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Decoding the History of New York’s Capital City

New Book by Erik Schlimmer, MSW ’18, Finds Story of Every Albany Street Name

Erik Schlimmer reveals the story behind Albany's 785 street names in new book, including Englewood Place, which was laid out in 1879, predating UAlbany's Downtown Campus by 30 years. (Photo by Patrick Dodson)

ALBANY, N.Y. (Dec. 13, 2018) – As a University at Albany graduate student, Erik Schlimmer made it his mission to decode the history of every street name in the City of Albany.

Four years and 785 streets later, that mission is complete.

Schlimmer, who lives in Rensselaer, has published a 510-page book titled Cradle of the Union: A Street by Street History of New York’s Capital City. It fills a large void in Albany’s urban history — mapping the stories behind the city’s street names, from Ivy League schools to a war hero who choked to death on a chicken bone.

A signed copy of the book is available for purchase online for $22 through Schlimmer’s own publishing house, Beechwood Books. It will soon hit the shelves of select local businesses.

“Very few people are intimately familiar with Albany history and even fewer know about street names. It’s something we simply do not think about,” said Schlimmer. “Behind every street name there’s a story. I wanted to discover all of them.”

A self-proclaimed “avid East Coast adventurer” who has hiked more than 10,000 miles, Schlimmer is a place-names expert. He previously authored two books on the topic including History Inside the Blue Line, and Among the Cloud Splitters, which together document the history behind more than 300 natural place names within the Adirondack Park.

Still, the 45-year-old said this latest project was his “greatest challenge” due to the sheer number of Albany streets. Growing up in Chestertown, Warren County, he was also comfortable navigating the Adirondacks when publishing his first two place name books.

“Being unaware of the extent of the city, I figured there were maybe 200 streets to decode. I assumed I would make quick work of these streets, finding official city documents that listed when, why and for whom each street was named,” Schlimmer wrote in the book’s introduction.

Erik Schlimmer '18 stands on Henry Johnson Boulevard.

Schlimmer stands steps away from Washington Park on the end of Henry Johnson Boulevard, a street that has changed its name five times. (Photo by Patrick Dodson)

 

“I could not have been more wrong,” he added.

To complete the project, Schlimmer said he chased leads from city officials, local residents and historians, sifting through nearly 1,000 print and online sources that span over the last 500 years.

He tackled the project methodically, starting with street names that are tributes to historical figures such as Clara Barton Drive, named for the founder of the American Red Cross, Washington Avenue, named for the first U.S. president, and Henry Johnson Boulevard, named for the World War I hero and Capital Region native. Other streets were simple to decode, such as University Place on UAlbany’s Uptown Campus.

Some names were not as obvious as they appeared — including Buchanan Street.

“There’s a cluster of nine streets in central Albany that are named after presidents. I was astonished to learn that Buchanan Street is actually not named for James Buchanan,” Schlimmer said.

“Realtor Jesse Leonard wanted to name the cluster after brilliant engineers. He started with William Buchanan, a master mechanic and New York Central Railroad’s chief superintendent of motive power and rolling stock at that time. However, after the street name was approved in 1898, he realized that he knew no other famous engineers.”

Schlimmer graduated in May with a master’s degree in clinical social work from the School of Social Welfare. A former Army paratrooper, he plans to use his degree to help improve veteran access to mental health care in the Capital Region.

Though Schlimmer insists this will be his only street name book, he has thought about other locations of interest.

“I would either pick the city of Poughkeepsie, where I was born, or Saratoga Springs because of its rich history. But, I would not hold your breath for another book. It’s a full-time job to get it done.”

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A comprehensive public research university, the University at Albany offers more than 120 undergraduate majors and minors and 125 master's, doctoral, and graduate certificate programs. UAlbany is a leader among all New York State colleges and universities in such diverse fields as atmospheric and environmental sciences, business, criminal justice, emergency preparedness, engineering and applied sciences, informatics, public administration, social welfare, and sociology taught by an extensive roster of faculty experts. It also offers expanded academic and research opportunities for students through an affiliation with Albany Law School. With a curriculum enhanced by 600 study-abroad opportunities, UAlbany launches great careers.