There are few things I take pride in more than knowing my way around Manhattan. I relish in knowing those little tips and tricks that lessen my reliance on Google Maps. But recently, I moved to Inwood, where everything I know about navigating Manhattan means squat. Not only do the streets in Inwood only follow Manhattan’s grid whenever they feel like it (someone please tell me why there are no streets between West 204th and West 207th???), but to make it even more disorienting, the streets have proper names. Now, I can take an educated guess as to why Inwood’s street names are so different from the rest of Manhattan and I can tell you the street names’ origin stories, but if you’re here for tips on how to navigate Inwood… sorry, I’m still trying to figure it out. But in the meantime, here are the stories behind the unusual street names of Inwood.
Before we go into specific street names, it’s essential to think about why Inwood got to rebel from most of Manhattan and have proper street names instead of numbers. This is my speculation, as I haven’t found a source that gives the answer outright, but I think this has a lot to do with Inwood being one of the last developed areas on Manhattan Island. Until the subway completely made its way into the northern reaches of Manhattan in the 1930s, Inwood was a tranquil rural town with acres of farmland and country estates. Not only would it be pretty late in the game to have the area conform to the rest of the island’s grid, it wouldn’t make much sense, as the top tip of Manhattan is significantly narrower than the chunkier southern portion. It would be easier to let Inwood do it’s own thing and have street names that mean something to the area. Now let’s learn the significance behind some of these Inwood street names.
Considered the border between Inwood and Washington Heights, this lively commercial street is named after a family who influenced life in the area for more than two centuries—the Dyckmans. The patriarch, Jan Dyckman, arrived in Upper Manhattan in the 1670s and set his descendents up to become prosperous in agriculture until they left Inwood in 1868. According to the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum, by the 1860s the family held 340 acres of land in Inwood and other parts of Manhattan and the Bronx.
This matter-of-fact street name is in reference to the location of Inwood’s first school, Ward School 52, which was built in 1858 on land donated by Isaac Dyckman of the aforementioned Dyckman family. An Inwood history expert told me that in gratitude for his gift of land, the local school children would bow to Isaac Dyckman whenever he passed them by.
Isham Street takes its name from Willam Isham, a leather merchant turned banker, who used some of his wealth to create a summer estate in Inwood. After his death in 1911, his daughter Julia and other relatives began donating parts of the estate to the city so it could serve as a park. Today’s Isham Park more or less has the same boundaries of the former Isham estate.
Seaman Avenue is named after the Seaman family, who owned a country estate in Inwood during the latter half of the 1800s. (Fun fact: the two Seaman brothers who bought the 25 acres of land between what is now West 214th and West 218th Streets were the sons of Dr. Valentine Seaman, the man credited for not only introducing the lifesaving smallpox vaccine to the United States, but also founding the nation’s first nursing school.) Besides having their name on a roadway that runs most of the length of the neighborhood, the Seamans (or Seamen?) can also take credit for the 35-foot marble arch on West 216 Street and Broadway… although, I doubt they would be pleased with the current state it is in.
A reference to another nineteenth century local family, Sherman Avenue is named for the Shermans who lived in a fisherman’s shack by the small inlet of water near 10th Avenue also called Sherman Creek.
This unusual street name comes from a usual source: it was named after a local landowner—in this case, Isaac Vermilyea—who acquired land in Inwood during the early 1700s.
In an unexpected twist, this street doesn’t seem to be named after any local Coopers. Instead, James Fenimore Cooper, the author of “The Last of the Mohicans,” was the Cooper they had in mind when they named this three-block-long street. According to this 1977 New York Times article, Cooper wrote about a local inn in his book “Satanstoe”. Perhaps the naming of Cooper Street is Inwood’s way of thanking the literary legend for the shoutout.
Payson Avenue is a tribute to Reverend George Shipman Payson, who is described by a local website as the “sixth and most illustrious minister” of Inwood’s Mount Washington Presbyterian Church. During his long tenure as the church’s minister, from 1874 – 1920, Rev. Payson was noted for not only being devoted to the community, but also for being an advocate for the care of retired ministers, their widows, and orphans. I guess the community saw him as a living legend, because in 1921, two years before his death, the street he lived on was renamed from Prescott Avenue to Payson Avenue.
It’s probably not the most politically correct street name, but this two-block-long road along the northern border of Inwood Hill Park is a small acknowledgement of the area’s Native American origins. Go further into Inwood Hill Park and you’ll find centuries-old caves the Lenape used to use for shelter.
Juan Rodriguez Way (Broadway)
Broadway, of course, isn’t a street name unique to this area, but its co-name, “Juan Rodriguez” is. In October 2012, in an effort to connect the past and the present, the city bestowed this co-name on the stretch of Broadway that runs from West 159th Street in Washington Heights to West 218th Street in Inwood. Why did the city think Juan Rodriegez would resonate with the predominately Dominican neighborhoods of Inwood and Washington Heights? You see, Juan Rodrieguez, an early-17th century merchant who hailed from Santo Domingo, was the first non-indigienous American to make his home in Manhattan.
Knowing the stories behind these Inwood street names probably won’t help you when you inevitably get lost here, but maybe you’ll find comfort in at least having familiarity with the stories behind these nonconformist streets of Upper Manhattan.
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