NYTIMES: BROOKLYN’S BIG ADDRESS MESS
RENAMING THE STREETS!
Walk a mile in a Brooklynite’s shoes, whether on brownstone-lined blocks or the streets filled with vinyl-sided houses, and you’re bound to notice address plates crowded with fractions. On Norman Avenue in Greenpoint, you’ll find three in one short stretch: 68½, 72½ and 78½.
When hailing an Uber, repeating street names might give you pause: Are you going to Washington Street in Dumbo or Washington Avenue in Clinton Hill?
Today’s Brooklyn map is a relic of a massive 19th-century project to renumber every building and rename dozens of streets — an example of how decisions made by bureaucrats can leave an imprint on urban life for decades or even centuries.
Suddenly, a Tale of One City
CHAOS: FOUR 1 FURMAN STREETS!
Brooklyn experienced unprecedented growth in the mid-1800s, years before Brooklyn became a borough of New York City, much of it driven by immigration: Irish fleeing famine; Germans fleeing political chaos. And when the City of Brooklyn annexed Williamsburg, Bushwick and Greenpoint — dubbed the “Eastern District” — in 1855, it became the third-largest city in the country.
That growth, paired with a city government that wasn’t adept at urban planning, led to incoherent street numbering schemes, and repeated names and numbers across Kings County. South Fourth Street had three buildings numbered 42, while Furman Street reportedly had no fewer than four No. 1s. Commuters would find one block called a street and the next an avenue for no discernible reason. Five presidents — Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe — saw double duty.
The confusion about both street names and numbers was far from comical, as basic government services like mail delivery and police response suffered. The lack of attention and haphazard planning, which occurred disproportionately in poor areas, often Black and Irish neighborhoods, reflected who counted and who didn’t.
But as Brooklyn grew, even well-planned areas and the city’s business interests were affected by the duplications. City officials tried to solve these problems, but in the end, planners only managed to partly rationalize the system. The frustration was chronicled by the press under a kind of Victorian-era hashtag: “Renumbering the Streets.”
The streets saga stands as one of the few attempts in New York’s history to make such a sweeping change to the city’s layout — one that would eventually affect nearly every Brooklyn resident.
The Lains on the Evils of Haphazard Numbering
FORTY-FOUR DUPLICATE STREETS
George T. Lain was 23 when he took over publishing the Brooklyn City Directory in 1867. Lain & Company’s alphabetical guide listed residents’ names, addresses and occupations, a task that grew increasingly difficult the bigger and more disorganized the city became.
Mr. Lain inherited the problem of duplicate names and numbers from his father, Jonathan, whose prefaces to early 1860s directories contained fiery admonitions against the evils of haphazard numbering.
In 1868, with his penchant for numerical precision, Mr. Lain informed readers of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper that there were “forty-four instances where the streets have duplicate names; five cases where the street name occurs three times; and three instances where the same name for a street occurs four times.”
Where the Streets Have No Number
What Mr. Lain didn’t mention was that in predominantly Black neighborhoods, street numbers sometimes didn’t even exist. Maps of the Black community of Weeksville, for example, showed “No official numbers” for important thoroughfares like Hunterfly Road, and the areas often weren’t included in city directories.
All in all, by the 1860s, Brooklyn residents were at a breaking point.
On Feb. 7, 1867, The Eagle reported that the police had responded to a complaint that Mrs. Chadwick of 5 Willow Street had thrown scalding water on the young child of Mrs. Connor, her neighbor.
Four days later, The Eagle published a letter from Nicholas Espenscheid, the owner of a hat store in Manhattan, who wrote that he lived at 5 Willow Street and that no such incident had happened.
Mr. Espenscheid suggested that 5 Willow Place was the scene of disorder: “Please inform those who do not know that No. 5 Willow Street and No. 5 Willow Place are not in the same neighborhood.”
It appeared that the well-to-do merchant was annoyed about having his house in the tony end of Brooklyn Heights mistaken for one in the working-class end.
Two days later, The Eagle published another letter, this one from M. Whelan of 5 Willow Place, who wrote, “relative to the child scalding affray which you say occurred at No. 5 Willow Place, which is not the case.”
In fact, the Eagle’s story was correct. The scalding incident did occur at 5 Willow Street. The problem, which the editor could explain but not fix, was that two houses were designated as 5 Willow Street: one just south of Brooklyn Heights, where the incident occurred, and the other farther north in Brooklyn Heights, where Mr. Espenscheid lived.
Bad Numbers Were Bad for Business
‘ANNOYANCE TO VISITORS’
In 1865, Thomas Shearman, a lumberyard owner in South Brooklyn (the neighborhood name used at the time for the area south of Brooklyn Heights), wrote to The Eagle complaining about similar confusions. He said his house, 299 Hicks Street, had the same number as another building on Hicks Street just a few blocks away.
“The annoyance to visitors, expressmen and letter carriers is some,” Mr. Shearman wrote, “leaving my own feelings out of the question.”
Left unsaid, but perhaps a bigger cause of dismay than errant deliveries, was that the other No. 299 was the home of John Bracken’s liquor saloon, which had a boarding house on its upper floors that catered to sailors and dockworkers.
For Mr. Lain, the directory compiler, his reputation was tied to a useful guide, which depended on accurate addresses.
Bad numbers were bad for business.
A ‘large force of men’ of dubious utility
REPUTATION FOR CRONYISM
By the time Mr. Lain had written a series of letters to the editors of various local papers in the late 1860s, exhorting Brooklyn to fix the addresses, political leaders were beginning to act.
Hugh McLaughlin, Brooklyn’s leading local legislator, set up the Renumbering Committee of Brooklyn’s Common Council in 1865. It, in turn, organized a bureau for Renaming and Renumbering Streets, which was tasked with devising and executing a plan to eliminate duplicate street names and assign unique building and lot numbers.
“Although we have the finest city in the world,” Mr. McLaughlin said, “its streets are the worst arranged and numbered of any in the country.”
Mr. McLaughlin had a reputation for cronyism, however, and the renumbering bureau reportedly squandered its initial $10,000 budget by outfitting its office with expensive furniture and adding to the payroll a “large force of men” of dubious utility, according to The Eagle.
Accomplished Little, Then Disbanded
The bureau accomplished little before being disbanded just under a year later, in 1866, but it did manage to propose several numbering schemes. However, Mayor Martin Kalbfleisch of Brooklyn vetoed each proposal because he thought Mr. McLaughlin was spending too much money.
In The Eagle, Mr. Lain urged the city to “let the committee go on, whether the grumblers like or dislike it.”
Then, in 1869, the Renumbering Committee came up with a plan to renumber each block in ascending order, eliminate duplicate numbers and fractional numbers, and reserve an adequate store of numbers for empty lots. The plan was simple in theory but an enormous undertaking: Almost every building would see its number change.
The committee also finalized a list of 75 streets whose names would change.
The city hired Richard Toombs, a surveyor, to create a series of maps that would show every block in Brooklyn with the new numbers and names.
THE BIG DAY ARRIVES
TOOMBS THE ENUMERATOR
The 1870 rollout of the numbering scheme was no less chaotic than the years spent complaining, arguing, planning and backtracking.
City officials initially made no announcement about when or how renumbering would take place, but a trickle of news reports that spring suggested implementation was imminent. Some reports referred to a July 4 deadline, yet daily news bulletins on the renumbering made clear that only a few residents had complied by then.
Part of the problem was that the plan required each building owner to go to City Hall (now Borough Hall) with a tax bill and obtain the new number by finding it on the maps made by Mr. Toombs. The tax assessors, however, wanted nothing to do with the process, so the city set up Mr. Toombs himself in the tax office in City Hall to distribute the numbers.
The city eventually placed ads explaining the process in local papers in the second half of July. The press reported status updates weekly from Mr. Toombs on how many residents had obtained new numbers, giving “Toombs the Enumerator” more than his 15 minutes of fame as the public face of the renumbering affair.
John Stanton, writing under the pen name “Corry O’Lanus” in The Eagle, had dryly suggested two years earlier that Brooklyn should roll out the new addresses by notifying the public “to bring their front doors up to the City Hall and have the numbers chalked on them.”
Little did Mr. Stanton know that his satire was not much more ridiculous than the reality. Forcing tens of thousands of building owners to visit one small office in City Hall caused long lines down the block for much of July.
Complaints poured into the papers throughout the summer: the lines were too long; the office’s employees were too surly.
With compliance lagging, the city moved the deadline to Oct. 1. Yet the process lingered into the spring of 1871, when Mr. Lain published the first version of his Brooklyn City Directory containing the new building numbers.
Seemingly, the only Brooklynites happy with the renumbering were the silver engravers, who promptly took out ads hawking new number plates and the exchange of old ones.
Brooklyn’s 21st–Century Destiny
TOOMBS MAPS LOST!
This piece of Brooklyn’s history was not well recorded, and without any collective memory of the process, geohistorians and homeowners alike are often vexed when tracing building histories.
The Toombs maps — the Rosetta Stone to link the previous numbers to the current numbers — appear to have been lost. Today, there is no clear record of every pre-1870 building number.
About five years ago, the owner of 307 Henry Street in Brooklyn Heights painted the name “Creighton” on the house’s transom. The signage commemorates James Creighton, the star pitcher of Brooklyn’s Excelsior Base Ball Club in the 1860s, who was known for his fast-pitch technique.
Mr. Creighton’s style was so unorthodox that some baseball aficionados believe it caused the abdominal hernia that suddenly killed him in 1862 at age 21. Newspapers widely covered the story of his death in his home, at 307 Henry Street, just four days after the injury.
The problem with the transom painting is that Mr. Creighton did not die in the Brooklyn Heights house, but in a house several blocks away in Cobble Hill. Today, Mr. Creighton’s former house is No. 461; the address was changed in 1870.
And because Brooklyn never really solved the problem of how to reserve enough whole-number addresses on each block to accommodate future construction, fractional numbers returned on many streets after the renumbering. Today, Brooklyn has the most addresses that end in “A” or “½” of New York City’s five boroughs, according to PLUTO, the city’s land use and geographic database.
Brooklyn’s new 19th-century names and numbers also didn’t change the 20th-century destiny of some of its neighborhoods. Weeksville, which never had all of its streets numbered, faded into the cityscape of Crown Heights until some of its buildings were rediscovered in the 1960s.
Then Came Moses
WIPED OFF THE MAP!
Consider the “other” Willow Street of Mr. Espenscheid’s ire. The two-block road near the waterfront docks became Emmett Street in 1870. Then, 80 years later, it met a force who remade the map more than anyone in the 19th century.
Around 1950, the master planner Robert Moses wiped tiny Emmett Street off the map to make way for his Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
Jeremy Lechtzin writes about Brooklyn’s buildings and streets. His house was renumbered to 58, from 48, in1870.
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