The Power of Names

This article was an assignment for my Words and Images course at the University of Baltimore. I had to write and design a feature article about a human-interest story in my community. I wrote about the unique street names in Columbia, Maryland. My professor noted it was “one of the best student papers I have read in awhile. Your use of detail and quotation is quite skilled.”

The Power of Names

Think of all the times you’ve given someone your address. Now imagine that as soon as you said your street name, whoever you were talking to immediately guessed the city you live in. You have probably had this experience if you live in Columbia, Maryland.

Columbia’s street names are so unusual that the phone operators at LL Bean who process catalog orders hear someone’s street address and immediately respond with, “Oh, you must live in Columbia!” This phrase was repeated so often that some of the Columbia Archives staff members wrote a book about Columbia’s odd street monikers using that very phrase as their title.

What kind of street names prompt such recognition? How about Opal Chain, Painted Cup or Folded Palm? I bet you won’t find too many Stag Horns or Carved Stones elsewhere. Or a neighborhood called “Hobbits Glen,” filled with roads like Rivendell Lane and Proud Foot Path from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

How Columbia, a planned community developed in the late 1960s by the Rouse Company, got its name isn’t a particularly interesting story. The town was built along the existing Columbia Turnpike and Rouse staff spent months of using “Columbia” as a temporary nickname while they tried to come up with something more exciting. When it came time for the press materials on their new town to go to print, founder James Rouse blessed the ‘placeholder’ name of Columbia.

Some neighborhood and road names either already existed or the Rouse staff selected them for their historical value. Others got their names from the local environment such as the Snowden Branch of the Patuxent River, which ran through the new town. But that left an overwhelming number of new courts and lanes to name.

As they focused on planning their new development, Rouse staff tried to put off the challenge of naming thousands of streets in dozens of neighborhoods. The names had to be distinctive, yet meet county and U.S. Postal regulations. As homes went up and streets were paved, that pressing task fell to Rouse’s director of marketing, Scott Ditch.

“We decided from the very beginning that names for things in Columbia should be different,” Ditch told the Baltimore Sun in 1968. “Not for the sake of being different, but because most places have such a bland, ho-hum system.”

So Ditch recommended street names taken from American literature. That task was soon given to Evelyn Menzies, a staff research assistant with no experience naming streets. Menzies’ only qualification was her enthusiasm for literature. So, armed with a monumental task and the luxury of “getting paid to read,” as she put it, Menzies poured through books by great American writers she found on the shelves of the Enoch Pratt Library near her home in Baltimore.

After fine-tuning this street-naming system in four of Columbia’s ten villages, Menzies left her job in 1969 and handed it over to Kay Sarfarty, another researcher whose only qualification was being avid reader. Twelve years later, Lesa Borg took over. At that point, she had to name only a few streets each year. In an interview in 1985, Borg accidently created a persistent rumor about how Columbia’s roads got their names

“Many people imagine me as some funny old lady, sitting in a rocking chair with her bottle of Jack Daniels, and just naming streets when she feels mellow enough,” Borg said.

In the 1990s, when River Hill became Columbia’s newest village in more than a decade, another Rouse Company staffer — Nancy Miller — became the latest “street name lady.”

“A glass of wine or two eased the creative process,” Miller joked with local reporters about naming streets, with a wink towards Borg’s little old lady myth.

In the end, most of Columbia’s streets had their names plucked from the prose of American writers. In a few exceptions, street names came from painters like Andrew Wyeth or British authors like Tolkien.

The street-naming system was wildly successful at giving Columbia an identity. One that some love and others have learned to live with.

“They were like magic spells, each one calibrated to call into being one particular stretch of blacktop, sidewalk, and lawn, and no other,” wrote celebrated novelist and Columbia native Michael Chabon in an Architectural Digest essay in 2001. “ It was a powerful demonstration to me of the incantatory power of names and naming.”

Not everyone is so enthusiastic. Like the man who told The Baltimore Sun how he vetoed buying a particular home because he could not stomach inviting his friends to his “man cave” on Wedding Ring Way.

Even the nationally syndicated cartoon Boondocks, created by Columbia native Aaron McGruder and based loosely on his hometown, poked fun at the unusual names in a series of comic strips in October 1999. “And those poor people on Rusting Leaf Drive, they must hate that place,” lamented a character named Riley.

Rustling Leaf Drive was lifted from the following verse in a poem by Vachel Lindsay titled Our Mother Pocahontas:

“Her step was like a rustling leaf; Her heart a nest, untouched of grief”

Odd, lovely, bizarre or just unusual, the names of Columbia’s streets give this suburban town a national identity. As Chabon wrote, “How fortunate I was to be handed, at such an early age, a map to steer by, however provisional, a map furthermore ornamented with a complex nomenclature of allusions drawn from the poems, novels and stories of mysterious men named Faulkner, Hemingway, Frost, Hawthorne, and Fitzgerald!”

A 2-page magazine spread design.