A Few Thoughts on Place Names

I’ve been thinking a lot about place names recently.

First there is the persistence of names. There was one case I stumbled across at work: while researching an old factory in San Francisco I discovered that although now the site is the location of two apartment towers, the new buildings retain the name of the old factory name. Here in D.C. An acquaintance I bumped into recently he told me his apartment building in Mt. Vernon Square was named for a mansion which used to occupy the same lot. In fact, he said there was a picture of the old house in the lobby.

Second, they can be hard to nail down. It seems to me lots of names arise somewhat organically – their origins are often ambiguous even to the historian. How many stories have you heard about where the name might have come from? Of course not all names emerge from the mist, some spring off the planner or builder’s blueprints. Ann Arborite Larry Kestenbaum has an interesting brief essay and bibliography about the historic origins of many of these above-board, top-down street names.

The city can’t always guide regular and rational growth. At a presentation on doing D.C. history at the D.C. Public Library last week, H-DC moderator and local historian Matthew Gilmore told the group many of the city’s street names date to the 1980s and 1890s when city leaders adopted a “Permanent System of Highways” knitting together the suburbs developing within the District boundary yet outside the L’Enfant plan. (I found, but haven’t read, an article on this in Washington History titled “The Evil of the Misfit Subdivisions: Creating the Permanent System of Highways of the District of Columbia.”) Gilmore was less certain where many of the alley names came from, stumbling in his presentation and explaining they were not recorded by the city except in isolated cases like health reports. Today, some alleys are not only named and recognized by the city, but are preserved with their own historic districts.

It seems addresses are a similar case. I bumped into a gentleman recently who maintained some of the D.C. city government’s geographic databases. It turns out the city owns a database of every address in the city, but like names, addresses aren’t always centrally assigned, and the city data minder eagerly explained to me how he’d “found” several addresses on his way to the bar where we met.

While the government holds a monopoly of place names, in this area like so many others the politicians and bureaucrats must work with an unruly society with its own ideas about what things should be called. Even monopolists can display remarkable dexterity: whether by enshrining informal names into the regular system (Like how two men’s alleys definitely not in the city plan at the time now have city-designated protections and signs) or by changing names through simple edict ( The squaw case is interesting, as well as the proliferation of streets named after Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, or other leaders). All this and I haven’t yet mentioned the politics of names (Meridian Hill Park or Malcolm X Park?) or the origins and evolution o apartment building names, of which D.C. as a multitude.

Author: Rob Goodspeed


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