Published: Feb. 16, 2004

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.

Shameful litany

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 names.''

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 downtowns.''

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.


You live where?
Pipe Dream Court
Loo Lane
Ezie Street
Lazy Lane
Coy Drive
Dogaway Drive
East Coast comes west:
Cape Anita
Cape Ann
Cape Aston
and 26 other Cape drives, places or courts
A Round Table in every home:
Lancelot Lane
Galahad Avenue
Camelot Drive
Sweet places to live:
Gumdrop Drive
Bonbon Drive
Peanut Brittle Drive
Indulging a fantasy:
Bambi Lane
Cotton Tail Avenue
Peter Pan Avenue
Lilliput Lane

Previous article
Next article
Main index