Open Sesame: The City’s Proud Tradition of Co-Naming Streets

The Upper West Side just got a street named after the one Big Bird made famous—but naming streets after New York’s great and obscure is a proud tradition

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New York City finally answered the age-old question, “Can you tell me how to get—how to get to Sesame Street?” Yep. Take the 1 train to West 63rd Street and Broadway.

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This week, Mayor Bill de Blasio celebrated the children’s show Sesame Street’s 50th anniversary by rechristening the corner of West 63rd Street and Broadway—where the offices of the creator, Sesame Workshop, are located—as Sesame Street. “Fifty years of extraordinary programming, 50 years of making people’s lives better, 50 years of helping children believe in themselves,” de Blasio said during the dedication ceremony, before finally meeting his doppelganger Big Bird. “Sesame Street has changed this country.”

But Sesame Street is just one of the nearly 16,000 streets around the city co-named after neighborhood fixtures, 9/11 victims, musicians, artists and actors, usually at the behest of local activists.

“It represents a tangible acknowledgment that society officially, legislatively, respects what the person honored with the street naming accomplished in their life,” said Jacob Morris, the head of the Harlem Historical Society who’s gotten about 40 streets co-named after prominent African-Americans. “That’s very meaningful.”

Morris got his start turning a portion of Chambers Street into the Frederick Douglass Landing in 2005. Since then he’s gotten ones named after jazz singer Billie Holiday, baseball player Willie Mays, civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois and plenty of figures of the Harlem Renaissance.

“In Harlem, for example, there were all sorts of great people of tremendous national and world-historical significance that has never been honored with something tangible,” he said.

The practice of co-naming streets started in the early 1990s as “a way to help bring attention and to honor a lot of important New Yorkers, not just the big names,” said historian Kevin Draper. It has been popular since the start but became more prevalent after September 11 as a way to honor firefighters, police offices and offices workers who lost their lives in the attacks, Draper added.

Around the city you can find a Humphrey Bogart Place on the Upper West Side, Emily Warren Roebling Way in Brooklyn Heights (who oversaw the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge when her husband fell ill) and Manny “The Wrong Man” Balestrero Way in Elmhurst, Queens, the inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Wrong Man.

Co-naming doesn’t require actually changing the city map—so you likely can’t tell your Uber driver to take you to Sesame Street—and spending millions of dollars to change every street sign along the block.

“Apart from getting the sign put up on the actual street, there’s not a big process,” said Draper. “That’s why these things go through kind of easy.”

However, for the people pushing them, it can be a yearslong process of getting signatures of people who live on the block, convincing the local community board to approve it and getting the neighborhood’s City Council member on board.

Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, resident Leroy McCarthy went on a five-year journey to rename the corner of St. James Place and Fulton Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant after famed rapper the Notorious B.I.G., who grew up on the block. Last year, the City Council finally approved Christopher Wallace Way, the artist’s given name.

“People don’t recognize that honoring somebody like Biggie is really honoring a culture,” said McCarthy.

“Hip-hop is a New York City birthed art, genre and culture and is the number one streaming music genre,” he added. “New York City needs to be a little bit more supportive of its indigenous art form.”

During the process, McCarthy started a push to co-name streets in all five boroughs after famous hip-hop artists, and after Saturday he’ll be more than halfway there.

In 2016, he was able to get 92nd Street and Linden Boulevard in Queens co-named after A Tribe Called Quest’s Phife Dawg and on Saturday the city will officially dedicate Targee Street and Vanderbilt Avenue as the Wu-Tang Clan District.

He’s currently pushing to rename a street after Big Pun in the Bronx and the intersection of Rivington and Ludlow Streets named “Beastie Boys Square.”

“New York City is becoming more generic, more monolithic,” he said. “There is an opportunity to reclaim some of that New York City flavor and swagger by honoring Biggie, Beastie Boys, Wu-Tang, Big Pun and A Tribe Called Quest.”

The street co-naming also has the benefit of getting people who are fans of the figure to go visit the block, said Draper, who runs the New York Historical Tours.

“People want to go to these places and take a selfie,” said Draper, who constantly shows tourists Humphrey Bogart and Willie Mays’ streets. “It gets people out of touristy neighborhoods.”

And while the process for a co-naming can be arduous for people like Morris, the ability to teach future generations about the city’s historical figures makes it all worth it.

“I really like the idea of a father or a mother with a child and the child looks up at the street sign at the corner and going ‘Mommy, Daddy who was that person?’ ” he said. “That moment when the child looks and learns motivates me.”