Is your block named after a famed New Yorker? If you’ve wondered how that happened, this guide is for you.
The thoroughfares of New York pay tribute to all kinds of its characters and people. From entertainers (Jerry Orbach, Billie Holliday) to activists and political figures (civil rights advocate Jacob Birnbaum, the late City Councilmember James E. Davis) to pop culture favorites, like at the intersection of Ludlow and Rivington street on the Lower East Side. After a years-long effort, it was renamed Beastie Boys Square last year.
Honorific street names are a reflection of the city’s culture and people — and the process of co-naming a street begins with the city’s 59 local community boards. It’s called co-naming because the street retains its current name as well.
There is not one unified set of requirements for co-namings. However, the boards follow guidelines in keeping with what the City Council requires, but each can have its own criteria and application (more on that later).
The two most basic requirements are: the person being honored must be dead, and they must have made significant contributions to the community.
Community boards are neighborhood groups that give advisory opinions on local issues. With their votes of support or opposition, they send their opinions about street co-namings up to the City Council and mayor.
The process of applying for a co-naming, said Rob Witherwax of Brooklyn Community Board 8 — who wrote his board’s guidelines for co-namings — is meant to require some effort. “We ask [applicants] to really go to the mats for this,” Witherwax said.
The applicant must go through several steps to prove that the honoree was deeply connected to the community, is worthy of recognition, and is (mostly) free of controversy.
After winning support from their community boards, proposals for co-names — usually a large number of them — are lumped together and sent to the City Council in the form of an omnibus bill. (The most recent bill, passed in mid-February, contained 129 names). To become law, it needs the mayor’s signature or a two-thirds council vote if the mayor vetoes the bill.
Then the Department of Transportation takes over to actually create and post the new signs. According to its ceremonial street naming policy, the department will only create and publicly place one new sign, but residents can order additional signs as mementos.
Signs of Remembrance
Witherwax said that learning about street names is a way to “tug on the threads of history.”
In memorializing New Yorkers in this way, he said that qualifications need to be carefully considered: “I mean, who are these people? Are they important to the community as a whole, or are they just important to a few people who loved them and remembered them? There’s a lot of that kind of balancing that goes on.”
City Councilmember Charles Barron (D-Brooklyn) echoed the idea that street co-namings are serious decisions with long-term ramifications.
“The way that a person’s ideas and works live on is when their name still reverberates through the community though a street sign,” Barron said.
To Co-Name a Street, Follow This Map
- Make sure the honoree meets the most basic requirement: the person must be dead, according to City Council guidelines.
A community board may require a period of time to wait following the honoree’s passing, ranging from six months to three years. The website for Brooklyn’s CB5 said that it typically abides by their own six-month rule to avoid making these decisions “soon after an individual has passed away, when emotions are understandably intense.”
A more recently deceased honoree may be considered, especially if the death was tragic or noteworthy. For example, Witherwax and his board approved a co-naming for Kevin Alves, a 38-year-old husband and father shot and killed in Crown Heights last April.
Alves’ widow and children brought the request in September 2022 to the board covering the neighborhood where Alves had lived his entire life. Witherwax said the family’s request “brought forth emotion from the community,” and the board supported the co-naming. Soon, if the mayor signs the bill, the intersection of New York Avenue and Prospect Place will be named Kevin Alves Way.
- You must fill out an application detailing the person’s extraordinary contributions and connection to the neighborhood. The honoree must be significant to the community and not simply beloved by a few.
- You may be required to provide a letter of support from an elected official or neighborhood group vouching for the street in question.
- At some point in the process, you may be required to gather a petition with signatures of support from residents and businesses near the street in question. Some boards require a certain percentage of signatures to be from residents who live on the exact street.
The number of required signatures varies greatly: Manhattan CB12 requires 150 signatures, Brooklyn CB5 requires 100, Brooklyn CB6 requires 50, and Brooklyn CB8 requires “as many as possible,” according to the guidelines on their website.
- At least one board (Manhattan’s CB6) requires applicants to make a formal presentation to its Transportation Committee after winning initial approval.
- Boards may use their discretion to consider co-namings that don’t neatly fit the guidelines.
Bumps in the Road
Witherwax said he couldn’t think of any applications that his board rejected outright.
“Usually they don’t get turned down,” he explained. “What usually happens is, because we ask a lot of the applicant, they just don’t follow through.”
For example, he said, several residents have discussed honoring American composer Aaron Copland, who grew up in CB8, but no one has gotten around to it yet. Copland died in 1990.
Sometimes boards consider honorees with complicated legacies. Recent debate in the City Council over approval of “The Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad Way,” at the intersection of West 127th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard, brought forth strong feelings expressed by Council members and residents across the city.
Barron praised the Muhammad co-naming, calling him “the hope and lifeline of so many Black people.”
“There’s a lot of meaning in a name,” Barron said in a phone call with THE CITY, “and some of these names need to come down, like Washington, Jefferson, and Columbus.”
“Many streets are named after slaveholders in New York City,” Barron continued. “It’s just an incredible hypocrisy that [people who object] are fine with Thomas Jefferson but have problems with the honorable Elijah Muhammad.”
Any objections to Muhammad, said Barron, are about “verbiage and rhetoric,” which are minor “compared to murder and enslavement.”
But fellow Councilmember David Carr (R-Staten Island) was outspoken in opposition.
In the Feb. 16 hearing of the Committee on Parks and Recreation, Carr said, “[Muhammad] is an individual who again at the root of his organization had anti-Semitism and spoke about it throughout his life among many, many other controversial words and deeds, and, in my opinion, he is not worthy of having a street co-naming in the City of New York.”
With 129 street co-names included in the bill, however, Council members would have been forced to vote no to all if they objected to one. The bill passed 47-0.
From beginning to end, co-naming a street involves a lot of work but permanent payoff if you’re successful. Witherwax emphasized the need for all parties to be heard fairly, describing the guidelines as “protocol for proving that you the applicant did the outreach, you did the work, you talked to the people who live on this block and you got a ton of them to come out and say, ‘Yep, we’re okay with this.’”