Street Smarts

Street Smarts

As we learned during our last look at the stories behind New Haven’s street names, assumptions can lead you away from the truth.

The same goes for Assumption Street, a tiny, modest residential block near the North Haven border. You might suspect the name was drawn from an aphorism or a literary reference. In fact, according to Doris B. Townshend’s The Streets of New Haven: The Origin of Their Names (2nd edition, 1998), its meaning is romantic in a different and entirely unguessable way: as a tribute to Assumption Palmieri, the wife of the block’s developer, Frank Palmieri.

A far more straightforward identity belongs to State Street, though its meaning makes up with significance what it lacks in surprise. Named in 1784 to replace Queen Street, the name commemorates the sovereignty secured by America’s victory in the Revolutionary War—a grand symbol of creation even if today it seems a bit uncreative.

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Still extending southward from newly minted State was Fleet Street—another nod to England, named after London’s famous alley. But that was done away with in 1860, when the town council voted for its absorption into State. Today, this unified State unifies different parts of the city and beyond, connecting Downtown to East Rock, Fair Haven, Hamden and North Haven; to Union Avenue and its Union Station, with express lines to New York City; and to I-91, a major regional thruway that could take you all the way to Canada if you let it.

One of the city’s shortest roads, ironically, is Tower Parkway. Less than a quarter mile long, it’s basically a pregnant curve, routing Grove Street to the Whalley/Goffe/Dixwell convergence that connects Downtown with many of the western parts of the city. It’s named for John Tower, whose mayorship of New Haven from 1925 to 1928 was marked by a focus on public infrastructure projects including this very parkway. Before becoming mayor, he was an upstanding figure in Westville, holding seats on the village’s “fire, police and school boards,” Townshend writes.

Another important but mostly forgotten name is emblazoned on green rectangles: Forbes, as in Forbes Avenue, named after a family of shipbuilders led from Salem, Massachusetts, to East Haven by Jehiel Forbes during the colonial era. The vessels they engineered were “fashioned right in the road and launched from Stable Point,” Townshend writes, where I-95 meets Forbes Avenue today. That’s on the eastern side of the harbor, in the portion of New Haven that was annexed from East Haven in 1881, close to where the Mill and Quinnipiac Rivers go their separate ways. The Forbeses’ house was burned during the infamous British raid of New Haven on July 5, 1779, but the crafty family was well-equipped to rebuild—and in more ways than one, producing a handful of local political leaders including three East Haven selectmen across subsequent generations.

One thoroughfare old Jehiel couldn’t have traveled is Fountain Street, which today breaks off from Whalley Avenue near the northern tip of Edgewood Park. Until the mid-1800s, the road was called Broad Street; by 1868, Fountain had been adopted. The reason behind the change isn’t precisely known, though it’s educatedly guessed that there was a public pipe-fed horse trough where it intersected with Whalley, then named Main Street.

Main, by the way, was the first New Haven road to be macadamized, made possible by New Havener Eli Whitney Blake. Having been mentored and trained by his famous uncle and namesake Eli Whitney, Blake invented the mechanized stone-crushing system that revolutionized roadbuilding in New Haven and beyond. 22 years earlier, in 1836, he and his brother Philos had founded “the first manufactory of hardware in the country,” as Rollin G. Osterweis’s Three Centuries of New Haven puts it, on a street that today meanders off of and back to Whalley, forming a shape like one of the countless rocks he used to stabilize New Haven’s streets.

Calling that street Blake Street was really the least the city could do, don’t you think?

Written and photographed by Dan Mims. This updated story was originally published on June 18, 2014.

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