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The Stories Behind Brooklyn Street Names Part 2


Recently, we took a look at some of the more interesting stories behind Brooklyn street names we know but can’t always pronounce. While reading that article, perhaps you noticed an interesting, if disturbing, theme - there are a large number of streets so named because of their direct or indirect link to tragic accidents or outright murder. If, by some chance, you’re reading this on a smartphone whilst waiting for a bus, take a look at the street sign nearest you. It just might read what it does because the previous name on the sign belonged to a guy who did something terrible. 

This follow-up, thankfully, is a little less accidental-death ridden. Sure there’s some light dueling to be found, but that was more a product of the time, and at least in this case, no one died. So once again, let’s take a look at some fascinating stories behind Brooklyn street names.

Park Place / Baltic Street
Monopoly knew what it was doing. At 350 big ones, Park Place ranks as the second-most expensive property on the original Monopoly board; only toffee-nosed Boardwalk, at a cool 400 bucks, costs more. This was not an accident. In early American urban planning, naming a street Park signaled that the road was reserved for those of high society, rampant income, and, naturally, prone to monocle wearing. Park Place in Brooklyn is no exception, as the street that runs parallel to Eastern Parkway was renamed in 1873 to take advantage of the recently opened Prospect Park and bring about an air of sophistication to the neighborhood. (And raise real estate values no doubt). Park Place’s previous name was Baltic Street, a name that paid homage to the 19th Century Baltic warehouses that lined the Brooklyn waterfront. Baltic Avenue on a Monopoly board? A paltry 60 dollars. That game was good.

Clinton Avenue
The litany of famous education reformers is long and heroic. Yet dueling is seldom found on their resumes. DeWitt Clinton is the exception. In addition to serving as an education advocate, mayor and governor, Clinton dabbled in the occasional gun duel, triumphing over an opponent in the same spot Aaron Burr slayed Alexander Hamilton. In 1802, John Swartwout, a friend of all-around rabble-rouser Burr, challenged DeWitt Clinton to a duel on the grounds that Clinton was trying to smear Burr’s political career. The two men met on the now infamous spot in Weehawken, New Jersey, and Clinton landed bullets in Swarthout’s thigh and ankle. Refusing to continue shooting at a wounded man, Clinton simply walked away from the skirmish victorious.

DeWitt Clinton’s legacy is not defined by attempted murder, however; he is often praised as a forgotten hero of American Democracy. He was an early advocate for abolition and an overhaul of New York’s public education system. As New York’s sixth governor, Clinton oversaw construction of the Erie Canal, the nearly 400-mile long water route that connects the Hudson River in Albany to the Great Lakes in Buffalo. Clinton Avenue, which runs east of Vanderbilt Avenue in North Brooklyn, is named in his honor.

Liberty Avenue
This one should be easy. It has to be in reference to American Independence or the Emancipation, right? No, it was so named because, unlike bordering Jamaica Avenue, Liberty was free of tolls. In American history, true liberty means not having to pay a fine to drive your car. OK then.

Hinsdale Street
Long before the Long Island Rail Road was embroiled in a scrap-metal scam, it provided the background to one of the most sensationalized love-triangles in early Brooklyn history. Although triangle is probably not a sufficient-enough polygon. Elizur B. Hinsdale, general counsel of the LIRR and the first man to author its history, fell out of favor with his brother William Hinsdale when William accused his wife Frances of sleeping with Elizur. William was also convinced Frances was sleeping with Elizur’s clerk, Willie Carl. Not to be outdone, Frances countersued, claiming that the William was engaging in a torrid love affair with Willie Carl’s mother. The judge found Frances’ story more credible and granted her a divorce. Lest you think Elizur’s marriage was a model of stability; that union was annulled on the grounds that Elizur’s wife was insane. Hinsdale Street, which runs north-to-south through Brownsville, is a reminder that celebrated celebrity sex scandals are nothing new in America.

The Fruit Streets: Cranberry, Orange and Pineapple Street
The Lady Middagh was a jealous charlatan. Displeased with the rash of street names in Brooklyn Heights named after local families, Lady Middagh simply tore the street signs down and replaced them with something she found more agreeable: fruit. She was a member of the prestigious Middagh/Hicks family, which held considerable clout in early Brooklyn Heights. This might help explain why no one much objected to the modification, as city leaders simply accepted the new names. (This might also help explain why my attempts to rename my street G.Q. Place have been consistently thwarted by the authorities.) With all the trouble she went through promoting humility, Lady Middagh interestingly had little problem when Middagh Street was christened in the same neighborhood.

Oriental Boulevard
While modern-day Coney Island conjures images of hot dogs and trash-laden beaches, it was at one time an extravagant resort community. The seaside neighborhood was home to three of the most luxurious hotels on the East Coast: the Manhattan Beach, Brighton Beach and Oriental Hotels. The Oriental was the swankiest of the bunch, serving rich Manhattan expats who often stayed throughout the summer. Though it remains an important piece of Coney Island history, the Oriental’s reign was short lived. It opened in 1880 and closed doors in 1916. Oriental Boulevard, which runs parallel to the shore, is all that exists as testament to the famous guest house.

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October 25, 2014

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