Where do American street names come from?

By November 16, 2015Writing about Writing

In this postthe first in a series penned by Collaborative for Multilingual Writing and Research (CMWR) team member Emily P., a senior in the Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse (WRD) department’s combined BA/MA program, reflects on where American street names come from.

By Emily P.

In one of the CMWR’s most popular weekly events, Conversation and Culture (on Fridays from 1 to 2 p.m. in Lewis 1600, the Loop Writing Center’s Conference Room), participants ask fascinating questions about American culture. Many of these things we might not normally think about, probably because it can be difficult to ask questions about your culture when you’re inside of it.

One of the questions that came up in a recent week’s Conversation and Culture is: Where do American street names come from? Reflecting on our own experiences, we answered that many street names are numbered, like First Street and Second Street. Also, lots of streets are named after individuals who have contributed to the country or the community. For example, in the town that my family is from, there is a street named after my Great Grandfather. If you ever find yourself in Bourbonnais, Illinois driving down Larry Power Road, that’s my guy! He worked for the Bourbonnais township and did a lot of things for the community; thus, the town named a road after him.

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We found this Washington Post article that breaks down the 10 most popular street names in each state. Interestingly, the most popular street name in the country is Second/2nd! You’d think Main Street or First Street would make it up there—well, first—but no, Second comes first!

Park was overall the most popular street name in many states. A clump of Midwestern states all had Park as their most popular street names: Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Missouri. Other Park states include California, Texas, South Carolina, Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland, and New York.

Also, many streets are named after trees! Some examples include Maple, Oak, Magnolia, Dogwood, and Pine.

Some regions name streets based on a common theme. For example, a neighborhood in the same town as mentioned above, Bourbonnais, is called Turnberry. Every street within Turnberry is named after—guess!—a berry. Some of the names are Longberry, Hollyberry, and Waterberry (is that real?). My grandparents live on the one street that falls outside of this theme: Beach Ave. We might look to Washington D.C. as another example of a town that names streets with a theme in mind. Here, every U.S. state has a street named after it. Most of the streets named after states run diagonally through the town’s grid.

Chicago itself has a quite interesting street-naming history. Up to 1908, the city had a somewhat confusing street system. Then it redid the street names so that the center of the grid (0,0) was at the intersection of Madison and State Street. Madison runs east and west, while State Street runs north and south. All streets have a number associated with their block, but many streets north of the Loop are called by a different name. However, streets running east to west south of the Loop are generally referred to by their assigned number. On Michigan Avenue, I’ve noticed that many streets have honorary names, often out of respect for a significant individual. Similarly, Lenox Ave below is also known as Malcolm X Blvd.

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I hope you have found this information on street names interesting! It’s obviously not comprehensive, but we hope to share some of our conversation and culture…conversations with you! We’d love if you shared some of your own experiences in the comments section! What street names do you hear of most often? Read the article from the Washington Post and see what the most popular street in your home state is! Does this reflect your experience there?