A tourist today asked me how to get to the corner of “Avenue of the Americas and Houston (pronounced like the city in Texas) Street”. This would cause many a New Yorker to roll their eyes and quickly point them in the right direction. But after this New Yorker sent them on their way, it got me to thinking about the sad fate of one of New York’s grandest sounding thoroughfares.
Avenue of the Americas runs through the heart of Manhattan, and is home to some of the cultural gems that makes New York such a unique place. Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall, Bryant Park, Herald Square, Macy’s and Ladies’ Mile counted among the treasures up and down the Avenue.
But nobody actually calls it Avenue of the Americas, and when you hear the name it sounds either uninformed or uppity. Why, then, is one of New York’s main drags named after the Americas? And who actually uses the name through to today?
I came across this excellent piece on a New York walking blog, giving a nice set of photos and explanations of how and why 6th Avenue became what it is today.
Instead of recreating, I’ll summarize. Legendary Mayor Fiorello La Guardia worked with city council to rename the avenue right after the end of the Second World War to emphasize New York’s ties to the hemisphere, promote trade in the Americas, and reinforce former President Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy.
In the following decades, signage, statuary and parks were erected all along the avenue from Central Park to TriBeCa to commemorate its links to the two continents. These include statues of General San Martin donated by the City of Buenos Aires and Simon Bolivar donated by the Venezuelan government, roundels in the streetlights with the crests of each North and South American country, and grandiosely-named swingsets called “Playground of the Americas“.
I dug a bit further, and found a New York Times piece covering the opening ceremony, led by Mayor La Guardia and Chilean President Juan Antonio Rios. They wrote:
Sixth Avenue now figuratively stretches the length of the Western Hemisphere. The old street which proudly bore its simple numeral for 134 years has officially become the Avenue of the Americas. The head of a friendly state, President Rios of Chile, made the change when he fixed the new sign into position. It was a gesture which should help solidify good relations between all the republics, great and small, of two continents.
It was not inappropriate that the United States Navy should more or less engulf the ceremonies. Every American nation could suitably join in our welcome to the parading soldiers. It is our Navy, home from victory, which in peace will be the first to spread the doctrine of the good neighbor policy. It was the broad shield of our Navy, too, which kept the ravages of war from the twenty-two sister republics and protected the perpetuation of those free institutions which all profess.
The Avenue of the Americas had already become a very different street from what it was when the old Sixth Avenue El rumbled overhead. Under its present name it will probably see many more changes for the better as various Latin-American nations select show windows in their own buildings there. The new name, still a little awkward on the lips of old residents, will be a welcome one to the many Pan-American visitors who now flock to New York. The Avenue of the Americas symbolizes a bond of social union which should long outlast such strains as those imposed by current upheavals in Argentina and Venezuela.
Irony aside that upheavals are still going on in 2013 Venezuela and Argentina, this time capsule begs the question: has New York fulfilled its goal of being the hub of the Americas?