Names of New York written by Joshua Jelly-Shapiro

Published on December 13, 2021

Names of New York Book Cover

Reviewed by Marybeth Ginsberg

Names of New York written by Joshua Jelly-Shapiro (2021) is a fascinating nonfiction work that delves into the history of New York’s most iconic and familiar places. As a geographer and writer, Joshua Jelly-Shapiro views his interest in toponymy--the study of place-names--as important to the study of history and to the meaning people attach to places.  

Places that are familiar to us often have a long history. Jelly-Shapiro writes that Broadway was originally an Indian trail that had impressed the English because of its width. Now, Broadway can be used as a noun (e.g., a thoroughfare in New York), and an adjective (e.g., Broadway Best, Broadway Bagels, etc.). Broadway has also assumed a new meaning because of its association with musical theatre. Another example relates to the Island of Manhattan. According to a journal kept by one of Henry Hudson’s seamen, Mannhatta was possibly the first word shouted by a group of Indians as they pointed to Manhattan as Henry Hudson sailed up the river that would later be named for him.

New York has been shaped by its past and its present, and it will continue to be shaped by its future. Many of the New York’s place names reflect a history of cultural, economic racial and social disparity, and some will change to reflect current views. Yet, while the names of New York’s neighborhoods, streets, rivers, bridges, tunnels, and highways will remain, the meanings associated with them will continue to evolve to reflect the people that live and work in New York.

This is a very interesting book that goes beyond trivia to trace the history, the lore, and the present-day implications that are associated with the familiar names of New York. As history unfolds through Jelly-Shapiro’s deconstruction of place names, the impact of colonization and settlement provides insight into the connotations associated with the places we know. If you enjoy history, Jelly-Shapiro’s tour of New York through his exploration of place names is a great choice.  

Favorite Quote: “Names are shorthand, they’re synecdoche. They are acknowledgments or shapers of history, containers for memory or for hope. And if names matter so much when attached to people, they matter even more when attached to places, as labels that last longer, in our minds and on our maps, than any single human life.” 


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