In the end, all the growing pains of Northern California and Nevada come to
rest on Charles Kurnow's drafting table.
In cramped quarters on the second floor of the California State
Automobile Association's headquarters in San Francisco, Kurnow and his
staff of 10 cartographers have the unenviable task of continually revising
nearly 100 road maps. Each year, 6 million copies of their work end up in
glove compartments and between seat cushions.
Kurnow drags his finger in a southerly route along a proof of a Las
Vegas street map until it comes to rest on a new subdivision precisely
outlined in red pen. ''See that? That's the kind of trouble we're seeing
all the time.
''What we're finding is there are so many streets that almost every one
now consists of two words -- or even three. Moon Flower Arbor -- which is
actually Moon Flower Arbor Place. Hard to squeeze it on the map. There
seems to be an unwritten rule that the shorter the street, the longer the
name. And that's a headache for us.''
There was a time when street names mirrored human experience, be it a
military victory or a settler's run-in with a skunk. Now they come from
housing developers who see them as a branding opportunity. History has
given way to prefabricated fables told by marketing departments.
Virtually every sheet on Kurnow's table is peppered with examples of the
pretentious and overdone -- faux British street names from the Central
Valley, faux French from Las Vegas, faux Italian from seemingly everywhere.
There are streets of questionable taste. My Way. Easy Street. Nature's Way,
Never Never Lane. Xanadu Drive. An entire tract named for basketball
players. Kurnow recites the shameful litany with a tired smile. ''We're
charged with representing what's there. We take it at face value.''
When it comes to naming subdivision streets, there are no taste
tribunals or standards committees. ''No, it's usually some little minion
like me in the background doing it,'' said Bonnie Sharkey, vice president
of sales and marketing in the South Bay division of Standard Pacific Homes,
one of the largest residential developers in the West. Her street-naming
process is more prosaic than poetic.
''You get out a Thomas Brothers map and start looking at what street
names are already in use,'' she said. Her creative muse often is found in a
dictionary or online. ''Sometimes I use paint swatches. They have beautiful
Then there's the theory that builders name streets or entire
subdivisions after the little furry critters that their bulldozer just
displaced. ''It's probably true,'' Sharkey said. ''I remember naming a
project in Galt, 'Quail Hollow,' because when I walked the bare site there
was a quail with her three little babies.'' Does the quail still live
there? ''Well, it was there for a while.''
Few, simple rules
The ground rules of the name game are deceptively simple: The home-buyer
must be able to spell and pronounce the name. (Which explains why one sees
so few streets named after Quetzalcoatl and other Aztec gods.) The Postal
Service and public safety officials must deem the name sufficiently
distinct to not be confused with others in the area. Other than that,
anything goes -- almost. It's best to steer clear of names that, as one
consultant put it ''might produce a violent reaction in the buyer.'' While
Bloody Creek Court and Dead Indian Road may have history on their side,
they're non-starters. You can't go wrong with animals, another consultant
said, ''as long as it's not something that will eat your pet.''
Kurnow claims professional neutrality on matters of taste, as long as
they keep it short. ''If we had any input into the process, we'd probably
tell them, 'Look, at this scale your street is two millimeters long,
therefore you may not have a name longer than Oak.' That would be our only
wish, instead of Burning Man Gulch Drive.''
And so the public is left to shake its collective head at the
obsessive-compulsive tendencies of some builders. In the hills of far
southeastern San Jose, there are 16 tiny one-block streets or courts named
Cribari Knolls, Cribari Crest, Cribari Bluffs, ad nauseam. Across town,
abutting Highway 85, is a maze of 27 tiny cul-de-sacs named Don (Something)
Way or Don (Something) Court. Kurnow's mapmakers have been forced to make
room for a dedicated mini-index of the Dons on their San Jose map.
It's increasingly common to see street names defying not only
convention, but logic as well. San Jose's Lakeside Drive and Harbor View
Avenue are a long way down Implausible Parkway from any body of water. Of
course, builders will routinely fabricate a lake where none existed before.
When it comes to fabricating a name out of nothing, they turn to someone
like Claudia Roxburgh. As president of the Roxburgh Agency, a Costa Mesa
advertising and public-relations firm, she's named thousands of streets
over the past 20 years.
''On one development down here, the builder did a man-made lake and they
wanted it to feel as if it were a Midwestern lake,'' she said. ''We wanted
a fresh look at Americana, but at the same time to be very approachable and
friendly. We came up with 'Harveston.' And for the streets, what we did was
extremely logical: We named every street after a small town in the United
States -- Wellesley, Sherbourn -- genuine places that had little
Grant Smith, a professor of English at Eastern Washington University, is
one of the nation's foremost experts on place names. Smith says the
engineered non-reality of today's street names reflects the fundamentally
artificial nature of the naming process. Space themes -- Moonstar Court,
Moongate Place -- seem to be particularly popular in Silicon Valley, given
the region's ties to the nation's space program. (San Jose's Venus Court
and Mars Court are fine, but you can bet Uranus Court won't be crossing
Kurnow's desk anytime soon.)
Linguists who specialize in onomastics -- the study of names -- say it's
a near-certainty that we'll eventually see names from mythical space as
well. In a subdivision not far, far away there will come a Darth Vader
Drive and a Wookiee Way. (San Jose's Skywalker Drive is just the tip of the
linguistic light saber.)
''When you're mapping out streets, you're making something that's not
natural,'' Smith said. ''We create our own myths, we create our own
meaning, which has nothing to do with reality.'' And just what is the
meaning of the craze for faux Italian names, the wholesale Tuscanization of
the far 'burbs? Smith says fascination with all things European is nothing
new. ''I think it's a basic pattern -- an appeal to an elite status. . . .
People want to live in their ideals.''
'We beat it to death'
In San Jose's Silver Creek area, where pink and pale-yellow
mini-mansions sprout from the hillsides like so many porcini funghi after a
warm rain, the marketing folks have outdone themselves with street names al
dente: Lucca Place, Pisa Court, Foligno Way. ''I think maybe we have done the
Tuscany thing a lot,'' Claudia Roxburgh said. It is, she says, in keeping
with the usual industry practice -- finding a serviceable theme and
spamming it across the landscape.
''A perfect example of the same thing was Southern California in the
'80s when it was pink Mediterranean everything . . . stucco, stucco, stucco
and tile roofs,'' she said. ''Avenida de la Blah Blah Blah. We beat it to
death.'' Perhaps 100 years from now, anthropologists will study the streets
on the edge of the southern Nevada desert that are named for Venetian
canals. They may conclude that the bourgeoisie of this age had a highly
developed sense of irony.
JOSE'S DRIVES OF DUBIOUS DISTINCTION
You live where?
Pipe Dream Court
East Coast comes west:
and 26 other Cape drives, places or courts
A Round Table in every home:
Sweet places to live:
Peanut Brittle Drive
Indulging a fantasy:
Cotton Tail Avenue
Peter Pan Avenue