river oak lane

What’s up with street names? They’re terrible, at least in newer parts of America.

If this is a first world problem, it’s the kind where the First World fails to learn from the Third World. Let me explain.

In case you haven’t heard, America is still growing, still building towns from scratch, still paving paradise and putting up parking lots. In my little home state of California, I’ve seen at least 100 towns sprout up that didn’t exist when I was born. I’ve driven around many of them. That’s not as easy as it sounds, because early-21st-century “planned communities” tend to eschew the grid-like formations of previous generations and favor a lot of winding roads that end in many, many cul-de-sacs. That makes sense to me: you don’t want people speeding through your town, and an enclosed cul-de-sac tends to be a good place for kids to play. There is a science to urban and suburban planning, and as a rule, when I see new planned communities from Ashland, OR, to Arlington, VA, the planners have provided ample evidence that they knew what they were doing.

With one exception: street names. All these cul-de-sacs need names, and well, at a certain point the namers seem to…well, let me give you some examples just from one newish community in Mission Viejo, CA: Peach Blossom. Hedgerow. Ridgebrook. Deerbrook. Birchcrest. Bayberry. Rustic Oak. Hazeltine. Sweet Meadow. Stonybrook. White Fir. Peppertree. Bristlecone. Whitebark. Foxtail. Goldbriar. Cherrywood. Bear Paw. Meadowgrass. Deerwood. Golden Star. Bird Wing. Fawn Glen. Edgestone. Sky Trace. There’s hundreds more along these lines, but I think you get the idea, and I’d just as soon spare your eyeballs the anguish.

These streets aren’t named after anyone, living or dead. They’re not meant to salute another place, as Memphis and New York originally were. They certainly have nothing to do with the Native American heritage of the site. With exceptions, they’re not really named after flowers, shrubs, or minerals; another neighborhood that had successive streets named Rose, Zinnia, Marigold, Daisy, Carnation, etc, could be justified as a sort of botany lesson. The very untypical streets of Mission Viejo can’t be justified in terms of educating us about anything.

No, they’re named like this because someone decided, at some point, that real-estate values would be higher on streets that sounded vaguely like names of Eton-class prep schools. And maybe that’s true. Maybe it’s related to the fact that parents are naming their kids all kinds of anodyne babbling-brook-sounding names that also have nothing to do with history. Maybe antiseptic names can make us forget the origins of something. Maybe America is dedicated to conscious forgetting, to obviate our guilt. Maybe left-wingers don’t like making anyone into heroes (even Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, etc.) and right-wingers don’t like whoever the newer heroes would be, so we’re splitting the difference by not offending anyone?

Well, I’m offended. America, I have a message for you from the middle: we can do better. Every single one of those –brooks and –woods is a lost opportunity to teach us about animals, plants, rocks, or to salute a hero or teach an important part of history. Let me be clear: we should pave over land to make new communities; we should grow, reasonably and sensibly. But paving over land doesn’t have to mean paving over the past as though it never existed. And that’s what we do when we invent brand-new streets and conjure up phony prep-school names for them.

Frankly, this problem isn’t limited to new streets, and I’m certainly not talking about changing the name of the one street that was named after your ancestor Jones or your friend’s ancestor Moore. I lived in the United Kingdom for two years. You know what I never saw? First Street, Second Street, Third Avenue, Fourth Street, 43rd Avenue, 82nd Street. Never, because nothing was ever that planned over there. When I see numbered streets back in America,they look like a waste of name space. If there’s a worry about confusion – how will I find 8th Street if it’s not two blocks after 6th Street? – then just come up with an alphabetical list of heroes. Or parts of Native Americana. Or flowers or minerals or trees or states or countries…but before I get ahead of myself, I realize it’s more realistic to start with streets that, you know, don’t even have names yet.

Didn’t we used to name streets after heroes? Yes, we did. And in isolated cases, we still do. Maybe we got a little burned after the last person to have a few hundred American streets named after him, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Because, as Chris Rock once put it, “You know what’s sad? Martin Luther King stood for non violence. And I don’t care where you are in America, if you’re on Martin Luther King Boulevard, there’s some violence going down.”

But that shouldn’t stop us from memorializing King or other heroes. What exactly is so wrong with American history? I mean, sure, there was slavery, greed, sanctioned rape and murder, anti-woman laws…but there were also heroes. Do you want me to come up with a list? Start with Albert Einstein. Susan B. Anthony. Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Helen Keller. Orville and Wilbur Wright. Harriet Tubman. Sojourner Truth.  Frederick Douglass. Louisa May Alcott. George Washington Carver. Jonas Salk. Harvey Milk. Duke Ellington. Bob Dylan. Frank Lloyd Wright. Dwight Eisenhower. And don’t feel stuck in the U.S. Albert Schweitzer. Winston Churchill. Mahatma Gandhi. The Dalai Lama. Chinua Achebe. Simon Bolivar. Francis Watson and James Crick. Obviously that’s just the very beginnings of a list. Feel free to add your own.

Now, you can “google map” these United States of America and find a few isolated places where a street is named after each of the people I mentioned. I get that, but it doesn’t disprove my point, which is that you almost never see their names – or the names of other heroes – attached to newer planned communities.

In fact, right now I’d like to suggest fighting fire with fire, namely a “planned community” where every street is named after a hero, or event. And you know who the first such community should be for? Veterans. They went to war to save our civilization. They deserve at least one Allentown (look it up, kids) that honors what they did with every street sign they see as they drive their kids to soccer practice. And you know what? After they love it, I bet the idea catches on, especially with every suburbanite who’s sick of being thrown in that –bay and –briar patch.

The Third World is way ahead of us on this. Ever travel around Latin America? They have streets named after all kinds of military heroes, as well as significant dates. Just in Mexico alone, you often see streets named 8 de Septiembre, 20 de Noviembre, 8 de Junio, 10 de Abril, 21 de Julio, 11 de Marzo, 24 de Agosto, and yes, you Yankees, 5 de Mayo. Have you ever seen an American street named after a date? Even the Fourth of July? I haven’t. Why can’t we do that? Who wouldn’t want to see a September 17th Street, named for our Constitution? And for a country that’s won so many military battles, we’re barely acknowledging them. January 8th. April 9th. May 8th. June 6th. September 2nd. (Again, kids, look these up.)

Reclaim the Streets, sure. Take Back the Streets, okay fine. But can we start by simply naming a few new ones in a way that doesn’t diminish knowledge and obscure the past?