In Lower Manhattan, each street carries history in its name
Newcomers to the area have sometimes been known to complain about getting lost in Lower Manhattan. With tiny twisting streets that evolved haphazardly as the population grew -- predating the ordered grid found farther north in the city -- it's no surprise. And nowhere to be found are midtown's numbered streets and avenues. Downtown, each street carries history in its name.
Though the crisscross of names may make it harder at points to know you're headed in the right direction, learning about the stories and people who left their legacy on Lower Manhattan street signs can be fascinating. The following glossary is designed to help you do just that. Enjoy!
The first pier on the west side of Manhattan was built around the turn of the 18th century in the Hudson River and served as the port for ships making round-trip runs from Manhattan to Albany. As a result, the roadway that adjoined the pier came to be known as Albany Street.
The street, formerly Fourth Street, was named for Captain William Henry Allen, who died nobly in a naval skirmish in the War of 1812 when he refused to go below deck even though a cannon blast had torn off one of his legs. He was regarded as a hero for hauling the British warship Macedonian into New York Harbor, a battle trophy from a tour of duty. Whether apocrypha or fact, he and his crew are said to have captured more than twenty vessels in a month; unfortunately, the last vessel they vanquished was a wine hauler, and its cargo, once uncorked, made for quite a celebration. So merry was the triumphal revelry that his crew, or so the story goes, were handily defeated the next day by the British vessel Pelican. Its sailors, presumably, did not have hangovers. Allen was only 29 when he died.
It's common practice among modern-day real estate moguls to name streets for family members, so why should colonial days have been any different? In fact, they weren't -- as evidenced by the countless Lower Manhattan streets with names like Catherine, Hester, and…Ann. There are two theories on Ann Street. One suggests that it was named for a family member of the Beekman clan, which is not an unlikely hypothesis since Beekman Street is nearby and the land the Beekmans owned is also in close proximity. The second posits that the street was named for the wife of Captain Thomas White. At the time Captain White bought property downtown in this neighborhood, the land in the vicinity had become very valuable, and although the site was formerly a beautiful garden, he quickly turned it into far more lucrative building parcels, eagerly snapped up by speculators.
Reverend Henry Barclay was the second rector of Trinity Church, and there are countless streets around the Church that have names derived from a connection to the institution. Barclay was an extremely learned, Harvard-educated man, who spoke English, Dutch, and the language of the Mohawk Indians. He is shown preaching to the Indians in a panel on one of the Church's doors. Barclay married a daughter of Anthony Rutgers, another important family surname in early Manhattan.
Bordering what today is Battery Park, the entire area was once a strategic military outpost, serving to guard the harbor. The name of the present day throughway, park, and neighborhood are all derived from the battery of firepower periodically installed for protection in this location.
Originally called Orange Street, this street intersected the infamous and dangerous area known as the Five Points. It took on a new name when Lieutenant Colonel Charles Baxter, a member of the state legislature and a soldier, died gallantly in the War of 1848 (popularly known as the Mexican War). The hope was that renaming the street after a hero might help clean up the neighborhood.
Willem Beekman (1623 to 1707) came to the New World along with Peter Stuyvesant from their native Holland in the mid-17th century. Not coincidentally, his daughter married Stuyvesant's son. Beekman was to go on to become a nine-term mayor of the colony. He was a major landholder, and his property extended from what is now Nassau Street to the East River.
New York's first attorney general, Egbert Benson was also a delegate to the First Continental Congress, a Supreme Court justice, a federal judge, and a founder of the New-York Historical Society.
The Dutch word bouwerij, or farm, is the antecedent to the name as we know it today. In its earliest time, the Bowery was an elegant thoroughfare (and became part of the famed Post Road that linked New York and Boston), home to the colonial era elite. But, by the mid-19th century, the Bowery had lost its luster and was dotted with low-level rooming houses, including many of ill repute.
The area known as Bowling Green was actually just that -- a green for bowling. It was leased to a trio of colonial notables, and the rent was an astonishing single peppercorn a year. It's also said to be the spot in which Peter Minuit "inked" his deal with the natives who inhabited Manhattan when the Dutch arrived. Bowling Green was actually New York City's first park and also was home to a livestock market at some point in early colonial history.
As its name suggests, the street was a wide thoroughfare and a main "traffic" lane in Lower Manhattan, a holdover from earlier times when it served as an Indian trail. In 1899, the street, which by then stretched more than fifteen miles in length, was called by different names in various parts of town.
Bridge Street and Broad Street
Not surprisingly, Bridge Street was originally a bridge that crossed what later became known as Broad Street. In the early days, Broad Street was a wide canal, an inlet of the East River, and was known as the Broad Canal.
This Soho cross street was named for John Broome, a merchant who is known to, in essence, have opened up trade with China when he brought two million pounds of tea into the colonies. He was the lieutenant governor in 1804.
There is evidence in old newspapers that Burling Slip was in existence by the mid-18th century. It is named for the Burling family, whose ancestors included early merchants in the area who presumably used the slip for docking the vessels that they employed to ship their wares. William S. and Samuel Burling later owned a business on Beekman Street. Samuel is said to have planted trees along the Broadway concourse in Lower Manhattan.
As its name suggests, Canal Street was once a water-filled canal, not a street. And before it was a canal, it was a fresh water stream flowing from Collect Pond, located north of present-day City Hall, to the Hudson River. By the early 19th-century, the pond had become polluted and deemed a health hazard, and so the stream was widened into a canal in order to drain it. A decade later, both were paved over, but the name Canal stuck - reminding us today of the street's earlier incarnation.
James de Lancey, Sr. was a prominent figure in 18th-century New York, serving as the chief justice of the colonial supreme court and presiding over the trial of Peter Zengler, the printer whose acquittal on charges of seditious libel established legislative support for freedom of the press in this country. The street that bears his name was cut through property he purchased in 1744.
An Irish immigrant who studied to become a priest in midlife, John Christopher Drumgoole championed the cause of homeless newsboys who worked on nearby Newspaper Row (now Park Place). He established the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin, which provided a home for 2,000 working boys. His efforts were remembered a full 101 years after his death with the naming of this square in his honor in 1989.
Its current name -- and its extension, Exchange Alley -- is derived from the city's original Merchants Exchange building, completed in 1827. The building only stood eight years before burning down during the Great Fire of 1835.
The City of New York named this downtown street in honor of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, which was founded at the spot in 1867. The order was established by a group of actors in reaction to an 1866 New York State law that closed saloons on Sundays. The Sunday drinking society, as it came to be known, was nicknamed the "Jolly Cork" before formally changing the name to its current. The Elks have come a long way since then. The organization is now credited for its work as a national charitable organization that benefits the community.
A main Lower Manhattan cross street, it was named in honor of Robert Fulton and his landmark steamship, the Clermont, which made the first successful steam-powered voyage up the Hudson River from Lower Manhattan to Albany in August 1807. The feat led to the launch of the world's first commercial steamboat service between Albany and Manhattan.
This street earned its name in the 18th century when landfill extended Manhattan Island farther into the East River, making "Front Street" Manhattan's East River border. It surpassed predecessors such as Pearl and Water Streets, which previously held the honor at earlier points in the island's history.
The street was named after a General Nathanael Greene, who was known for his revolutionary war campaigns in North and South Carolina. Greene, a Quaker born in 1742, fought throughout the entire War of American Independence. Known as a great war strategist, Greene served directly under George Washington. He first distinguished himself in the Northern Campaign, where he served the Army in the capacity of quartermaster general. He went on to become the commander of the Southern Department (1780-1783), where he successfully waged a war of attrition against the Crown forces in the South.
This street was named after its destination point, Greenwich Village. Greenwich Street was one of the earliest roads to run to 14th Street from the Battery.
When portions of Washington Street were demolished, many of the federal-style houses of the area were relocated to this street, named after a local brewery owner, George Harrison.
Until 1865, firefighting in New York City was done on an entirely voluntary basis. Henry Howard was the chief of New York City's volunteer fire department from 1857 to 1860. During that period, Howard introduced procedures that would define firefighting in the future, including sleeping quarters in fire stations and constant alerts. Volunteer firefighters were respected and beloved in the community. In fact seven NYC mayors started as volunteer fire men. In 1865, the volunteer department was replaced with the Metropolitan Fire Department, a paid organization.
This street was named for Colonel Henry Rutgers (1745-1830), a Columbia University graduate who served as a captain in the American army at the battle of White Plains and subsequently was a colonel of New York militia. During the British occupation of New York City, his house was used as a barrack and hospital. Rutgers was also a member of the New York legislature, a regent of the state university, and patron to Queens College, now known as Rutgers College. Rutgers owned much land along the East River and donated many sites for streets, schools, churches, and charities.
This major downtown cross street is named after William Houstoun from Savannah, Georgia. Houstoun, a lawyer, was a delegate from Georgia to both the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention. Houstoun's relationship to New York was founded when he married Mary Bayard, whose father Nicolas, a wealthy landowner, had created the street that would eventually bear Houstoun's name through his large estate. The east end of the street was originally called North Street. Houstoun died in Savannah in 1813 but was interred in St. Paul's Chapel, New York City.
The spelling of the street name was changed over time, but the Georgian pronunciation -- "HOW-ston" (different from the Texan "HEW-ston") - remained, often causing confusion.
Named for a 17th-century shoemaker, John Harpendingh, the area surrounding today's John Street was once known as "Shoemaker's Pasture" for the prevalence of tanneries located there. Eventually the tanneries were forced to move north because of the unpleasant odors they produced.
Big Tim Sullivan, a Lower East Side politician known for his support of women's rights, tenement reform, and organized labor, named this street after his mother's Irish birthplace. Sullivan lived from 1863 to 1913.
Louise Nevelson Plaza
This plaza takes its name from the honored Russian sculptor Louise Nelvelson, whose artworks grace it. Nelvelson moved to New York in 1932. Her reputation soared in the 1960s when she had her first retrospective exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art and represented the United States at the Venice Biennale. Four of her sculptures are located in the plaza.
In the years after the War of Independence, efforts to remove any references to Britain or British royalty included renaming many streets. In 1794, Crown Street was renamed Liberty Street, a name also given to the adjacent plaza.
A small stream used to pass through this lane and young Dutch women could be found cleaning clothes there. The street name was translated from the original Dutch word for maiden.
Before landfill changed the shape of Manhattan, Moore Street was the location where boats were moored. The final "e" was added to the name over time.
North Moore Street
This Tribeca cross street was named for Bishop Benjamin Moore, who served as the sixth rector of Trinity Church (from 1806 to 1816) and as president of King's College, which later became Columbia. The "North" was added later to eliminate confusion with the Financial District street of the same name.
Old Slip was so named in commemoration of the area's role as one of the earliest boat docks (or slips). During the 18th century, the street served as a key trading post at the heart of Manhattan commerce.
The name of this Chinatown street changed from its original -- Chatham Street --- in the early 19th century to indicate its function as a City Hall Park boundary line. During the 1800s, the street was nicknamed "Newspaper Row" for its role as the center of New York City's newspaper publishing business, a moniker that would remain long after the newspapers relocated to midtown.
Running along what was once the bank of Manhattan's East River waterfront, Pearl Street was named for the abundant oyster shells that washed ashore. Later, through expansion, the shoreline was pushed further east.
Serving as the street of residence for Trinity Church's very first rectors in the 1700s, Rector Street was named in their honor. The church, which was built in 1697, is New York City's oldest surviving house of worship.
This Financial District cross street was named for the 18th-century warden of Trinity Church, John Reade. Today's drugstore chain Duane Reade takes its name from the company's first successful full-service store, located on Broadway between Duane and Reade Streets.
Originally dubbed Copsey Street, this street's name was changed in 1793 to refer to the State House, also known as the Government House, build three years earlier. In 1907, that building was transformed into the U.S. Custom House by architect Cass Gilbert, who also designed the Woolworth Building. Currently, the building is home to the New York City branch of the National Museum of the American Indian.
Stone Street got its name in the mid-1600s as the town's first road to be paved with blocks of stone. The Belgian blocks that line the street today, though, are a modern construction. From early settlement, elite Dutch families lived along this winding roadway. Between 1691 and 1797, the street was referred to as Duke Street, but after the American Revolution most New York streets evoking royalty underwent name changes, and it reverted to the original Stone.
The southernmost street in Manhattan, South Street runs from Battery Park along the eastern tip of the island and across to the FDR Drive. In the 18th century, the buildup of landfill extended the shoreline of Manhattan into the East River from Pearl Street to where it is today, creating a waterfront extension of South Street along the river's edge.
This street was named for one of the three sons of Anthony Lispenard, a Huguenot refugee who came to New York in the middle of the 17th century and became a merchant and landowner in Lower Manhattan.
Trimble Place received its name in 1874 in honor of George Trimble, who directed New York Hospital. This short street was once a road leading to the hospital located in the area presently bounded by Duane, Broadway, Church, and Worth Streets.
This street is named for Trinity Church. There have been three Trinity Church buildings in Lower Manhattan. The present-day Trinity Church, designed by Richard Upjohn and completed in 1846, is considered a classic example of Gothic Revival architecture and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The original burial grounds of Trinity Church contain the graves and memorials of many historic figures, including Alexander Hamilton, William Bradford, Robert Fulton, and Albert Gallatin.
An extension of Seventh Avenue leading south from Clarkson Street, Varick Street got its name from Richard Varick, who served as the mayor of the city from 1791 to 1801. Prior to serving as mayor, Varick fought in the American Revolution, was appointed inspector general in West Point, served as an aid to General Benedict Arnold and then as George Washington's private secretary. After the war, he became a city recorder and state attorney general before being appointed mayor by Governor George Clinton. At one time, Varick owned property on the street later named for him.
Named after the Reverend William Vesey, Vesey Street presently runs west from Broadway through Battery Park City. Reverend Vesey was the first rector of Trinity Church from 1697 to 1746. Vesey founded a school for slaves and Native Americans. He also helped to establish the Charity School, currently known as Trinity School, located on West 91st Street.
Vestry Street was named for the vestry of Trinity Church, which in fact was located at St. John's Chapel, located on nearby Varick Street. The chapel was designed by John McComb, Jr. in 1803 in part to provide room for a vestry -- a place where clergy could put on their vestments and where these robes and other sacred objects could be stored -- as Trinity Church's Episcopalian congregation expanded.
Similar to Front Street and South Street, Water Street was created when the island of Manhattan was extended further into the East River using 18th-century landfill as its foundation. Forming the island's East River shoreline, the street was appropriately named Water Street.
During the 17th century, Dutch settlers on the island constructed a wall along the area known today as Wall Street to protect their colony of New Amsterdam from attack by the British and Native Americans. Although never used in battle, the wall formed the settlement's northern border until it was dismantled by the British at the turn of the 18th century.
*The following resources aided in the compilation of the above street name history for Lower Manhattan:
Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace.
Naming New York: Manhattan Places & How They Got Their Names by Sanna Feirstein.