Following the death of Muhammad Ali last month, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the length of West 33rd Street in Manhattan (along Madison Square Garden’s perimeter between 7th and 8th Avenues) would be renamed “Muhammad Ali Way.” The homage to Ali is temporary–at least for the time being–as legislative approval by the City Council is necessary for a permanent renaming.
Are you familiar with the history underlying New York City’s honorific street names?
If you answered no, you’re not alone. Before 2014, comprehensive research into the history of New York’s renamed and honorific streets was challenging for archivists and historians to conduct. The reason? An official master list chronicling NYC’s renamed streets and avenues didn’t exist until then.
In recent decades, the New York City Council has renamed and “co-named” dozens of streets and avenues across all five boroughs. The most prominent designations honor activists, cultural heroes, and community leaders with strong ties to the city. In Manhattan, renamed streets usually add the new street name to the original street sign, as opposed to replacing it altogether (a common practice in other boroughs).
Mike Miscione, Manhattan’s borough historian, enlisted the help of longtime New York City resident Gilbert Tauber, an authority on the city’s geographical history, to look into the origins of New York City thoroughfares which memorialize historical figures in name. Tauber spent several months poring over local legislative documents and the official record he created is the first of its kind. His project also functions as an online resource, where you can explore the etymology of 1,600+ streets and avenues in New York City that honor activists, cultural heroes, and community leaders with ties to New York.
In the 1970s and 1980s, a number of Harlem’s main streets and thoroughfares that carry notable commercial and/or cultural significance were co-named after notable figures in African American culture (interesting to note: these honorees are all men). The most significant tributes are listed below. To learn more, or to look up those who are honored with street designations in your own neighborhood, check out these resources:
1974 – Seventh Ave – Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard
In 1974, New York’s City Council voted to rename the stretch of 7th Avenue in Harlem between 110th Street and 155th Street “Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard.” An influential pastor and politician, Powell was the first person of African American descent to be elected from New York to Congress. Powell represented Harlem in the House of Representatives for nearly three decades.
1987 – Lenox Avenue – Malcolm X BoulevardOriginally part of Sixth Avenue, Lenox Avenue was renamed in 1887 for philanthropist James Lenox. A full century later, Dr. Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X, lobbied Mayor Ed Koch to change the name of the Avenue. In 1987, all of Lenox Avenue was co-named “Malcolm X Boulevard” in recognition of the slain leader who considered Harlem to be his home.
1977 – Eighth Avenue – Frederick Douglass Avenue
In 1977, the segment of Eighth Avenue that runs north of Central Park was renamed “Frederick Douglass Boulevard.” An homage to the abolitionist, writer, and former slave, Douglass’ avenue designation extends to Harlem River Drive above 155th Street and terminates at the site of the former Polo Grounds.
1984 – 125th Street – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard
Since 1984, Harlem’s main thoroughfare, 125th Street, has paid tribute to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Much of King’s civil rights work took place in the neighborhood, so it is fitting for Harlem’s cultural artery to be named for him.
As a 2007 article in Gotham Gazette articulates, some New Yorkers believe that the City Council wastes time and energy creating co-names for streets that “most people will never use (Avenue of the Americas, for one).” Is the council wasting its time? Perhaps. On the other hand, street naming is not a trivial matter. The power to name gives the city council–and thus, NYC itself–the ability not only to award honors, but to rewrite history, too. The renaming tradition positions New York City amid complex issues related to power and historical narratives: who gets to tell whose story? Who determines who’s a local hero? Relevant and timely questions, indeed.