Thursday, March 15, 2012


What’s the most common odonym in the United States?  Second Street.

What’s the ninth most common odonym in the United States?  Oak.

What’s an odonym?  Look it up.

Like most crowded, noisy cities, Philadelphia has a street named after the Quercus.  Philadelphia's Oak Lane is located along the northwest border of the city, and there are two neighborhoods named after the road itself: East Oak Lane and West Oak Lane.  East Oak Lane has the notable distinction of being one of Friend William Penn’s first neighborhoods, one of the many arboreous sanctums that he mapped out to surround his “green countrie towne” of Philadelphia.

East Oak Lane?  West Oak Lane?  I’ve been to these neighborhoods but I don’t know them very well.  I hope to get out there more. I can see lots of good tree-hunting grounds in these neighborhoods. 

There’s Awbury Arboretum, fifty-five acres of historic grounds right in the middle of its sprawl, and there are two great cemeteries: Northwood and Chelten Hills.  Like most tree-hunters, I am drawn to cemeteries and graveyards.  Plus, being so close to the northwest border of Philadelphia, these neighborhoods are a suburban abut to the great Catfish-Creek Woods of the Lenape Indians, commonly known as the Wissahickon. 

I’ll get to these places.  I just have to remember to bring a good map.  Like most citybillies, I have an uncanny sense of direction but there’s something about the East Oak Lane and West Oak Lane neighborhoods that really sets me adrift.  It usually happens in some weird place where 7th Street meets 66th Avenue.  What’s going on over there when it comes to street names?  Philadelphia is famous for its easy navigation when it comes to street names and numbered avenues.  But out there in the Oak Lane neighborhoods?  The benevolent grid seems to fold and bend and eat itself like a hungry oroboros. 

What’s an oroboros?  Look it up.


Your best navigational tool for Center City is your knowledge of tree names.

Here’s the common mnemonic sentence used to remember the Center City streets that run north to south:

My Cat Wears Lucky Snow Pants Low Slung

Market, Chestnut, Walnut, Locust, Spruce, Pine, Lombard, South.

Real cute, but I got two big problems with it.  It ignores some major streets and it ignores history.

Starting north and heading south through Center City, the streets line up this way:
John F Kennedy Boulevard

Out of fourteen major street names, it seems eight of them are named after plants.  That’s 57% botanical.  Lombard Street might be named after the Lombardy Section of London but, for the purposes of this blog, I think it’s named after the Lombardy Poplar, Populus nigra cv. ‘Italica.’

It's an impressive amount of Plantae odonyms, especially for the sixth largest asphalt jungle in the entire United States but, with a little bit of research, it does get even better.  After a small dig into the Philadelphia odonym archives, the number of street plant names actually increases.

Outside the Ritz East
Look it up:

Race Street’s original name was Sassafras Street.

Arch Street’s original name was Mulberry Street.

South Street’s original name was Cedar Street.

Don’t believe me?  The next time you catch a movie at the Ritz East, take a gander at the Olde City Map laid out in the plaza in front of the theater.  The original names are etched into stone.

There’s more too.

In between Cherry and Arch, there’s Appletree Street.  In between Spruce and Pine?  Cypress Street. 

And starting from west going east, you’ll find Juniper Street, Quince Street, Alder Street and the big one…John F. Kennedy Boulevard becomes Filbert Street east of City Hall.


With all this mind, Philly Trees makes the following noteworthy, official declarations.

1. All street names will refer to the Olde Tree Grid as originally planned by Friend William Penn.  So, hereby, Race Street will be called "Old Sassafras Street," Arch Street will be called “Old Mulberry Street,” South Street will be called “Old Cedar Street,” and John F. Kennedy Boulevard will be referred to as “West Filbert Street.”

2. We need a new mnemonic device to remember all the street plant names, from Vine Street to Old Cedar Street.  Counting some of the small alleyways named after trees, here are the streets that we need to include:

Vine, Sassafrass, Cherry, Appletree, Mulberry, Filbert, Chesnut, Walnut,
Locust, Spruce, Pine, Lombard, Cedar.

Philadelphians and tourists, here is your new mnemonic device:

Very sad. Can a man find cool woman? Lonely singles, please let’s chat.

So let it be written.  So let it be done.


  1. My mother had a mnemonic that worked well for most streets going south: I went to Market to get some Chestnuts, changed my mind and got some Walnuts, chased by a Locust, I ran from Spruce to Pine into a Lumber (Lombard) yard. South of it I saw a girl name Catherine; She was a Christian and her father was a Carpenter in the Washington and Federal army.

    This helped me a lot when I went into the city from Delaware County.

    1. Jim, my mom (your Aunt Rita) told us that one too. But I remember it had a line about crossing the Bainbridge.

    2. Jim, my mom (your Aunt Rita) told us that one too. But I remember it had a line about crossing the Bainbridge.

  2. Does anyone know the mnemonic for the northern streets of Philadelphia? My 95-year-old uncle learned it when he was young. He has forgotten some of it and would like to see the whole thing. It started "I went to the Market through the Arch." It ended with Allegheny Street.

  3. I looked it up ;)
    odonym (plural odonyms)
    - An identifying name given to a street

  4. Also, Buttonwood, Poplar and Almond...

  5. Unconfirmed (I was actulay trying to find info on this today), but all the streets had tree names for a good reason. They were the breed of trees that were planted along each street. The reason being, most people were illiterate when the city was founded. Most of the immigrants coming over as well. Most people were aware of what kind of trees were, and it was easy to find your way with that knowledge, even if you couldn't read a sign.

    Like I said, nothing verifiable, but was told to me by a lifelong resident of Philly.