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Famous New York Streets and Their Origins

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New York City has over 32,000 streets and avenues, some of these NYC streets are so famous, their names are known around the world.

Some street names, like Broadway and Wall Street, bring to mind much more than a location.

They are known for the historic events that took place on them and what goes on today.

Below are some famous streets in New York City with explanations of how they got their names and what makes them famous!

Intersection of Broadway and Wall Street

Broadway

Broadway is one of the most famous streets in New York City, and perhaps the world.

This is mostly due to its fabulous Broadway shows that hundreds of thousands of people flock to each year.

This main thoroughfare, the longest in NYC, runs 13 miles long starting at the tip of Manhattan and continuing to the northern boundary of the Bronx (one of the city’s 5 boroughs). 

Broadway at Times Square

Before the Dutch arrived in the 1600s, native Americans carved a trail along what was later turned into an 80-foot wide path in the early 17th century. 

The Dutch named it Brede Wegh meaning “broad way”. When the British took over, the name became Broadway.

The stretch of Broadway in Lower Manhattan saw the reading of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. 

Find out about things to see and do on Broadway from our posts on Lower Manhattan, Times Square, and the Upper West Side


Fifth Avenue

Fifth Avenue is one of the most famous New York City streets, known for its upscale shopping, wealthy residents, and world-class museums, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Some of the city’s most significant architecture lines Fifth Avenue, including the Empire State Building, the New York Public Library, Rockefeller Center and St. Patrick's Cathedral.

New York Public Library

When the avenue was laid out in 1824, it started as a simple country road called Middle Road.

It started at Washington Square Park and continued over time to 142nd Street in Harlem

As the city was laid out, Fifth Avenue lived up to its original name as it is the middle road in Manhattan.

It splits Manhattan into halves -- East and West Manhattan.

The numbered cross streets east of Fifth Avenue begin with East, for example, 42nd Street east of Fifth Avenue is named East 42nd Street.

Streets west of Fifth Avenue begin with West as in West 42nd Street. 

For a detailed explanation of how the street numbers work and how to find your destination easily, read our post How to Get Around NYC.


Wall Street

Originally called Waal Straat by the Dutch settlers, this was the location of a wooden defensive wall built in 1653 to keep out hostile Native Americans and later the British.

As far back as Dutch times, trading and commercial transactions were conducted in this area, now known as the Financial District. 

New York Stock Exchange

At the corner of Wall Street and Broad Street stands the New York Stock Exchange

Across the street is Federal Hall, the site of the first capital of the United States. It’s also where George Washington was sworn in as America’s first president. 


Park Avenue 

Park Avenue is another famous street known for its outrageously expensive apartment buildings, glass tower office buildings and upscale hotels, like the Waldorf Astoria.

Most people recognize Park Avenue from the iconic view looking south toward the boxy, reflective MetLife Building (1963) with the handsome Beaux-Arts Helmsley Building (1929) in front of it. 

Park Avenue

Though Park Avenue is home to the rich and famous, it wasn't always so elegant.

In the 1830s, Park Avenue (below 40th Street) was known as Fourth Avenue and was covered with a railroad track between 34th to 40th street. 

In the 1850s, the trains stopped running and the tracks were covered with a grassy lawn.

The area was used as a park, and the blocks between 34th Street and 38th Street came to be called Park Avenue.

Wealthy people started building stately homes and apartment buildings in the 1930s. That trend continues today. 

In 2014, 432 Park Avenue, a 1,400-foot-tall residential skyscraper was built. It was the tallest residential building Western Hemisphere.

In 2022, the penthouse apartment was listed for sale for $170 million!


Bowery

Like Broadway, Bowery is one of the oldest thoroughfares in Manhattan.

Bowery runs through Chinatown, Nolita, the Lower East Side and the East Village. 

The original Dutch name bouwerij means farm road and it went to the enormous farm property of Peter Stuyvesant.

Stuyvesant was the last director-general of New Netherlands before the British drove the Dutch out in 1644.

Bowery is the anglicized version of the original street name. 

Bowery

In the early 1800s, Bowery had theaters spouting up as well as handsome homes for the wealthy.

By the time the American Civil War in the 1860s, the area had brothels and saloons.

Starting in the 1940s the Bowery was New York City's "Skid Row".

In the late 1970s, the Bowery and the surrounding streets underwent revitalization and gentrification.

Today, Bowery and its surrounding streets are filled with expensive apartments, hip restaurants and some excellent hotels. 


Houston Street

Pronounced ‘HOW-stun’, this street runs from the Hudson River to the East River in Lower Manhattan.

It’s famous because it is a major east-west thoroughfare, but also because of the quirky history of its name.

It was named for William Houstoun (pronounced HOW-stune), a delegate to the Continental Congress, which took place just after the Revolutionary War ended. 

There’s no definite date or explanation for when the second “u” was dropped from William Houstoun’s name and the street became Houston.

Houston Street

East Houston Street is the boundary between the East Village to the north and the Lower East Side to the south.

West Houston Street borders Greenwich Village to the north and to the south is SoHo.

That’s how SoHo got its name! It’s the neighborhood SOuth of HOuston.

Houston Street is also famous for three food establishments that have been there since the early 1900s - Katz’s Delicatessen, Russ & Daughters and Yonah Schimmel Knishery.

We stop at all three on our pay-what-you-like Lower East Side Food Tour.


Delancey Street

Like Houston Street, just three blocks north, Delancey Street is another east-west thoroughfare in Lower Manhattan.

It runs between the Bowery on the west and the Williamsburg Bridge (1903) on the east.

Like so many streets in Lower Manhattan, Delancey Street was named after wealthy landowners. 

Before the Revolutionary War, James De Lancey, a French Hugonaut who sided with the British, owned a 300-acre estate in Lower Manhattan.

This map from 1770 shows some of his estate. You can also see Bowery (as The Bowry Lane).

Delancey Street

Along the north side of the De Lancey estate was a lane that, after the war and De Lancey’s lands were confiscated, became Delancey Street.

Many people are familiar with Delancey Street from the 1988 romantic comedy, Crossing Delancey or rapper Dana Dane's 1987 hit Delancey Street.


MacDougal Street

Located in Greenwich Village, MacDougal Street is one of the most famous streets in NYC as it played an important role in both the 1950s beatnik era and the 1960s folk and rock music scene.

One landmark music venue on MacDougal Street is Cafe Wha? where many musicians got their start, like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.

Cafe Wha

MacDougal Street is named for Alexander McDougall, a merchant who was a major general in the Revolutionary War.

MacDougal Street today is worth a visit as it is a vibrant, lively part of Greenwich Village, lined with restaurants, cafes, and music venues. 

Our pay-what-you-like Greenwich Village walking tours make a stop here.


Gay Street

Sandwiched between Waverly Place and Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, Gay Street is one of NYC’s shortest streets -- it is just one block long! 

In the late 18th century, the street was an alley for horse stables. By 1827, according to historic documents, Gay Street was an official city street. 

The origin of its name is not definitive and one possibility is that it is named after the Gay family that lived in the area. 

Gay Street

Though the street was widened in 1833, it is still tiny, one of the reasons it is so charming.

It is pure coincidence that Gay Street is in a neighborhood known for its large LGBTQ community.

The street is around the corner from the Stonewall Inn, the birthplace of the LGBTQ rights movement.


Minetta Lane  

Another tiny, easy-to-miss street in Greenwich Village is the one-block, curved Minetta Lane. For such a small street, Its history is quite fascinating!

This street is named for the freshwater Minetta Creek running underneath it. The name comes from the Algonquin Native American tribe word Mannette, translated as "Spirit Water" or "Demon Water."

The Dutch referred to the creek as Mintje Kill, which translates approximately to "little tiny stream."

The creek was filled in during the mid-19th century, but a trickle of it still runs underneath Minetta Lane.

Minetta Lane

The area surrounding the creek was known in Dutch times as t' Erf van Negros, translated as ‘The Land of the Blacks’. 

Later, the area was called Little Africa where many of New York City's emancipated slaves lived.

In 1896, American author Stephen Crane wrote that Minetta Lane and its intersecting street, Minetta Street had recently been "two of the most enthusiastically murderous thoroughfares in the city."

It’s hard to believe that when you stroll down a peaceful, quiet street!


Doyers Street 

Yet another tiny street in NYC is the 200-foot-long Doyers Street in Chinatown, named for Hendrick Doyer, a Dutch immigrant who owned a brewery there in the 1800s. 

By the late 1800s, Doyers Street and the surrounding area were rapidly turning into an enclave of Chinese immigrants. By the early 1900s, the population was predominantly Chinese.

Doyers Street is not only short, but it also curves at nearly a 90-degree angle. 

Doyers Street

When the street became a hotbed of extremely violent Chinese gang warfare in the early 20th century, it was called the “Bloody Angle”.

Today, the only dangerous thing about Doyers Street is that it is tempting to eat too much at the delicious Nom Wah Tea Parlor, the oldest, still operating dining establishment in Chinatown.


St. Mark's Place

St. Mark's, a three-block stretch of E. 8th Street in the East Village, is famous for being the coolest street in New York City!

Nearly 24 hours a day the street is busy, with people in bars, restaurants, music clubs or just hanging around on the street. 

St. Mark's Place is named in the 1830s for the nearby church, St. Mark's in-the-Bowery. 

One of the must-see things on St. Mark's and the surrounding streets is the Mosaic Trail, a path of over 80 lampposts covered with mosaics that represent historic locations and events that took place in the East Village.

St Marks Place

For almost a century, starting in the 1900s, St. Mark's Place was a hotbed of cultural, political and even gangster activity. 

In the 1910s, Russian Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky lived on St. Mark's Place. In the 1920s, mobster shootouts occurred on the block.

In the 1950s, Beatnik writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg hung out at a cafe on St. Mark's Place. 

In the 1960s, hippies took over St. Mark's Place and radical political activists Abbie Hoffman and Jack Rubin lived on the street.

The punk rock scene flourished in the 1980s, but by the 1990s, gentrification arrived, St. Mark's Place ceased being a center of counter-culture.

Still, it's a fun, vibrant street and worth checking out!  Our pay-what-you-wish East Village Food Tour spends some time in this historic, amazing street!


Fulton Street and Old Fulton Street 

Both Fulton Street in Lower Manhattan and Old Fulton Street in DUMBO, Brooklyn are named for Robert Fulton who is credited with inventing the first steamboat in 1807.

Up until 1814, the only way people could travel between Manhattan (then the City of New York) and the village of Brooklyn, was by rowboat and canoe. 

On May 10, 1814, Fulton launched the first steamboat ferry between the two cities and with that, a rapid transformation began. 

View of ferries on the East River

People could live in suburban Brooklyn and commute to work in Manhattan by ferry.

In less than 50 years, Brooklyn’s population had swelled and the then-city of Brooklyn was the third-largest city in America.

The Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883 and the ferries eventually became obsolete.

Our pay-what-you-wish Brooklyn Bridge, Brooklyn Heights and DUMBO tour visits the Fulton Ferry Landing where it all began


Canal Street

Canal Street is named so for the unsurprising reason that a canal once existed here! 

The canal was dug in 1808 to drain waste from Collect Pond which existed in Lower Manhattan until 1811.

In the early 1800s, immigrants settled in Lower Manhattan and the pond became a receptacle of waste.

Canal Street 1812

The city decided to drain the pond and did so by building a canal that led to the Hudson River. 

Even after the pond was drained, the canal continued to smell of foul odors.

In 1819, the city filled in the canal, paved it over and we ended up with … Canal Street!


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About The Author

Courtney

Courtney is a lifelong New Yorker fascinated with the city’s history, culture and cuisine. She loves exploring the world, as well as sharing her travel expertise with others. She joined the Free Tours by Foot team in 2011, first as a guide and then as a writer. She has a law degree, a teaching degree and a worn-out passport. Her motto is “Have backpack, will travel”.
Updated: December 26th, 2022
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