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Street Talk

What’s In A Name? The Census Knows

By Mickey Howley

In this column last week population statistics from the United States Census Bureau were quoted.  As you might know, it is the bureau’s job to count the population in the United States every ten years, using changing population density and distribution to adjust seats in the US House of Representatives.  While that is a pretty serious task ensuring that your vote and representation counts roughly as much as any one else’s in other states, the Census Bureau also collects some fun facts along the way. One of my favorites is the listing of most popular street names.

The most popular street name in America is Second Street with 10,866 streets named such. You would think that First Street would be, well, first. But it is not, it is third. And Third Street is second. Fourth Street is fourth, but Fifth Street is sixth as Park Street divides them. Sixth Street is eighth and Seventh Street is tenth with Oak Street in between. Eight Street is fourteenth and Ninth Street is eighteenth. The forest of Pine, Maple, Cedar, and Elm Streets separate them from their more popular lower numbered street cousins.  Main Street is the seventh most popular street name in America with 7,283 streets being so named.

And while Americans, Australians, Canadians, Irish, New Zealanders, and Scots generally use the designation of “Main Street” to mean the main commercial street in a town, the English (and maybe the Welsh) call this street by another name.  “High Street” is the name for the main or central commercial street in most English towns.

A thousand years ago, well before English as we know it today came to be spoken, the term “high” evolved to mean something excellent or of better quality, such that the best and improved roads were called highways.  And when these roads entered a town, the term “High Street” was used to describe the road that featured the main retail areas in villages and towns.

Unlike the many Main Streets across the USA that have suffered with the arrival of strip malls and suburban shopping centers and big box stores, English High Streets have faired better as the English still shop their town and city centers. The High Street area of many British towns combines a concentrated network of shopping streets with a strong emphasis on pedestrian access.  

English towns have continued to support their own town centers as opposed to providing incentives to develop shopping centers on the outskirts of town. They have a longstanding government policy to put a high priority on “sociability” offered by traditional shopping. This on-going policy was recently justified this way:  “the demise of the small shop would mean that people will not just be disadvantaged in their role as consumers but also as members of communities – the erosion of small shops is viewed as the erosion of the ‘social glue’ that binds communities together, entrenching social exclusion in the UK.”

Maybe we can still learn a thing or two from the original speakers of our language.

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