Map Monday: Northeast Minneapolis “President Streets” Pros and Cons

mpls presidents streetsMinneapolis street naming conventions seem straightforward, but they’re not. One good example are the “president streets” of Northeast Minneapolis, where the streets assume the names of the presidents in order. (It’s the same idea as in downtown Chicago’s South Loop, in fact.)

Two years ago, Kristin Delegard filled in the audience about some of the history behind the president streets, which were, among other things, intended to “Americanize” the supposedly unruly Eastern European working class.

She writes:

Most Minneapolitans know this neighborhood in Nordeast, where you can learn your presidents–and the order in which they were elected–by walking east on Broadway. The street series starts, of course, with Washington. The next street is Adams, followed by Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Quincy, Jackson, Van Buren, Harrison and so on. This nomenclature was designed to provide an ambulatory history lesson for a neighborhood which has traditionally been home to many immigrants.

I had heard–from several sources–that it was anxieties about these immigrants that prompted city leaders to create the President Streets around World War I. Yet this plat map–created by Griffin Morgan Hopkins in 1885–shows that the President Streets were created much earlier, well before the local Americanization campaign reached its apex.

The Minneapolis Tribune reveals that the President Streets were established in 1872, when Minneapolis and St. Anthony were consolidated into one municipality. “With the union of the two cities the necessity of a change in the system of naming streets and avenues becomes apparent to nearly every one, although all may not agree as to what that change should be,” the newspaper wrote on February 27, 1872. “In old Minneapolis there are several streets of the same name in different parts of the city, and there are few who can tell the location of a majority of the streets. To meet the necessities of the case, and enable old settlers and new ones to tell the location of almost any street mentioned by its name, Franklin Cook, Esq. and others have prepared a plan which will probably find favor on both sides of the river.”

Here are some pros and cons to the naming convention.

PRO: Helps you learn history.

When I was a kid, on long car trips my folks taught me the “Presidents song,” a recitation of all the presidents in order from Washington to the present set to the tune of “Old Macdonald.” To this day, I can recite all the American presidents in order, which is helpful for finding your way around Northeast.

On the other hand, most people can’t name more than 10 presidents, especially the old ones, so I doubt the convention is helpful. Do you learn the presidential order if you live in Northeast long enough?


Technically this shouldn’t happen?

UNCLEAR: Weighted street lengths.

Ideally, the streets would be weighed for the relative importance of each presidency, and the street grid of Northeast would be laid out in accordance with this (all the while retaining their temporal logic). Thus, Lincoln Street would have to have grand houses made of wood, though they’d have to be duplexes to mark the Civil War schism. Harrison Street, should be extremely short, as  William Henry Harrison died 32 days into office after giving a speech in the cold rain. (Incredibly, I think this might be the case.) Johnson Street ought to be controversial and ineffectual, “impeached’ into a cul-de-sac or something. Etc.

In the real world, Washington and Adams street somehow intersect. Perhaps this reflects their co-dependent 18th c. influence during the Adams Vice-Presidency?

PRO: Anything is better than the OCD Minneapolis numbers. The numbered street grid becomes mind-numbing after a while, and a change of pace is a breath of fresh air. (And don’t get me started on the alphabet thing.)

CON: Washington Street v. Washington Avenue. Washington is obviously a common name, but what’s the sense of having two Washington-specific roadways in the same city? It would have been better if somehow the president streets had abutted Washington Avenue in the first place.

CON: Howard Street. Quincy Street. There’s a “Howard Street” thrown into the middle of all the presidents, between Madison and Monroe. Who was that? Not a president at any case. Then there’s the case of the father-and-son Adams family. Small Minneapolis children are raised to believe there was a “President Quincy,” which is incorrect.

All in all, the president streets are a bit of a mess. But at least there’s a logic to it.

Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.

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