Why “Houston Street” is pronounced that way

You can always spot a New York newbie by their pronunciation of wide, bustling Houston Street—as if they were in Texas rather than Manhattan.

But the way New Yorkers pronounce the name of this highway-like crosstown road that serves as a dividing line for many downtown neighborhoods begs the question: Why do we say “house-ton,” and what’s the backstory of this unusual street name, anyway?

It all started in 1788 with Nicholas Bayard III, owner of a 100-acre farm located roughly in today’s SoHo (one boundary of which is today’s Bayard Street).

Bayard was having financial difficulties, so he sold off parcels of his farm and turned them into real estate in the growing young metropolis, according to a 2017 New York Times piece. “The property was converted into 35 whole or partial blocks within seven east-west and eight north-south streets, on a grid pattern,” explained the Times.

Bayard decided to name one of those east-west streets after the new husband of his daughter Mary, William Houstoun (above)—a three-time delegate to the Continental Congress from Georgia. Houstoun’s unusual last name comes from his ancient Scottish lineage, states Encyclopedia of Street Names and Their Origins by Henry Moscow.

The street name, Houstoun, is spelled correctly in the city’s Common Council minutes from 1808, wrote Moscow, as well as on an official map from 1811, the year the grid system was invented. (It’s also spelled right on the 1822 map above).

In the 19th century, the city developed past this former northern boundary street. East Houston Street subsumed now-defunct North Street on the East Side and extended through the West Side (above photo at Varick Street in 1890). At some point, the spelling was corrupted into “Houston.”

The Times proposes a possible reason why the “u” was cut: Gerard Koeppel, author of City on a Grid: How New York Became New York, thought it could have to do with Sam Houston emerging in the public consciousness in the 1840s and 1850s as senator and governor of Texas.

Whatever the reason, the new spelling stuck—with the original late 18th century pronunciation.

[Top Image: Danny Lyon/US National Archives and Records Administration via Wikipedia; Second image: Wikipedia; third image: Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps Inc.; fifth image: New-York Historical Society; sixth image: MCNY 1971 by George Roos x2010.11.763]

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9 Responses to “Why “Houston Street” is pronounced that way”

  1. countrypaul Says:

    Very interesting backstory, thank you. Unrelated but sort of: there is a British rock & roll singer named Si Cranstoun (with the U); I never realized the etymology was Scottish. His sound is 1950s and 1960s rock & roll/soul revival, even in his original music, but my favorite video of him (so far) is his cover of Jackie Wilson’s “Reet Petite.” Considering the interest in things historic within this group, someone may enjoy this live version:

    Jackie Wilson would be proud.

  2. Mykole Mick Dementiuk Says:

    That was cool!

  3. petlover1948 Says:

    yes, thanks

  4. John Mcdevitt Says:

    My father was born in Hells Kitchen in 1914 and eventually moved to lower east side. He lived in Pelham, Brooklyn before settling in Staten Island. My parents frequently took my sister and I on walking adventures in Manhattan . My father would say that everyone used to pronounce Houston street like the the city in Texas. He said newcomers to NYc began pronouncing it in the present day version. Great article which brought great memories. Thank you

  5. Alan Libert Says:

    Interesting article (I used to live not far from Houston St.), but the phrase “begs the question” is used incorrectly (as it usually is).

    • Thunny Says:

      So how the hell are u supposed to use “beg the question” then?

      • Bob Says:

        “Begging the question” refers to statements with the fallacy of “circular reasoning” or assuming the conclusion you wish to make.

  6. Jeanne Webster Says:

    An Ellery Queen novel used the difference in pronunciation as the clue to solving the mystery.

  7. Pat Says:

    My father also born in Hell’s Kitchen. So why did Sam Houston pronounce his name wrong?

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