The Night Anglophilia Died in Brooklyn


On February 15, 1910, Walter Barrett Brown stood to speak to a hundred home-owners in Manhattan Terrace, a quickly developing area north of Kings Highway, extending to what was then commonly known as Hiawatha Road. Today we call this area Midwood. Except for Hiawatha Road, which we now call Avenue H. 

Therein lies a tale. 

On this winter's night long ago, Brown was the community association's transportation guru and would later become President of the Flatbush Board of Trade. But tonight he addressed the group, gathered in their clubhouse erected in an open field along Ocean Avenue at Avenue L, on another matter: The renaming of the boring alphabetical avenues from H through Z that ran east-to-west through their area. Brown proposed that the humdrum names be replaced as follows: Ave H to Hiawatha Rd; Ave I to Ivanhoe Rd; Ave J to Jarvis Rd; Ave K to Kenwood Rd; Ave L to Lancaster Rd; Ave M to McKinley Rd; Ave N to Nottingham Rd; Ave O to Oglethorpe Rd; Ave P to Peary Rd; Ave Q to Quentin Rd; Ave R to Roosevelt Rd; Ave S to Stanwood Rd; Ave T to Tippecanoe Rd; Ave U to Underwood Rd; Ave V to Victoria Rd; Ave W to Wilhelmina Rd; Ave X to Xerxes Rd; Ave Y to Yarmouth Rd; and Ave Z to Zundel Rd.

Many in attendance agreed. Then Dr. Frederick M. Higgins rose to vigorously oppose renaming Avenues H through Z. Higgins owned a house on Avenue J. Perhaps he favored the status quo because he had just ordered expensive stationery with his pre-printed address? Or perhaps he was just a pompous ass? History is full of such interesting unanswered questions. Anyway, he urged the assembled multitude of Midwood homeowners to resist such a monstrous idea, exclaiming that “This is America and I'm sure we have enough American patriots and eminent citizens” to memorialize. 

Alas, there are none so blind as those who will not see because among the “American patriots” in the proposed names were President Roosevelt, his son, Quentin, and Presidents McKinley and Harrison (actually his nickname, per “Tippecanoe Road”). Higgins also insisted Dutch names would be more proper given the history of Brooklyn, overlooking that Wilhelmina Road would be named after the reigning Queen of the Netherlands. No, many in attendance were not swayed by Higgins’ ignorant appeal, although it appears there was some resistance to the whacky “Zundel Road” (for a little-known deceased organist at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights).

Well. The Association’s President, Herbert G. Andrews, must have surmised this would surely end in chaos, with new names being bandied about and debated for weeks. To shut it all down he called upon...The Law! Andrews said he was sick and tired of the lawless neighboring renegades who had taken it upon themselves to change perfectly usable numbers and letters! He declared that many had been changed without the proper authority and that it was a (GASP!) misdemeanor to place the wrong name on a street sign! 

The progressives thus cowed, a vote was taken, and the proposal lost. A motion was then made to ban the prevalent use of Hiawatha Road for Avenue H and to get rid of all the other high-falutin’ Flatbush names because they were illegal too BY GAWD!  

1911: Brooklyn Daily Eagle 

1907: One of many references to Hiawatha Road that year

1907 Directory References Hiawatha Road as aka for Avenue H

Soon after the 1898 consolidation of the City of Brooklyn with the other four boroughs to form New York City, the names in Flatbush had begun to change. Why? Well, you couldn't have two Avenue A’s and B’s and C’s and D’s in the same city, could you? So argued Dean Alvord, the developer of Prospect Park South. And the same went for East 11th through East 16th Streets because Manhattan had already taken those names. Alvord had shrewdly invented a justification at a time when all was in flux as the Deep City emerged. To change Avenue A to Albemarle Road, B to Beverly, East 12th to Westminster, East 13th to Argyle, East 14th to Rugby, East 15th to Marlborough, etc., seemed like a perfectly reasonable course of action that the Aldermen could quickly approve without objection, so they did. 

1914 Homeowner on Avenue H still calls it Hiawatha Road

As the wood frame houses marched south to Beverly Square, Ditmas Park, and the huge South Midwood development, it was only natural to extend the same names Alvord had invented, else confusion would reign. After all, these roads were all in perfectly straight lines. So argued the developers who recognized Dorchester would sell better than Avenue D and Stratford would sell better than East 11th, etc.

Bah, humbug, opined Herbert Andrews, President of the Manhattan Terrace gathering who wanted uniformly humdrum names. But Andrews was being mentored by Dean Alvord on how to form a neighborhood association. So he exempted Prospect Park South from his scornful motion that urged all of Flatbush be restored to the original BOR-ING street grid names superimposed on the map of Kings County south of Prospect Park in 1870. The grid was the work of James Stranahan, the “father of Prospect Park,” which had just then been completed. He knew the Park would lead to development of the woods and farms of southern Brooklyn and wanted geographic order to reign. 

The NYC Board of Aldermen (Ruth Pratt, the daughter-in-law of the founder of Pratt Institute, would become the first female in 1925) never took up this nutty proposal to banish all the names that have become so evocative of Victorian Flatbush through the decades. But in April 1910 with the tide of progress forestalled by luddites (and those with too much pre-printed stationery), the Aldermen voted down a request to officially change Avenue H to the name that had become commonly used by citizens and reporters alike: Hiawatha Road. No reason was recorded for the rejection, but it could have been as simple as “Hiawatha” was just too darn difficult to spell. That’s just a guess.