. A similarly named street in Greenpoint is Monitor Street (for the ironclad warship USS Monitor).

While street names seem to belong to the victors, a relative of Joris Rapelye, an original settler, later identified as a Tory; and a Confederate naval officer and slave owner, Duncan Ingraham, managed to have streets named after them.

By the 19th century, developers determined that anglophiles were attracted to British names, so a slew of Anglican names flooded the real estate market in alphabetical order in Flatbush and, during the 20th century, in Manhattan Beach.

Street names are not easily altered because this requires new mapping and changing signs and addresses. But in the 1930s, a mass alteration occurred. Some only involved corrected spelling, such as Koenhoven for Cowenhoven. Others were an anglicized attempt for simplification. Today, the approach is co-naming.

Some changes were political or patriotic. German names became Americanized during World War I: Dresden Street became Highland Place, Hamburg Avenue was named to Wilson Avenue after the president (although Wilson Street is named after John Wilson, signer of the Declaration of Independence) and Vienna Avenue became Lorraine Avenue, a tribute to France and Alsace-Lorraine.

Who is honored by a street naming? Some politicians, a handful of presidents, sports figures and engineers. Only two Brooklyn borough presidents are named, but six Brooklyn mayors are named including the first, George Hall. Henry Cruse Murphey, publisher of the Brooklyn Eagle as well as New York senator and Brooklyn mayor, is remembered on Senator Street in Bay Ridge where he lived.

The most frequently named streets are those that honor signers of the Declaration of Independence. These are located primarily in Williamsburg, although others are scattered in Carroll Gardens, Flatbush and Fort Greene. An error that has never been corrected officially is Keap Street, named for the last signer from Pennsylvania, Thomas McKean. The signature looks like Thomas M. Keap.

Baseball’s Brooklyn heroes are Jackie Robinson, who had a parkway named after him; Carl Erskine, a street; and Gil Hodges, a bridge. McKeever Place, named for the McKeever brothers who promoted Ebbets Field, borders the former ballpark, but there is no recognition for Charlie Ebbets.

Should I mention Tennis Court, honoring a sport that was introduced to Brooklyn in the 1890s?

The biggest sport touted in Brooklyn’s street names was horse racing, with tributes to the old Brooklyn race tracks in the town of Gravesend using the names of Jerome, Whitney and Billings Place (for Josh Billings, a jockey). Most of the streets surrounding the former Sheepshead Bay Race Track were named after jockeys, but after public housing was built on the site, these streets were renamed with numbers.

Several individuals who are not Brooklynites have been honored in our street names. Poet Joyce Kilmer (from New Jersey — Joyce Kilmer Triangle), writers Nathaniel Hawthorne (from Massachusetts) and James Fenimore Cooper (from New Jersey and later Upstate New York — Fenimore Street) were honored fairly early. Even Manhattan’s Washington Irving was saluted with both Irving and Knickerbocker avenues. Rather belatedly, Walt Whitman achieved street status, but his street is hidden in far-off Mill Island.

Probably fitting in the Borough of Churches, by far the most tributes are religious in spite of separation of church and state. There are more than 20 streets named for clergy members or saints. The Rev. Dr. Samuel Parkes Cadman is remembered with Cadman Plaza, but not the scandal-plagued Rev. Henry Beecher, except with a prominent statue outside Borough Hall.

Presidents didn’t do well; only seven survived mortality in Brooklyn’s streets, the latest being Woodrow Wilson. (Clinton Avenue is named for New York governor, senator, mayor, educator and developer of the Erie Canal DeWitt Clinton, now a resident of Greenwood Cemetery.) Neither of the Roosevelts (except for a short reference in Greenwood Heights) nor Kennedy have a major street tribute, although Teddy Roosevelt’s son, Quentin, killed in World War I, is remembered with Flatlands’ former Avenue Q.

Lawyers and jurists top the professional list followed by educators, journalists, librarians and physicians. The first Brooklyn police officer, David Provost, is honored, as are a few railroad magnates. The most interesting rail inventor is Eben Moody Boynton, who created Brooklyn’s only monorail in 1890. Boynton Place was the site of his factory.

Among the dozen women remembered are the three daughters of Kensington developer William Micieli: Clara, Tehama and Minna. Susan Anthony, Susan Caton, Sister Agnes Veronica (Veronica Place) and Mary Oliver (Oliver Street) are remembered, as well as civil rights activist Mary Ovington (Ovington Place) and Roberta Gaston, whose Mother Gaston Boulevard was originally named after Declaration of Independence signer Thomas Stone.

A few notable names are preserved in street memory: Rip Van Dam, defender of John Peter Zenger in a slander trial; and civil rights leaders Malcolm X (formerly Reid Avenue) and Marcus Garvey, on what was formerly Sumner Avenue. But no Martin Luther King byway exists in Kings County.


Part Two: More Oddities

Several oddities appear in Brooklyn’s records. At least two street names were changed because of sensationalism. Malbone Street became Empire Boulevard (except for a one-block section) after the horrendous subway accident of 1917 when over 90 passengers were killed. Part of DeGraw Street was transformed into Lincoln Place “on account of unpleasant associations” when Kate Stoddard murdered her lover, Charles Goodrich, in 1873. But Livonia Avenue, home to “Murder Inc.,” remains intact.

Further incongruities: Red Hook Lane, one short block between Fulton and Adams downtown, used to be one of the oldest and longest streets in Brooklyn. Crooke Avenue is named after Philip Crooke, a lawyer. Border Avenue was the border street between the towns of Brooklyn and New Utrecht; formerly it was Martense Lane. Franklin Street is named after John Franklin, a signer of the Declaration, not Benjamin.

Love Lane in Brooklyn Heights is named after a trysting place on a farm there, but there is no Lois Lane. (There is a Lois Avenue, however.) A Grandparents Avenue exists in Williamsburg. Gilmore Court is named after Patrick Gilmore, bandleader and composer, but no streets are named for his better-known successor at Manhattan Beach, “march king” John Philip Sousa. Oriental Boulevard in that same area was named after a hotel. A portion of Pennsylvania Avenue is named for Granville Payne, a jazz musician and community activist.

Roebling Street, named for the family responsible for the Brooklyn Bridge, was officially designated as such in 1915. It is located near the Brooklyn entrance of the Williamsburg Bridge, nowhere near their iconic creation. In a similar slight, Seth Low, Brooklyn’s mayor when the bridge opened in 1883, is not remembered in Brooklyn’s streets — only in a playground.

Liberty Pole Boulevard in New Utrecht celebrates the departure of British occupation troops in 1783. However, Liberty Avenue refers to the fact that it was free, rather than a toll, road. Then, there is the lost free black community of Weeksville on Hunterfly Road.

Meucci Square is named after the Italian inventor, Antonio Meucci, the true inventor of the telephone who had worked with Alexander Graham Bell but couldn’t afford to pay for a patent. Lapskaus Boulevard is the nickname for 86th Street, the former Norwegian section of Bay Ridge. The name refers to a stew.

Brooklyn’s first British governor who captured New Amsterdam in 1664, Richard Nicholls, is remembered in Nichols Avenue, minus an ”L.” Force Tube Avenue was originally the location of a pipe to transport water from the Ridgewood Reservoir to the water-pumping station at Atlantic Avenue and Conduit Boulevard.   

Entertainment is Brooklyn’s middle name, so why not remember a movie star, Vincent Gardenia, with a boulevard? Milton Berger, a flamboyant press agent, still lives in a Brooklyn street name, as does Astroland creator Dewey Albert in a place name in Coney Island. But not the original greats in that field: George Tilyou, Fred Thompson, Elmer Dundy, Sam Gumpertz, William Reynolds, William Mangels and restaurateur Charles Feltman have no streets named after them.

Perhaps the omission of Robert Moses as a street name was intentional, since his planning destroyed so much of Bath Beach, Red Hook, Sunset Park, Williamsburg and almost Brooklyn Heights. However, he left us with the Belt Parkway rather than the original names: Marginal Highway and Circumferential Highway. But the weirdest street spelling must go to Newkirk Placez.

One last anomaly: Menahan Street where Patrick Menahan ran his successful corset business in the 19th century.

Source material: “Brooklyn by Name” by Benardo & Weiss, NYU Press, 2006;;

—John Manbeck, former Brooklyn Borough Historian, is the author of numerous books about Brooklyn. 


Leave a Comment

Leave a Comment