Perhaps one of the best ways to spot a tourist within a flood of New Yorkers is by his or her pronunciation of Houston Street. Most assume that like the city in Texas, this New York street name is pronounced “Hue-stun.” However, born and bred New Yorkers know that the name is actually pronounced “How-stun” — though very few people know why. We at Untapped Cities decided to figure out how, exactly, this strange pronunciation of Houston came about:
A recent New York Times article answers this question with Gerard Koeppel’s book, “City on a Grid: How New York Became New York.” In his book, Koeppel explains that the city of Houston was named after Sam Houston, the politician who assisted in the official severance of Texas from Mexico. However, New York’s Houston Street is named after an entirely different person: William Houstoun.
Born in 1755, Houstoun was a prominent landowner and lawyer from Savannah, Georgia. Also a patriot of the Revolutionary War, Houstoun served a short time as a delegate for Georgia in the Continental Congress in 1787. However, it was not Houstoun’s legal or political presence, which earned him a New York City street name. It was actually his wife, Mary Bayard, who won him this title.
Image from NYPL
Mary Bayard was the daughter of the distinguished Bayard family: a wealthy group of lawyers and politicians who were also dominant figures of the Democratic Party. Originally from Delaware, the Bayards owned a significant amount of farmland in what is today known as Soho and the Lower East Side. However, when Mary’s father Nicholas Bayard III fell into debt, he was forced to divide the property into a grid system so that he could profit while selling certain sections of the land.
East Houston Street circa 1890. Image from NYPL
Of the blocks created by this division of land, Bayard named the east-west streets and numbered the north-south streets (later renamed after Revolutionary War figures like Greene and Wooster). He also saved one street to be named in honor of — you guessed it —Mary’s husband, William Houstoun. But you might wonder, how did the spelling turn from Houstoun to Houston? In his book, Koeppel states that the second ‘u’ was likely dropped out of confusion between Sam Houston and William. Today, though the spelling of Houston street has changed, the pronunciation remains the same: How-stun.
Next, check out NYC Fun Facts: The History of the NYC Bagel, and read NYC Fun Fact: What Are NYC Subway Conductors Always Pointing At?