Thursday, November 7, 2019

Not West 196,841st Street :
Decisions About Street Names*

Asking why a street received the name it has might not be among your top research priorities, but in my case, I can't help but wonder. I've already uncovered paperwork revealing that a relative by marriage was the namesake of Shields Avenue in Fresno, California. And discovery of a road in my adopted California hometown bearing the unusual surname of another distant relative prompted me to trace that property owner's pedigree back to our most recent common ancestor—someone living over two thousand miles away. So you see, I come by this curiosity naturally.

Now, my attention is turned to John Hutchins, a Canadian who traveled the distance of a continent to land in Lodi, California, right after the state's gold rush. Perhaps owing to success in mining endeavors—or possibly because the land was so cheap at the time—John Hutchins acquired much property in the Elkhorn Township area which eventually became the city of Lodi. Even more so, his influence on the growth of the area in its earliest years may have landed him one tiny nod in the form of the area's current cityscape.

It just so happens that there is a major north-south artery in Lodi named Hutchins Street, now the location of the city's cultural center bearing that same Hutchins name. I'm curious how the street got its name. According to a timeline of the city's early years (see page 22), Hutchins Street was listed as the city's western limit in 1906, only seven years after John Hutchins' passing. Though his biographical sketch included in George Tinkham's History of San Joaquin County was glowing, perhaps his wasn't the most illustrious claim to the Hutchins surname.

It's fascinating to learn the process of just how municipalities decide upon names for their streets. Some cities are quite upfront about their requirements, such as the city of Buellton in Santa Barbara County, which posted its street naming procedures online. As associate professor of law Ann Bartow observed in her article in the law review of the University of California at Davis in April, 2004:
Few people are likely to want to live on a thoroughfare named 198,457th Street because such an address lacks personality and interest. When public amenities are accorded more colorful denominations, however, complications can ensue.

It is those "complications" which have precipitated precise local government procedures on who can name streets and just how they are to do so. One review of the situation by Fox News detailed the complexity of a process which might take weeks from start to finish, shepherded by the planning department with vital input from not only engineering and public works departments, but also police, fire department and even the post office.

While it may seem as if streets are bestowed their names through a scientific process—above all, avoiding "monikers that might be unappealing to residents," though, as one New York Times reporter found, such are in abundance despite being "unappealing"—there is also a certain politic nature to the granting of honorific designations. National heroes often become the focus of naming committees, with examples drawn not only from national history—every name from George Washington to Martin Luther King—but from significant hometown developments, as well.

And yet, of all the reports concerning the process of naming streets, most of these resources divulged details about how real estate developers in our current times approach the issue. What I'm searching for is just how street names from our past history were bestowed—and how to learn the stories behind those designations.

*196,841st Street: with thanks to Ann Bartow's April 2004 article in the U.C. Davis Law Review, "Trademarks of Privilege," for the footnote #114 on the absurd concept of naming a street with a number as inconvenient to remember as that example.


  1. We had a grumpy old man that lived down the road from us. When our street/road was named he didn't like the people associated with it so he changed it...not sure how he did it...hope it cost him a fortune:)

    1. Yes...apparently, people can do that, though I read that it is often complicated and easily vetoed by the other residents--which makes me wonder how your neighbor pulled it off.


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