Friday, April 27, 2018


Personally, I always thought “Yawkey Way” was unintentionally appropriate, referring to the way of Tom Yawkey failed to lead the Red Sox to a championship in his 44 seasons as owner. That way remained in place for more than two championship-barren decades even after his death and “Yawkey Way” was always a kind of grim reminder of that.

But that’s over now, so I’m fine with Jersey Street. The most discussed address in recent memory pre-dates Fenway Park by some 25 years, to 1887, when the name was first proposed to the Laying Out Department of the City of Boston. At the time, the Fenway neighborhood was little more than mud and a few lines scratched out on paper by renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead. 

All this got me thinking.  Why “Jersey Street” anyway?  Or for that matter, why Lansdowne or Van Ness or Ipswich (which was what that stretch of road that is now Van Ness was once called)? Although I’ve been going to Fenway Park for almost forty years, I knew almost nothing about how the surrounding streets got their names… or even much about how the decision came about to rename a portion of Jersey Street after Yawkey.

Brookline Avenue is a gimme, as that was simply the name of the road that connected Boston to Brookline. The rest is more complicated.

The filling of the Fenway, which was completed by about 1900, was an extension of the earlier filling of the Back Bay, which turned tidal mud flats into developable land. The architect behind the Back Bay, Arthur Gilman, was eager to give the former swamp an aura of class, so he named each cross street after an English Lord. This explains the alphabetic pattern which begins with Arlington and ends with Hereford. 

Olmstead, the Fenway architect, took his cue from Gilman and decided to continue the alphabetic pattern of the Back Bay cross streets honoring English lords. Hence the naming of Ipswich, Jersey, Kilmarnock (originally Kenyon) and Lansdowne Streets. 

Specifically, Lansdowne was named after the Marquis of Lansdowne, a peerage held by the held by the head of the Petty-FitzMaurice family. Jersey Street memorialized the Earl of Jersey, a title held by the Child-Villiers family.  

Yet another powerful family, the Boston Globe Taylors, owners of the Red Sox, bought the land for Fenway Park in 1911, and the parcel was originally bounded by Brookline Ave., Lansdowne, Jersey and Ipswich Streets. Ballpark construction necessitated an extension of Ipswich Street to border the park to the south, but club president John I. Taylor balked at naming the extension Ipswich Street.  In 1906, during a trip to Europe, he had met and later married Cornelia Van Ness of San Francisco, a high society girl whose family had roots in Vermont. Ever the romantic, John I. named the extension Van Ness Street after his bride, thus breaking the stranglehold of British Lords. A year later, when Fenway Park opened in 1912, the official address of the new ball club became 24 Jersey Street.

And so it stayed until Tom Yawkey, who bought the team in 1933, died on July 9, 1976. A short time later a Boston City Councilman, variously reported as either Christopher Ianella or Fred Langone, proposed the name change.  It was passed by the nine-member council unanimously and was in effect by the time the Red Sox opened the 1977 season. The clubs official address became 4 Yawkey Way, the #4 numeral likely a subtle homage to Joe Cronin, a Yawkey favorite.

It was not controversial at the time, but it’s also important to note that despite the fact that Boston was 25% black and Hispanic in 1976/77, the city council was all-white.  Louise Day Hicks, the Southie attorney known for her staunch opposition to desegregation, served as council president in 1976 and remained on the council in 1977. In fact, she was at her political peak, having recently founded an organization known as ROAR (Restore Our Alienated Rights), which advocated organized resistance to busing. They not only held mass marches, but pelted school buses from black neighborhoods arriving in white neighborhoods and burned a wooden school bus in effigy.

Pretty subtle, huh?

This is not to suggest that Tom Yawkey was in any way responsible for that, but it does indicate that the initial name change took place with no input or consideration whatsoever from Boston’s minority communities. 

And isn’t that the lasting lesson of all this? Only the rich and powerful, like John I. Taylor and Frederick Law Olmstead, the City Council or John Henry get to name the streets. And only the rich and powerful, like the Earl of Jersey, the Marquis of Lansdowne, Cornelia Van Ness or Tom Yawkey, get to have streets named after them.

That’s the way of this world.

Glenn Stout’s next book, with Richard Johnson, will appear in November. The Pats: An Illustrated History of the Patriots will be the first complete narrative history of the team. For more see

1 comment:

  1. Interesting article. I live in Racine Wisconsin so of course don't know anything about the naming of streets in Boston. How ever I did start thinking about the naming of streets here after reading a facebook post in the Racine group I am in. A clothing store owner who also became involved in real estate named some streets after family members in a new development in the early days of the 20th century. I assume in most cases street names are just plucked out of thin air. I lived on Steeplechase Dr when we moved to a new development. Some streets here are named after presidents and states. I am sure that happens in a lot of places.