I was driving through Uptown with a friend in 2004 when it hit me: these streets are in alphabetical order! As a visitor I was impressed by such orderliness; a month later I moved to Minneapolis (not because of the street names—or at least, not entirely because of them). I learned about the second alphabet while visiting friends in Linden Hills, but it wasn’t until several years later that some random Google Maps browsing revealed not two but eight (okay, maybe just 7 and 1/13th) sequences of alphabetically-ordered street names extending west from Aldrich. By this time I also knew of the presidential sequence in northeast Minneapolis, and more map browsing revealed some others.
Of course, there are many instances of themed clusters of street names in the region. The map includes some of these, such as the great lakes names southeast of the University and the several names in southeast Minneapolis associated with Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha (including, unexpectedly, Standish). In this post I focus on sequences—sets of street names that include some sort of ordering. I also focus on named rather than numbered sequences. (The region’s various street numbering systems have some interesting features as well; I hope to explore them in a future article.)
It is often difficult to perceive the extent of these sequences. The hierarchical nature of our modern road system makes it unlikely that a single trip will encounter more than a small portion of a single sequence. Also, daily travel can not provide an experience of both their length and breadth. One might encounter Aldrich, Bryant, and Colfax in Uptown without knowing that the same streets could be found several miles to the south, in Burnsville. Similarly, a traveler heading north on Washington Street might be unaware that Adams, Jefferson, and Madison are marching along beside. To provide a better understanding of how these name sequences fit into the larger regional context, I mapped them.
Making the Map
To visually identify the named sequences on the map, I started with the U.S. Census Bureau’s TIGER road shapefiles and a manually-populated table of street and sequence names, then joined the two to assign each road feature a sequence identifier. This simple process resulted in a lot of “false positives” which you can see on the map—the various scattered dots and short lines indicate that some names (especially the presidents and trees) are used in many places, not necessarily as part of a sequence.
The alphabetical street name sequences are the most prominent in the metro area. The first begins with Aldrich, just west of Lyndale in Minneapolis.
First Alphabet and The Hennepin Hiccup
The first alphabet doesn’t make it very far before running into trouble—with a capital “H.” After stumbling through the various misaligned grids of downtown Minneapolis, the warehouse district, and Loring Park, Hennepin Avenue is at first largely ignored by the strict north-south grid of south Minneapolis below Franklin Avenue. Aldrich through Girard sigh and roll their eyes a bit, but they continue past Hennepin unimpeded. But Humboldt, perhaps feeling threatened by the appearance of another “H” street, dodges perfectly away from Hennepin as if repeled by magnetism. This westward jog squeezes the following streets against Lake of the Isles. On reaching 28th Street, Humboldt takes a further westward dodge around the former site of West High School before resuming its southerly course.
The result of this maneuvering is that south of 28th Street, Humboldt, Irving, James, and Knox are all two blocks west of where they “should” be, and Hennepin has assumed Humboldt’s geographic place in the lineup. The rivalry between Hennepin and Humboldt left a one-block gap between them, so… what comes between “H” and “H?” “H,” of course, and so Holmes shows up to fill in the gap. Hennepin, Holmes, Humboldt: the hiccup.
To the west, Lake of the Isles and Lake Calhoun swallow the hiccup, and beyond them the alphabet continues with its regular rhythm. To the south, the hiccup-ed streets are all interrupted by Lakewood Cemetery and then by Lake Harriet. When they emerge on the other side, Hennepin is gone, and the other streets have resumed their appointed positions as though nothing happened. The hiccup, then, exists only for one mile between 26th and 36th Streets.
But we are left to wonder: where is Hennepin, and what happened in that cemetery?
The second alphabet isn’t particularly notable. Can you see any theme I might be missing?
(Update 12/3/12 6:27 PM: thanks Bill C and David Greene for identifying the B street as Brunswick!)
The third alphabet has a distinct “U.S. states” theme: Alabama, Colorado, Dakota. The namers did the best they could within their alphabetic constraints. Some interesting compromises include Dakota, Jersey, and Hampshire, which are made geographically ambiguous, and the inclusion of our northern neighbors Brunswick, Quebec, and Yukon. A few are respectable punts, like Edgewood and Sumter, but what did they really expect to get done with X and Z?
- Rhode Island
Settlement, revolution, independence, and civil war: the fourth alphabet is largely a (non-chronological) romp through early American history.
- Union Terrace
- Valley Forge
Trees. Or, words that sound like names of trees just because we added “wood” to the end. I do not think that anyone has ever sat in the shade of a majestic Quinwood. Zinnia is a plant but not a tree, and the genus Yucca includes brevifolia, also known as the Joshua tree.
I am most puzzled by Ives. Ironwood is a common name for many types of trees; perhaps it was already used somewhere? But in any case “Iveswood” would have fit the pattern better.
The basic theme seems to be city names, but the choices are often strange and there are many exceptions where they don’t appear to be needed. There are many Kingswoods in the UK and the Commonwealth countries, including this tiny one in Gloucestershire, just down the road from Wotton-under-Edge. There are two places named Polaris in the United States; both are unincorporated. It seems impossible to me that someone naming streets in Minnesota would fail to come up with a town name starting with M—is this really the best place to use up the name “Minnesota?” Zanzibar is a wonderful way to close out this set.
This one seems to be a bit of a grab bag. Can anyone pick out a theme here?
- Black Oaks
- Walnut Grove
It appears that at the western edge of Plymouth lies the very beginnings of an eighth alphabet, cut short by the township border. It appears that the alphabetical sequences end at this point.
The presidents are probably my favorite of these street name sequences, for two reasons. First, since they are ordered by inauguration date, an eastward trip along Broadway Street provides an incidental lesson in American history. Second, this sequence is full of interesting exceptions.
For example, it turns out that we have had a few name conflicts among our presidents. Quincy is distinguished from his father by his middle name, Benjamin’s last name is preempted by his predecesor William Henry, and Delano’s first and last names are shared by earlier American notables. Ulysses’ last name was already used for a brief stretch in downtown Minneapolis. But our foremost founding father’s name is apparently unimpeachable: despite the existence of Washington Avenue in downtown Minneapolis, we also have Washington Street (perhaps “George Street” sounded too Loyalist?).
Few would likely complain about being immortalized in a local street name, but John Adams might be annoyed at least by his treatment relative to his peers. Adams St. is squeezed out by an awkward street grid shift between 17th Ave NE and 22nd Ave NE, and it appears that it never occurs again. Residents of Anoka County could be forgiven for thinking Jefferson to be our second president.
The presidents are notable for their geographic longevity. They begin just north of historic St. Anthony in Hennepin County, continue into and across Anoka County, and make appearances far into Isanti County (and perhaps beyond).
- Van Buren
The seasons are easy to overlook. They are few in number; they are interrupted by freeways, rail yards, and industrial campuses; and they are often overridden by other street names. Spring and Summer make a good start at the root of Washington St., but are soon disrupted by I-35W, after which Spring is briefly replaced by Kennedy St. (a president running perpendicular to the others) and Summer becomes sporadic. Winter is, ironically, thoroughly unreliable and appears to exist only between Fillmore St. and Industrial Blvd. Autumn is almost entirely absent. Through all of northeast Minneapolis, Lauderdale and Falcon Heights it is replaced by Broadway St. and then by Roselawn Ave. before finally make a single one-block appearance just west of Lexington.
Despite these geographic inconsistencies, the seasons are distinctive for a few reasons. First, the are the only major named sequence of east-west streets; east-west streets in the area are, as a general rule, numbered rather than named. Also, they are the only sequence of named streets that exists continuously across Hennepin and Ramsey Counties. Despite disappearing entirely in Lauderdale and Falcon Heights, they are resurrected by Roseville, and Summer makes its final appearance just east of Lake Phalen.