Columbia's mystifying street names came straight off the poetry shelf

January 10, 1995|By Victor Paul Alvarez | Victor Paul Alvarez,Contributing Writer

Walt Whitman would be surprised to know it came to this: Nancy Miller used his poems to name streets in Columbia's River Hill village.

Alone in a library, with a stack of poetry books and a note pad, the Rouse Co. development representative pulled the names from the works of Whitman and other American greats.

Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Carl Sandburg and Nathaniel Hawthorne all have had a hand in creating the bookish blocks of Columbia.

You think the Rouse Co. just invented names such as Liquid Laughter Lane, Apple Blossom Ride and Barley Corn Row?

It's a common assumption -- but one of many misconceptions that have arisen about the community since its beginning.

In October 1963, when the Rouse Co. announced that it had bought 15,000 acres for a new city in Howard County, the rumors began almost immediately: The government was building a living laboratory to study deadly tropical diseases, some said.

Others whispered that sanitation companies in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore were planning a huge compost heap to turn garbage into peat moss. There was even talk that the money was coming from the Soviet Union.

So it's no surprise that many people are mystified by streets with names such as Liquid Laughter Lane and Leaf Reader Way.

Marty Graziano is 19 and has lived on Barley Corn Row for three years without a clue about the name's meaning or origin. It's from Whitman's poem "Song of Myself."

"Really? I never knew," he said.

"When I tell people what street I live on, they always say, 'It must be one of those messed-up Columbia names,' " he said.

The "messed up" names emerged from an organized process. When the villages of Columbia were envisioned, Rouse Co. developers brain stormed for neighborhood themes that would enhance the village atmosphere.

They decided each village would have streets named for a particular set of American poems, paintings, authors and artists.

Ernest Hemingway, for instance, can be found in the Village of Oakland Mills. There you'll see Ms. Miller's favorite street: Brett Lane. Brett was the woman who vexed Hemingway's alter ego Jake Barnes in "The Sun Also Rises."

"Brett was so busy being who people expected her to be, that she wasn't really herself," Ms. Miller said. She claims she's not an expert on literature, but likes a good character, a strong turn of phrase.

While Brett was a complex character, Brett Lane is fairly simple name. . Names such as Five Fingers Way and Crazy Quilt Court cause most of the head scratching.

"I think the names are kind of cute, but who made them? What did they use?" said Edward Sheridan, who has lived on Crazy Quilt Court for 19 years.

"When I tell people where I live, they give me a smile, a raised eyebrow" -- and they rarely get the spacing right when addressing envelopes to his house, he said.

The clerks at the post office on Oakland Hall Lane don't even notice the misspellings and quirky names anymore; seeing them every day has taken some of the charm away.

But the charm hasn't dulled on Sharp Antler.

That's right, Sharp Antler.

Not Sharp Antler Road or Street or Court, just Sharp Antler.

"People make reindeer jokes all the time, and they always want to add Street or Road or Way on the end of it. All our mail comes like that," said Victoria Smith, a four-year Sharp Antler resident, who chuckled slightly every time she said the words Sharp Antler together.

"I think people generally get a chuckle out of them," said David Forester, a senior development director for the Rouse Co. He chuckled at a few of them as well, but was quick to strike down adjectives such as "weird" or "wacky" when used to describe his streets. "We don't consider any of them wacky, but some people take exception to them," he said.

Those people would have to go through the same channels to change their street names as the developers did to create them.

Mr. Forester decided that River Hill's streets would be named from Walt Whitman and James Whitcomb Riley poems. Ms. Miller then found 80 possibilities, Mr. Forester picked 40 and Howard County Department of Planning narrowed them to 20, omitting names that were hard to spell or similar to existing streets. From that list, Mr. Forester selected the top 10 for River Hill, the last of Columbia's 10 villages to be completed. The U.S. Postal Service had the final say.

"It's a long process to get them approved by the Postal Service and the Department of Planning," Mr. Forester said.

None of the residents who has complained about the street names -- such as the man who told Ms. Miller that Empty Song Road was too sad -- has fully pursued a name change. "They learn to live with it," Mr. Forester said.

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