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VOL. 43 | NO. 13 | Friday, March 29, 2019

Front’s an affront! Why city went to numbered streets

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Once upon a time, Nashville’s north-south street names evoked living and natural things: Famous people. Trees. Seasons. Burbling waters. Here’s how we went astray. And who’s to blame.

At the turn of the 20th century, things west of the Cumberland started with Front Street, called that “for no visible reason, since it fronts nothing,” according to an article by Morton B. Howell in a 1902 edition of the American Historical Magazine and Tennessee Historical Society Quarterly.

Adjacent and parallel to it ran Market Street, “though there was no market, or marketplace on it, and never has been,” Howell wrote.

Clearly Howell – a former Nashville mayor (1874-75) and a noted Mason, for what that’s worth – was a literalist on the street names issue. None of that artistic or poetic license bull for him.

Getting back to his account: College Street did have a college at its end, Davidson Academy, but “Cherry and Summer were mere fancies,” he said. High Street he accorded to its status of running over the top of Campbell’s Hill; neighboring Vine and Spruce he practically mocked.

“There may have been vines, but there was certainly not a spruce tree within very many miles of the town, and never has been.”

All in all, he suggested that, when it came to street names, Nashville was nothing more than a copycat: He suggested that the names were “adopted in imitation of the streets of Philadelphia.”

Fast-forward a couple of years from his article.

It is 1904, and a progressive bug has gotten into the bonnet of P.M. Estes, a member of the Chamber of Commerce. He wants to change the names of all the north-south streets. A committee that he led considered assigning letters of the alphabet, until someone figured out there were more streets than letters.

The resulting brainstorm: Numbers! They’re infinite!

As explained in an account in The Nashville American: “In all the large cities of the country, streets are numbered. Enumeration of streets facilitates ascertaining the relative positions of points in the city.”

(Parlor game: Try to find the phrase “facilitates ascertaining” in any written communication today.)

Estes and his Chamber cohort prevailed upon Councilman E.M. Wrenne to introduce such a measure to the Nashville City Council.

There it met opposition from Councilman Chris Power, my story’s would-be hero.

“Mr. Power attacked the bill as demoralizing and unnecessary,” The American states. “In 25 years, the people would be no more accustomed to the new numbers than they are now to the present names.”

Most streets had names commemorating historic incidents, places or prominent people, he argued, calling the renaming “foolishness as well as a desecration.”

Power is the would-be hero because he obviously lost, by a tally of 19-3. Thus, we are now blessed with avenues more than double the original 30.

Unfortunately.

To be fair, street names had become rather intricate. What became 10th Avenue, for instance, had in various places been known as Crooked, Maple North, Polk, Bellville, Walnut, Cowdey, Malvina, Fairmount, Harris, Dixon, Longview, Gardener, Currey and, for good measure, Jewett Avenue.

Some others also had multiple names.

It seems to me, though, that they could have settled on any one of the assorted options for any of the roadways as preferable to a soulless number.

A side note here: the good people of Edgefield, across the river, had come to the same numerical conclusion years earlier, in 1877.

“Whereas the citizens of the city of Edgefield, and strangers visiting the same, are greatly inconvenienced in finding any specified part of said city on account of the want of a systematic plan of naming and numbering the various streets of the city…”

Thus, Fillmore turned into First, Barrow into Second, Hickory into Third and so on.

My concern lies only on the west side of the river, however, where if the 1904 Council had left well enough alone, we might still have Kayne Avenue, instead of the bland 11th Avenue.

Kayne, by the way, was named in honor of a prolific builder in earlier Nashville, Alfred Kayne.

But my wife, Kayne, and I prefer to think of it as being named for her.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com.

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