Just a number? Street names in North America

At the moment, street names are a hot topic for my Canadian boyfriend and me. Whilst the Northern American custom of numbering streets irritates me, the aesthetic of street names is obscure to him. It’s a common notion here that the only function of a street’s name is orientation. The logic behind this springs from the grid model that many North American cities were designed around. If I randomly send letters to the address 123-4567 89 Street South* in cities ranging from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Zealandia, Saskatchewan, probably only few would be returned. While in Vancouver, streets (running north-south) are named and only avenues (running east-west) carry numbers, the city of Calgary resembles a veritable sudoku. This city is quartered by cardinal direction. Therefore, each street exists several times: 1st Street South-West, 1st Street South-East, 1st Street North-East, 1st Street North-West – and then the same all over again with avenues. But even when the effort to name streets is made, originality often falls by the wayside. Hence, there is a Broadway and a Main Street in every city, and Maple Street as well as Oak Street are just as popular.

Street sign in Vancouver

To me, this is an unsettling concept, because I understand my address as part of my identity. My university days I spent in such illustrious places as Kirschallee (Cherry Boulevard) and Grindelallee (Grindel = Old High German for pole – Boulevard), whereas I only lasted a couple of weeks in the Geierstraße (Vulture Street). When talking about the Mö, Kö or Ku’Damm**, every German instantly knows what is meant. These streets are unique – not just in their name (or nick name), but also in their culture and history. On the Grindelallee, donair restaurants alternate with traditional book stores. The apartments above are occupied by poets, intellectuals, and third grade celebrities; by students, families, and refugees.

This street tells the story of a busy Jewish neighborhood, of the terror of the Second World War, and its rebirth as a university quarter. She is a well-known personality, this Grindelallee. Imagine if she had been called “62” instead… Would she still be the same? When thinking of Grindelallee as “Street 62”, my imagination summons scenes from a science-fiction movie: robots gaining world domination and turning humans into slaves…

Street names have more purpose than just orientation – they bestow identity. They tell us the history of a place, so we may learn from it. They chronicle the lives of its residents, so we may not forget them. And they can touch our souls with their euphony, so that we will talk about this place with pleasure.

Numbers cannot accomplish this, they are impersonal and disposable. As long as my street is only a variable on a city planner’s grid, I cannot identify with it. My home is not an arbitrary place. Hence, it deserves to be more than just a number.

*123 (apartment-number) – 4567 (house-number) 89 (street-number) Street South (direction)

** Mönckebergstraße (Hamburg), Königsalle (Düsseldorf), Kurfürstendamm (Berlin)

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