One of the best things about living in NYC is the sheer amount of history it lives and breathes every day. Almost every building and street here has a story to tell, and it’s the stories of those streets that we’ll be focusing on today. Like the city itself, the streets of New York are known all around the world. Some tell tales of war and woe, others honor historical figures, while others still tell something about the character of its neighborhoods.
Here’s a look at some of the most iconic streets in NYC and how they got their names.
Wall StreetWall Street
Who hasn’t heard of Wall Street? Along with Broadway, it’s probably the best-known thoroughfare in the whole city. Often used as a metonym for the entire financial industry, Wall Street can be found along an eight-block stretch in Lower Manhattan. But while well known, many might be surprised to know just how far back its history goes. If you’re even just passably familiar with New York history, you’ll probably know that it was founded by the Dutch and known for a time as New Amsterdam.
Wall Street, originally spelled Waal Straat, dates from that time and got its name because it was adjacent to the wooden defensive wall built by Peter Stuyvesant, the last Director-General of New Amsterdam. Raised in 1653, the wall was meant to defend against native attacks and the English, who were at war with the Dutch Republic at the time. Unfortunately for Peter, he didn’t think to extend the wall around the seaward side, where the English attack would come in 1664. The wall remained in place until it was demolished in 1699, after which the street became a major business thoroughfare. You can still see the markers of where the old wall stood today running along the center of the paved street.
Broadway, which runs the length of Manhattan and even into the Bronx and beyond, is one of the oldest roads in the city. Its origins go back to pre-colonial times when it was carved out by Native American inhabitants and known as the Wickquasgeck trail. After the arrival of the Dutch, the street was widened and became the main thoroughfare for the entire city. It was then known as the Heeren Wegh or Heeren Straat, meaning Gentleman’s Way or Gentleman’s Street.
After the English took over the city, it was renamed Broadway because of its unusual width. Interesting fact, while known today as simply ‘Broadway,’ a 1776 map of the city shows it labeled as ‘Broadway Street.’
The Bowery, which can refer to both the street and the neighborhood in lower Manhattan, is often regarded as the oldest thoroughfare in all of Manhattan. Like Broadway, its origins go back to pre-colonial times when it was a footpath made by the Lenape people. After the Dutch settled Manhattan, they named it Bouwerie Weg or ‘Farm Road’ because it led to the farmlands and estates outside the city.
Angelized as ‘Bowery’ after the English takeover, it was marked on maps as ‘Bowery Lane’ until at least 1807. Today, it’s known as Bowery, or the Bowery; no need to add ‘street,’ ‘avenue,’ or ‘lane’ when asking for directions.
Houston StreetHouston Street
If you’re new to the city or just visiting, there’s a good chance you’ve committed the faux pas of pronouncing this street the same way as the city in Texas. Traveler Tip: In NYC, it’s pronounced ‘HOW-ston.’ It was named after William Houstoun, a delegate from Georgia to the Continental Congress from 1784 to 1786. The man who christened the street as Houston was Nicholas Bayard, a wealthy landowner whose daughter Mary was married to Houston in 1788.
The current spelling of the name seems to be a corruption, as it appears on an 1811 map as ‘Houstoun Street.’ It’s also a common mistake to think the name derives from the Dutch words ‘Huis,’ for House and ‘Tuin’ for Garden.
Canal StreetCanal Street
A major east-west thoroughfare in Lower Manhattan, Canal Street gets its name from a dug canal in the early 1800s. Its purpose was to drain water from the now-gone Collect Pond into the Hudson. Before then, Collect Pond was a popular picnic area and wintertime skating rink. It also provided water for the city. But after becoming too polluted, it was deemed that it should be drained.
The task was far from being efficient, and the canal became an open sewer. It wasn’t until around 1819-21 that it was bricked over and became Canal Street. The underground sewer is still there running its course even today.
Avenue of the AmericasAvenue of the Americas
If the above name sounds unfamiliar, it’s probably because you’ve heard it more often by its older name, Sixth Avenue. It’s never quite stuck, despite the name change being made over 75 years ago in 1945. It was changed at the urging of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who wanted to bring some prestige to what was then a very run-down avenue. The name was in honor of the Organization of American States, an international organization headquartered in Washington DC, whose members included the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.
Madison, Park, and Lexington AvenuesMadison, Park, and Lexington Avenues
There’s not much of a story to how the East Side’s only named avenues got their names. Madison Avenue derives its name from Madison Square, which was named after President James Madison. Lexington Avenue (called the ‘Lex’ by most New Yorkers) is named after the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Lexington, Massachusetts. Park Avenue, originally called Fourth Avenue, was once the route of the New York-Harlem Railroad. Starting in the 1850s, the tracks from 34th to 40th Streets were covered over and named Park Avenue. Eventually, the rest of the old track was covered and joined with it.
Maiden LaneMaiden Lane
Running east-west through the Financial District, the origin of the name Maiden Line is a bit fuzzy. According to a 1911 edition of the New York Times, the name derives from “the girls of the early Dutch days who were wont to stroll by the little stream along what was known from the first as the ‘Maagde Paatje.’” Another theory is that the stream was where the young girls and women did their laundry. All that can be said for certain is that the street was formally laid out in 1696.