Have you ever investigated the origin of your street’s name? No, you say; pretty sure there’s no great story behind 17th Street. Granted. But some have history embedded in their syllables.
There’s a street in Minneapolis’ Tangletown neighborhood named after a British Liberal Party politician known for walking the streets late at night to persuade prostitutes to change their ways. (Suuuuure.) It had nothing to do with the city’s admiration of Gladstone’s policies; the developer of the land had English financial backers. If they’d preferred a Tory, the street would have had a different name.
Then there’s Xerxes. Were there fans of the ancient Persian monarch who fought the Greeks at Thermopile? No, although it would be cool to live at 300 Xerxes; if anyone comes to the door to sell you something, you could yell “This is Sparta!” and kick them off the porch. No, it’s Xerxes because they named the streets alphabetically; Xylophone Avenue looks odd, and Xylitol is a trademark for a sweetener.
It’s a wonder Minneapolis has any interesting names at all. In 1873, the city passed an ordinance that might as well have been called the Colorful Nomenclature Extirpation Act, and reading the text is like watching old footage of a wrecking ball slamming into the Metropolitan Building.
Resolved: Linden Street shall hereafter be known and designated as 1st Avenue Northeast. Resolved: Orth Street shall hereafter be known and designated as 16th Avenue Northeast. And so on. The list of names makes Minneapolis sound like a lush bower of earthly delights: Vine, Pine, Cedar, Spring, Aspen, Birch, Water, Bluff.
Names from city’s early days: Geonard, Morse, Welles, Dover, Itaska, Nebraska. We had a Christmas Street! We had a Salome Street, which would be an awesome address for a hair salon. They’re all gone, replaced with numbers.
There’s a logic to numerical street names: a rational scheme for finding your way around in the era before Google Maps on your phone. But it makes driving around looking at the street signs as romantic as clacking off beads on an abacus.
It’s the suburbs where you find the most interesting names, perhaps. Here’s a sample.
The street most difficult to get prospective buyers to visit: Bagpipe Boulevard. The street where you can look out the window at the turning of the leaves and feel a pang of regret balanced by a mellow acceptance of the passage of time: Bittersweet Circle. Best street to be relevant to the topic at hand (never mind its spelling): Germaine Terrace. Street most likely to make you want to brush off your legs after a stroll: Tickseed Lane.
Of all the anodyne postwar names, one stands out. Computer Avenue. We’re going to rock down there, and then we’ll take it higher? Perhaps, but the street is not overrun with technology. When the area was developed in the 1960s, the street was named to attract technology, and it’s still a unique address.
This ’burb has a few names with classical origins: Hemlock Way, which suggests Socrates’ suicide. It would be odd to give a classical scholar directions: OK, you go north 2 miles, then take the Hemlock Way. I’d rather not. They also have Narcissus Lane, named after the youth who fell in love with his own reflection. Selfie Drive, in other words.
But the weird-name winner is ...
The most scientific names in the entire metro area. Let’s start with Uranium Street. It’s not far from Sunfish Lake; any reports of three-eyed fish would be welcome. Nearby is Tungsten Way, Sodium Street, Neon Street and Quicksilver Street. Krypton Street, Helium Street, Germanium Street, Barium, Argon. Just driving around looking at the names makes you feel like you’re being irradiated.
Names don’t really matter, of course. Neighborhoods matter. But a collection of well-chosen names can give a town a unique claim. Say you live on Cosette Lane, and wonder if it’s named after a character in “Les Miserables.” Drive a few blocks, and you’ll hit Valjean Boulevard, after Jean Valjean. And there’s Grantaire Lane, another character. (A doomed one, so he gets a cul-de-sac.) Lest you doubt the connection, Main Street turns into Frenchman Road when you get to these streets.
The town? Hugo.
Names are a way of putting a town on the map. Note to the Minnesota cities of Princeton, Rogers and Nelson: Now’s your chance.
(Thanks to Andy Sturdevant at MinnPost for the heads-up about the 19th-century name change. He wrote about it here.)