What The Hyattsville? Did a 4-year-old name our streets?
BY HEATHER MARLÉNE ZADIG
What’s the deal with all of the streets, places, and avenues in Hyattsville with the exact same numbers in their names (e.g., 40th Place and 40th Avenue)? Why are there always so many helicopters flying low over town? Why are the liquor laws so patchwork here?
For both new and long-term residents of Hyattsville, questions about the city’s quirks and quagmires often don’t have readily searchable answers. And despite living here for seven years total (with a decade gap in between), I’ve found myself asking and being asked some of the same questions I asked 15 years ago.
The column’s format will be simple: Readers submit a compelling question specific to Hyattsville to the Life & Times, and we’ll do our best to find out the what, the why, and the who — then share the results in this column. In learning the ins and outs of the city’s unique history and traits, I’m hoping we’ll each feel a little more “in the know,” and that Hyattsville will feel a little more like home.
First up — those pesky parallel streets with duplicate numbers:
City downtowns often align their streets in a grid with ascending numbers in one direction and in alphabetical order the other way. D.C. does it; my hometown of San Diego does it. Residential suburbs, however, rarely adopt that strategy, especially free-form neighborhoods. Even rarer, I’d guess, is having a 43rd Place, a 43rd Street and a 43rd Avenue parallel and adjacent to each other, along with 42nd Avenue and 42nd Place, and so on (the mail mix-ups alone are supposedly constant).
The short answer to who came up with the idea is simple — not Hyattsville. In a surprising early example of regional governance imposing unpopular policies on municipalities, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC), established in 1927, was the source of the 1941 name changes, according to D.C.’s now-defunct Evening Star. That’s right: These street names were not original to the then-Town of Hyattsville (it wasn’t until 1943 that the town was promoted to a city).
An August 1940 Evening Star article cites an M-NCPPC official, Charles M. Jones, as saying the plan was “designed to eliminate duplications” and “facilitate emergency calls by police and regular deliveries by commercial firms.”
Clearly, though, rather than eliminate duplications, the new system actually created them. It’s unlikely that emergency dispatchers (or 911 callers) benefit from parallel identical numbered streets.
And despite Jones’ claim regarding streamlining commercial deliveries, an April 15, 1940, Evening Star article reported that county merchants objected to the changes, claiming that D.C. merchants would gain a competitive advantage over local businesses. Countywide standardized street names made it easier for outside merchants to navigate deliveries, whereas in the past, local dealers had the advantage of local street knowledge.
Additionally, multiple Evening Star articles reported strident town opposition to the plan from both residents and officials. A Letter to the Editor on Aug. 23, 1941, from Hyattsville resident Maury H. Brown, acknowledged that the Acts of 1937 of the Maryland Legislature empowered the M-NCPPC “to name and rename any streets or highway” within its jurisdiction. He also noted, however, that its founding legislation required the body “to act in conjunction and cooperation with any municipality or other local subdivision within said counties” — which the commission did not do. According to Brown, The Hyattsville Town Council voted unanimously on Aug. 11, 1941, to reject the proposed street name changes, yet the M-NCPPC implemented them the very next day.
Brown also wrote that Hyattsville residents sponsored a state bill allowing communities to reject the Acts of 1937 in a referendum, and though the bill passed in the legislature, it was vetoed by the governor, whom, Brown noted, also appointed the M-NCPPC in those days. (Incidentally, Brown was the grandfather of local famed puppeteer Jim Henson, according to genealogy records.)
If this David-versus-Goliath-style conflict between city leaders and county, regional or state power holders sounds familiar, that’s because it is — with Goliath often winning. For instance, the City of Hyattsville sued the Prince George’s County Council in 2020 over zoning changes the council made to the Werrlein Properties’ parcel adjacent to Driskell Park, despite city opposition. In its 2022 decision, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals largely upheld the county council’s mandates.
But the conflicts are broader than problematic street names and zoning mandates, and they’re not just happening here in Hyattsville. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, preemption laws, in which a higher level of government restricts or withdraws the authority of local governments, have swept across the U.S. in the last decade, “threatening one of the few remaining venues — local government — where citizens can still make their voices heard.”
Preemption, along with our confusing streets, is especially problematic when the higher level of government is appointed and unaccountable to voters, like the M-NCPPC. A 2020 report published by the National League of Cities (of which Hyattsville is a member) quotes former executive director Carl Chatters on this point: “Municipal governments can be neither free nor responsible unless they are guaranteed the right (and the compulsion) to decide purely local matters for themselves.”
Getting back to those widely unpopular street names in the 1940s: Brown wrote in his letter to the Evening Star that he’d asked an unnamed town official if protesting the changes would have any effect. He wrote that the official’s answer was, “No. They will come along and ram it down our throats afterward, anyhow.”
So the real reason for the extra numerical streets is that the M-NCPPC imposed a grid naming system on a neighborhood that wasn’t designed with one in mind, losing a good deal of town history in the process. Who wouldn’t have been tickled to have a Wine Avenue (now 42nd Avenue) in an originally dry town? As to why they chose duplicate numbered streets rather than allowing for exceptions, perhaps simple rigidity of thinking and narrow-mindedness was to blame. (Maybe also a touch of revenge for the town’s vehement opposition?)
In the end, Brown concluded his ultimately ineffectual letter with a kind of plea in the form of a question: “Is there no limit to what ‘they’ can do?”
I’d like to thank T. Carter Ross for his invaluable help with this article. (Disclosure: Ross is a board member of Streetcar Suburbs News.)
Heather Marléne Zadig is a writer and Californian whose family was weary of wildfire and returned to Hyattsville for its small-town vibe and great big heart.