Exploring new cities can be quite overwhelming, especially a city with a history as dense as New York's. A fun way to learn more about a new city is to look at how it got its name. Understanding the origins of a place's name can reveal many fascinating details about its history. While some names seem to be obvious, others might be a bit more mysterious and difficult to understand. The origins of street names in New York City can shed some insight on the cultural roots of the city and even what life was like during a much different time and landscape.
Though it may be difficult to imagine, Manhattan used to be a hilly region, as the name was adapted from the word Mannahatta in the Lenape Native American language meaning, "island of many hills". The streets there were later paved as the hills were flattened, creating the city we know today. Some names have changed over the years, but many still remain. The city itself was originally a Dutch colony and referred to as New Amsterdam. It wasn't until the British took over, that the city was renamed New York, as it is known today. Below you can find some interesting facts about some of the major streets that have served the city from the beginning.
Allen Street – Named after Captain William Henry Allen, who died during a naval battle in the War of 1812.
Astor Place – Named after John Jacob Astor, who was once the richest man in America. He was a merchant and an investor.
Battery Place – This area was once the site of the strategic military outpost of the New Netherlands settlement, built to protect the harbor from invasion. Named after the battery of firearms that protected the island.
Bowery Street – Bowery is derived from the Dutch word for farm. Formerly known as Bowery Lane, it connected farms and estates from the outskirts of the city to the center of the Dutch settlement. Bowery, spanning the entire length of the island, is one of the oldest thoroughfares of Manhattan and existed before the Europeans even arrived.
Bowling Green – Named because the area used to be exactly as the name implies, a green for bowling. This was also the site where the Dutch General purchased the island of Manhattan from the natives for 60 Dutch Guilders, the equivalent of $24 today.
Broome Street - Named after John Broome, a merchant who started trade with China and imported 2 million pounds of tea to the colonies, and lieutenant governor of the city in 1804.
Canal Street – This street was named after the wide canal that was built where the street is today to transport the polluted waters from the ponds on the island to the river. Not only did the island used to have hills, but it also had large ponds that quickly became polluted during the industrial activities in the 19th century. The ponds were drained, and the Canal became so dirty that the city covered it up, becoming Canal Street.
Essex Street – The English heritage shows through as this street, along with neighboring Suffolk and Norfolk streets, are named after British counties of the same names.
Houston Street – Named after a congressional delegate from the State of Georgia in the 1780's, named William Houstoun. This street is pronounced How-stin, different from the Texas city.
Lexington Avenue – Named after the famous Battle of Lexington in 1775 during the Civil War.
Maiden Lane – A street in the financial district, this street was the site of a fresh water stream where all the women (or maidens) of the Dutch settlement would wash their clothes.
Pearl Street – This street runs along the original shore of the East River, and was named after the abundant oyster shells found naturally along the shores of the rivers surrounding Manhattan.
Stone Street – This street was named as such in the mid-1600s, as it was the first road to be paved with stone. Elite Dutch families lived along this street, and today it is lined with popular restaurants and bars catering to the financial workers in the area.
Stuyvesant Street – This is one of the oldest streets in Manahattan, named after the Dutch Director General of New Netherlands, Peter Stuyvesant.
Times Square – Named after the New York Times in 1904 when the esteemed newspaper moved its headquarters into the square. Before this, it was called Longacre Square, named after a carriage-making district in London, as it used to be a center for similar activities.
Wall Street – This street was once was the northern border of the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam. A wall was built along this border to keep out invaders! Today it is the financial capital of the U.S.
Water Street – This street became the new East River shoreline after Manhattan extended into the river using landfill from the leveling of the hills on 18th Street.
Originally from Columbus, Ohio, Ani is a fan of exploring new places through photography and the local cuisine. After earning her BFA in photography from NYU and gaining communications experience at International Planned Parenthood Federation, she joined InterExchange in 2012, and worked as the Marketing Producer until 2016.