We have maps in our minds. Atlases memorized, compounded over the years of our lives. Since we were children, we drew maps, read maps, committed directions to memory. Roads aren’t merely routes we travel from point A to point B, but are fixtures in our imaginations. Each street is named, and many of them are famous, their mention evoking a specific set of imagery: Wall Street, Park Avenue, Champs Elysees, Via Appia. The naming of a thing grants it identity, and, in a sense, life. A spirit is called up by the mention of its name.
Some roads we know intimately, having driven, biked or walked them innumerable times. They may seem rather mundane, a part of the local terrain, no more marvelous than any other part of our daily lives. As such, people rarely stop to consider just why the street bears the name it holds. But each name holds a story to it, names are given with intentions. And all stories are interesting, no matter how small or local they are. Any real writer will tell you the story is in the telling.
I grew up in Athens, Georgia. Like many cities, there are some rather old streets (by American standards, anyway)-old enough that no one remembers why they bear their names. I’ve done some historical research for a novel and discovered new maps that showed the me the old city for the first time. I was amazed to find that Spring Street-located downtown-bore its name because they old Village Spring was underneath it. The spring came from out of a high granite rock and was an important source of water to the old community. I couldn’t believe it was paved over-and for years, dreamed of seeing the spring. Today you can, some of the asphalt has been peeled away, and the spring is apparent-and yes, it is small, but no less miraculous.
There is a Park Avenue in Athens, a short road that joins Prince Avenue and Boulevard. I always assumed that the road was named after the more famous New York address-but when I looked at the maps, I discovered that a park had indeed been on the avenue. There was once a small lake, trees. Today, it is a kudzu choked gulch lined with dilapidated concrete buildings.
There is a secret topography, forgotten once it’s not relevant anymore. The original court-house, jail and police station were all on Hill Street. This was because, before such things had been built, legal proceedings took place in the house of a man named Hill. None of these are present any longer-the courthouse was torn down, the police station relocated. I, in fact, saw the old jail burn. All that remains is street itself and so the reason for its name passes into distant, obscure memory.
Sometimes, the names are sentimental. Prince Avenue, once an exlcusive address, a road that still bears Neo-Classical estate homes (now, for the most part, long converted to commercial use), was named for Oliver Prince, a young man lost at sea with his wife. Other names were more practical: Market Street (re-named Washington), which led to the city meat market. Many streets bear the names of those the citizens deemed noteworthy-men who today are rather questionable in character, being slave-owners-men who built their wealth on the backs of the exploited.
Discovering these old streets, sometimes with different names, always with a story behind them, brought out the life of the city and a life out of myself. We often see ourselves reflected in the world about us. Perhaps as we tour the boulevards and avenues of our lives, we also transit stations within ourselves. When we visit places in the outer world, we also voyage to a corresponding point within us.
There was one street I couldn’t find on any map-at first. I only knew about it from having read the writings of Dean Tate. Magazine Street-ostensibly named for the sale of gunpowder. I studied map after map-looking for the street that had so obviously been re-named. Why was its name changed? Perhaps the name’s connection with violence made it odious, perhaps it was on good real estate-and the name of a famous Athenian was now there, perhaps another name better suited to school or industry. But it was none of these things.
There was once a tradition of burying the dead on College Hill. Jackson Graveyard, the small remnants of a much bigger cemetery, resides next to the Fine Arts building. A century ago, the plots of land occupied by the dead took up much more space. The University grew, and encroached upon these grounds. Another graveyard, Oconee Hill, was opened to accommodate the needs of the school and the town. Before this happened, there was a street that ran parallel to the Jackson Graveyard. It was Magazine Street. They sold gunpowder next to where they buried the dead. Sometimes I grin at this grim and ironic placement-other times, I wonder if the name was meant purely as a joke. Either way, there is some story there, a tale that could be told by the men who paved the road and put its name on signs and maps. The street no longer exists. The University annexed the land long ago.Read More