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Wonder what Billy Penn, from his perch up there atop City Hall, would make of the Fashion Disrict?

Experts at naming such things, I suppose, chose Fashion District as the name of the newly re-upholstered Market Street shopping area. But pardon me, as a life-long old Philadelphian, for thinking that it’s a rather dumb name.

Market Street was originally called High Street, back in the 17th century when William Penn and his buddies were naming things. But markets soon lined up on that central thoroughfare, and Philadelphians began calling it the market street.

It would sound more Philadelphian to me if the new bunch of businesses there were called The Marketplace or Market Square or something similar. Fashion District sounds too New York.

William Penn’s 17th century planners used numbers for the north-south streets, except for the broad street Penn wanted in the middle. But they started naming the east-west streets for the first people who had bought land in the new little colonial city.

Penn’s Quaker sensibilities were offended by glorifying individuals in that way. He ruled that the streets should take their names from nature.

So his map-drawers changed Songhurst Street, after land-buyer John Songhurst, to Sassafras Street, and Wynne Street, named for Dr. Thomas Wynne, became Chestnut Street.

Thomas Holme, who was handling the planning here while Penn was still in England, had named a street after himself. Under the new rules, he changed it to Mulberry Street.

But as the city began to grow, and people living in it began talking about it on a day-to-day basis, popular usage soon wiped out some of Penn’s names. High Street became popularly called Market Street because that’s where the markets were.

Cedar Street was the city’s southern boundary, so people began to call it the South Street There was a slope at the river bank that required an arch to carry Mulberry Street over the Front Street, so people began calling Mulberry the Arch Street.

Sassafras Street had a nice, clear, level run across the city, and it became the popular street for young guys to race their horses, a lot like 20th century hot-rodders, so folks started calling it the Race Street.

William Penn might be horrified to find that in modern times, many streets have been given the names of prominent men. In the 19th century, a whole bunch of east-west streets were named for politicians and civic leaders. And, yes, in northeast Philly, there is a Penn Street (Sorry, Bill.)

Finally, in the 20th century, some street names were changed to honor such modern leaders as Cecil B. Moore, John B. Kelly Jr., John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King.

Back in the 17th century, when King Charles II agreed to give William Penn this huge parcel of land in North America to pay off a debt to Penn’s father, William named his proposed colony Sylvania, meaning “forest.”

In the grant’s papers, King Charles stuck the name Penn on the front, presumably to show whose Sylvania it was. Penn considered that disturbingly immodest, but couldn’t get anyone to overrule the king, even when he offered the secretary of state a 20 guinea bribe. So Pennsylvania is what we got.

I wonder what William Penn would think about Fashion District?

Visit columnist Jim Smart’s web site at jamessmartsphiladelphia.com.

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