By Allison Moon
Elie Wiesel Way? Edgar Allan Poe Street? These are just a couple of the Upper West Side streets named after famous people who once lived in the neighborhood. You can find honorary or secondary street names like this scattered throughout the city, though many of the names are far less familiar than Wiesel or Poe.
If we slow down to take in our surroundings on a neighborhood walk, we may learn some interesting local lore from the streets named after Upper West Siders. In the coming weeks, the Rag proposes to do just that and invites readers to send in suggestions of street names you’d like to know more about (in a recent piece, for example, we explained the story behind Grace Gold Way at 115th Street and Broadway).
But before we launch into the stories, we wanted to find out how this secondary street naming system works.
Manhattan’s Community Board 7 lays out the “guidelines for secondary street naming” on its website. Here are the key criteria: a petition with at least 100 signatures from the local area is needed to get the bureaucratic ball rolling, and then you must present “compelling evidence that the person or not-for-profit entity…contributed in an extraordinary way to the welfare of the block and/or the community and the country.”
The community board will either accept or reject the street-naming proposal depending on if it successfully conforms to the board’s criteria. If approved, the proposal goes to the neighborhood’s city councilmember. According to the NYC Honorary Street Names website, to move forward, the city council and mayor must approve a bill authorizing the naming.
Another stipulation for anyone making a street name proposal to Manhattan’s CB7 is that the residents of the block and members of the family do not object to the naming proposal. Petitioners must provide proof of no objection in order to secure approval from the community board.
That was an issue in 2011, when fans of the late comedian George Carlin sought to rename West 121st Street in his honor. The effort was spearheaded by comedian Kevin Bartini, who has worked for The Daily Show and The Colbert Report and has a recurring role in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Bartini’s proposal was opposed by Corpus Christi Catholic Church, which Carlin attended while growing up; church leaders did not appreciate Carlin’s later comedy routines about his time in Catholic school. “I used to be Irish Catholic, now I’m an American,” he said on his album Class Clown.
Bartini spoke to the Village Voice about his conversation with the longtime pastor Reverend Raymond Rafferty at Corpus Christi about renaming the street. According to Bartini, “He chewed me out. He’d known George as a kid and had a personal grudge against him. [Rafferty] really read me the riot act. He did not want this to happen.”
Bartini and the church eventually reached an agreement that allowed a George Carlin street sign on 121st – but not on the block between Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway, the site of the church (and where Carlin grew up). Instead, the George Carlin Way sign now sits a block away, on 121st between Amsterdam Avenue and Morningside Drive.
While every Community Board has slightly different criteria for naming eligibility, they all highlight the importance of the individual or non-profit entity’s impact on the local or national community. In some cases, streets have been named for relatively unknown people whose death has led to significant policy changes or heightened awareness of a greater issue. Grace Gold, for example, was a student at Barnard in the 1970s when she was killed by a piece of masonry that fell from an Upper West Side building. Her death led to Local Law 11, which requires facade inspections every five years for any city building over six stories high.
Before 1992, the city was required to show honorary street names on official city maps, an expensive and bureaucratic process. A law passed that year eliminated the requirement, but you can find every name approved since then at NYC Honorary Street Names, an online database created by former city planner Gilbert Tauber. You can browse names alphabetically by borough, with brief descriptions of the significance of each individual or entity included. According to the New York Times, Tauber, as of 2014, had identified around 1,600 honorary street names through studying the online legislative records of the City Council – which, since 1998, have been uploaded online.
The database gives a rough breakdown of the types of honorary street names in the city. According to the website, “A few of these signs bear names that most adult Americans would recognize: George Gershwin, Willie Mays, Humphrey Bogart. However, the great majority of them honor people or organizations of special significance to a particular community or neighborhood.” It also notes that “a tragically large number, about a fifth of the total, commemorate people who died in the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.”
So, Upper West Siders: speaking of “people or organizations of a special significance to a particular community or neighborhood,” this is your chance. If you’ve ever been puzzled or intrigued by honorary street names in your neighborhood, or want to know what Edgar Allan Poe’s connection was to the UWS, send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ve got a stock of names we’re already looking into, but will also follow up on your suggestions. Let the investigations begin!