Thursday, August 6, 2009

On Being a Name, Not a Number

Long ago someone made a comment on a blog (not even sure if it was here or not) about how it was so much easier and so much more logical the way Brooklyn, Queens and most Manhattan streets mostly use numbers in straight numerical order to name the streets with (and the alphabet as well in Brooklyn). Well, yes and no. Anyone who has had to drive in Queens may wonder about 69th Street, 69th Road, 69th Avenue, 69th Place, not necessarily parallel, intersecting each other here and there and interspersed with named streets in addition. But here is the thing about those numbered streets--they are boring. Yes, B-O-R-I-N-G!

Staten Island gives names to its streets. The residents here seem to find where they have to go just fine. Mostly it is "auslanders" who have trouble initially. For them, may I recommend a good GPS. I like that the streets have names. They give a flavor to the neighborhood that plain "14th Street" just can't match.

Over my years of teaching I have given many an assignment dealing with place names. For one fourth grade, where the introduction to US geography was taking place, the students researched and found out why each state has the name it does. For a unit on "What's our neighborhood?" we researched and learned about the local place names.

There is one location here in SI whose name is pronounced "toad hill," "tote hill," "tot hill," "toe dill" and other variations on these. The actual place is spelled Todt Hill. So, who or what is it named for? I got some obvious, top of the head answers, based on the pronunciation. "It must have had a lot of toads on it." "It must be a place where children (tots) play."

What's the answer? "Todt Hill is a small mountain ridge. At 410 feet in height, it is the highest natural point in the five boroughs of New York City.In addition, it is the highest point on the eastern seaboard of the United States south of Maine. The name Todt comes from the Dutch word for "dead" and refers to the cemetery (the present Moravian Cemetery) on the southwestern foot of the ridge near the village of New Dorp that has been in use since colonial days." Yup, nowhere near as boring as "Avenue J."

But there's more. SI lays claim to two more elevated areas. There's Emerson Hill as well. And where did it's name come from? "The hill is named for Judge William Emerson--oldest brother of Ralph Waldo Emerson--who lived with his wife, Susan, and children William, Haven and Charles in a long brown shingle house known as The Snuggery. Willie and Haven were tutored in 1843 by Henry David Thoreau, who lived with the Emersons from May through October. It was the only time in his adult life that Thoreau lived anywhere but Concord, Massachusetts....In 1971, two large Tudor homes at the end of Longfellow Avenue served as Casa Corleone for the filming of Francis Ford Coppola's classic movie The Godfather."

And then we have Grymes Hill. Grymes Hill is the second highest point on SI, being 310 feet in height. " The hill is named after Suzette Bosque Grymes, the widow of Louisiana's first governor, William Charles Cole Claiborne, who settled on Staten Island in 1836 (she had remarried a prominent New Orleans lawyer, John R. Grymes, after Governor Claiborne died in 1817.)" The tip top of the hill also happens to be the home of the Staten Island campus of St. John's University, and gave me an experience I would so much rather have never had. The view from the campus is normally breath taking, offering a panoramic view of NY Harbor and of lower Manhattan. And on 9/11 it gave those of us on campus a full view of the second plane hitting the Twin Towers.

So go ahead, talk about the utility of a numbered street system--we'll keep ours, thank you.


Anonymous said...

Good post ProfK - hope you're enjoying your Nevada jaunt.
While the street grid in Manhattan is certainly easier to navigate, there's no doubt that the international convention of giving streets actual names makes for a more interesting navigational experience.
Its particularly enjoyable in Jerusalem, where the streets in different regions of the city are given themed names, including the Nevi'im, characters from TeNaCh and other locations in Jewish history; for example.

SaraK said...

I agree, Anon. That is one of the most special things about Israel. One of my favorite group of street names is Rechov Eli Hakohen, Shmuel Hanavi, Chana, Penina, etc; all the "players" from the same section of Tanach.

But you just can't beat the Manhattan grid for ease of getting around.