The history of New York City often lays unnoticed in the names of the streets and avenues that comprise it. From its origins as a colonial trade outpost to its current status as the cultural capital of the world, the oft-traveled thoroughfares of the five boroughs are a living history of the area’s influences and interests. These are just a few of the fascinating street name origins that have probably gone under your radar.
A one-of-a-kind street in Manhattan, the Bowery’s name has meant plenty of different things to different eras of New Yorkers. From the punk rockers of the 1970s and 1980s to the chic types who populate its hip bars and restaurants today, no street’s denizens better exemplify the rapid speed of change in NYC. Perhaps that makes it strangely ironic that the name comes from the first and oldest use of this avenue, which was full of quiet, pastoral farmland. In fact, the name comes from the Dutch word for farm: bouwerij. The spelling was anglicized after the Dutch left town and has remained that way ever since.
Manhattan’s most famous thoroughfare, like the similarly named Bowery, comes from the language of the city’s Dutch founders. Brede weg, simply meaning “wide road,” was an appropriate enough name, and remains so to this day. While it’s best known for being the home of the Theater District, the street doesn’t end on the island. While there are separate Broadways in Queens and Brooklyn, only the Bronx can say their version is truly part of the prominent one in Manhattan. In fact, the street runs even further north than that, extending 18 miles into Westchester County, finally ending in the town of Sleepy Hollow.
Modern visitors to this Chinatown thoroughfare are awash in traffic and aggressive handbag sales but had they visited about 200 years ago they’d more likely be traversing this block in a canoe. Yes, similar to Wall Street to the south, Canal Street got its name from an actual canal, built to handle runoff from the swamps and marshes that occupied this area before urbanization. By 1820, the swamps were gone, and the canal had been paved over to become the island-spanning street we know today.
One of Queens’ oldest and longest roads, Kissena Boulevard connects Flushing and Jamaica while running directly down the center of the borough. The name comes from the Chippewa word meaning “it is cold,” derived by the lake of the same name found in Kissena Park. The street is not only an important landmark for New York City travelers but Rock and Roll historians as well. According to legend, Queens-born KISS guitarist Paul Stanley got the idea for his band’s name by shortening that of the street he traveled on as a child.