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Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers.

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Monday, November 10, 2008

York Avenue and Sgt. Alvin York

Most New Yorkers probably haven’t given a second thought to York Avenue, the thoroughfare that runs from 59th Street to 91st Street just east of First Avenue. And if they have thought much about its name, they probably ascribed it to the Duke of York, for whom the city was named back in 1664.

However, York Avenue is actually a much more recent appellation: it was named in 1928 to honor Sergeant Alvin C. York, America’s most renowned World War I hero. And since Tuesday is Veteran’s Day—originally Armistice Day*, a World War I holiday—we thought we’d devote a couple of paragraphs to Sgt. York and his eponymous street.

Alvin York (1887-1964) was drafted in 1917. Though a conscientious objector (his application for CO status was denied), York became a hero during the Battle of the Argonne Forest. In an improbable feat of courage, York found himself in charge of his unit after many of his compatriots were killed and he managed to almost single-handedly kill over 20 Germans soldiers and capture 132 more. York was awarded the Medal of Honor and upon his return to the United States was feted in New York with a ticker tape parade. York regularly stayed in the news over the next decade, both for his efforts to help the rural poor of Tennessee (his home state) by building a school as well as for his aversion to accepting charity. When offered a free honeymoon, he turned it down stating it would just be a “vainglorious call of the world and the devil.”

In April 1928, York had the honor of having Avenue A from 59th Street northward named for him. The move was sponsored by the First Avenue Association in an effort to revive the fortunes of the east side, which was better known for its German enclave (later dubbed “Yorkville”) and Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert’s brewery. Back in 1807, when the city deployed surveyor John Randal, Jr., to map out the new Cartesian grid plan, he and his team chose to create twelve wide avenues that ran the length of the island from Houston Street north. However, this left the problem of the area of the Lower East Side and Upper East Side where there was enough room east of the grid plan for more streets. Randal solved this problem by naming these eastern avenues “A,” “B,” etc. and on the original 1811 map of Manhattan, there is both an Avenue A in today’s East Village and one on the Upper East Side. (East End Avenue was originally designated Avenue B.)

This idea of renaming a street after a war hero to bolster its real estate values was not new. Anthony and Orange streets—two of the worst streets leading into the old Five Points neighborhood—were renamed Worth and Baxter in the early 1850s after two of New York’s two great heroes from the Mexican-American War, General William Jenkins Worth (who we’ll revisit in a later blog posting) and Colonel Charles Baxter.

And perhaps the most remarkable change in an avenue’s real estate fortunes came when Fourth Avenue—aka “Death Avenue”—was renamed Park Avenue.

More about street names can be found, as always, in Inside the Apple, which is available for pre-order now.

* Armistice Day was created in 1919 to mark the signing of the armistice with the Germans on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. In 1954, the holiday was renamed Veterans Day to honor those who had served in all wars.


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