Delaware, Um, Columbus Avenue: A Contentious Place-name in Philadelphia

Harrison Selznick, C’23

Street names give sociological import to the functional path they represent. No matter where you are in the world, a designated path has a name. Where does this naming originate, and how does the name summon historical or cultural significance? Streets and street names have special significance to urban residents who use and speak them, respectively. The names are not static markers; they actively give character to the street. Ultimately, street names are a manifestation of a city’s vitality—involving and exhibiting urban cultures, politics, histories, and ideologies. They provide a form of meta-communication for the city’s inhabitants, allowing a special interchange of locally resonant language.

The street map of Philadelphia contains names of many tree types and various historical figures. Many of these place-names originated with people who had a significant impact on the city. Until the twentieth century, though, city officials did not have an official way of choosing street names. Instead, most names were derived from their point of destination, such as through a local town (e.g., Lancaster Avenue), a farm (Buist Avenue), or a meeting house (Orthodox Street) [1]. Other streets were named for the estates they passed through (e.g., Phil-Ellena Street), or for the owner (Bringhurst Street), or even the mansion (Belfield Avenue) [2].

Street names also included a grab-bag of things—events, authors, governors, presidents, counties, metals, stones, and more. Philadelphia was one of the first cities in America to include street names and roadways in commemoration of Native Americans [3]. Once urban philanthropy came on the scene in the nineteenth century, certain roads and streets were named by or after benefactors.

For the most part, street names have been uncontroversial. However, a few—and one in particular, Columbus Boulevard—have exacted a toll. The story of this street, originally called Delaware Avenue, reflects the ongoing struggle of Americans reckoning with the American past over the last thirty years.

Figure 1: Road sign at the eastern terminus of Spring Garden Street showing both Delaware Avenue and Columbus Boulevard. Photo via Google Maps.

The story starts in 1831 with the death of a prominent Philadelphian, one of the wealthiest Americans in history, Stephen Girard. Although extensively known for his business acumen, Girard also bequeathed a considerable amount of his fortune to charity after his death. As laid out in his final will and testament, one of his wishes was the creation of an avenue on the direct side of the wharves and piers on the Delaware River. This might seem precarious, but given that Girard was involved in a near life-threatening accident on Second and Market streets, he decided to change things for the better. Moreover, Girard was familiar with the banks of the Delaware on the east side of the city, as he had lived on Water Street until his death. Given his hindsight of the lackluster ability to adequately use Water and Front Street to exchange goods from the port of Philadelphia, he decided that a new avenue could significantly improve and efficiently allow goods to be exchanged [4]. There was some contention about building the avenue, as other prominent Philadelphians, such as Paul Beck Jr., had their own ideas about a thoroughfare beside the waterfront [5]. In the end, it was Girard’s fortune that catalyzed the project.

In his will, he explained that he wanted the city to use his donation to “pave a passage or street … fronting the river Delaware” [6]. The town obliged, and in 1835, Delaware Avenue was constructed to great fanfare. The reason it is called Delaware Avenue is simply due to its location near the river. The river’s name is in honor of William West, twelfth Baron De La Warr, who the English thought “discovered” the river [7]. The new street became a major thoroughfare for business and commerce from the port of Philadelphia, and throughout the nineteenth century and even into the twentieth, the avenue was expanded [8].

Figure 2: Delaware Avenue looking South from Chestnut Street in 1905. Interesting to note is the congestion, even after it was widened in 1898.

As part of the interstate highway system, I-95 was completed in 1964. It divided Delaware Avenue from the rest of the city, thus segregating the the roadway from Center City [9]. As Philadelphia descended into economic stagnation and social turmoil, an avenue once lauded for its transformational nature became neglected and decrepit. As the Philadelphia Inquirer put it in 1990: “The roadway is so damn ugly, decrepit, and dangerous, no one would want to be anywhere near it” [10].

Figure 3: Photo of Delaware Avenue looking South towards the Walt Whitman Bridge. Although oversaturated, the roadway at this point in time is known to be extremely disgusting with trash littered all around.

The decline of the avenue coincided with the quincentennial of Columbus arriving in the Americas. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a large burst of Italian-American pride [11]. The leading local inspiration for this was Michael C. Rainone, president of the Columbus Civic Association, whose purpose was to perpetuate the story and memory of Columbus. Rainone realized that Philadelphia was one of the only major cities in the United States that did not have a street named after Columbus. Italian-American City Council majority leader Anna C. Veran introduced a bill to rechristen Delaware Avenue as Columbus Boulevard in 1989. The name Delaware was chosen as part of a larger plan of revitalizing the Delaware River waterfront. Majority leader Veran invited U.S. Representative Thomas M. Foglietta to endorse the council bill in front of the city council.

Figure 4: Columbus Boulevard highlighted in cyan and Delaware Avenue highlighted in lime. Important to note that the top of the image is North and the road rides along I-95, also known as the Delaware Parkway.

Passage of the bill did not inspire goodwill beyond the Italian-American community. Indeed, the renaming was met with backlash from Native Americans and others at the local and regional level. There was a protest on September 14, 1991, by the United Indians of Delaware Valley and many residents of North Philadelphia [12].

On the one hand, a significant catalyst for these protests was Christopher Columbus himself, an extremely controversial and contentious figure in history, with some Italian-American groups honoring him for his heroic accomplishment and Native American groups rejecting this by describing Columbus as a colonizing enslaver. Another major catalyst for the protests was the mnemonic function of the name Delaware. Over the avenue’s history, argued local Lenapes, the street had become associated with their community. Throughout the U.S. period, the Lenape people have been interchangeably known as Delaware Indians [13].

The Philadelphia Inquirer interviewed many people, including Toni Sea Flower, a Native American who likened the name change to the colonization of land that had already been taken away. Another Native American, George Hines, explained that it was an incredible insult to Indian people, similar to telling Jewish people they would honor a street with Hitler’s name.

Figure 5: Protestors, some in Native American headdresses, march on Delaware Avenue, due to be renamed to honor the anniversary of Columbus voyage.

The anger extended beyond Natives. As Roberta I. Alotta, a local scholar of Philadelphia place names, explains, street names are essential to what it means to be a Philadelphian, and these names speak to the nieghborhood-level identity Philadelphians [14]. Head of the Fishtown Civic Association, John Connors, explained, “Even if they named it Richie Ashburn Way [after a famous baseball player], it wouldn’t be right” [15]. Although not entirely opposed to Columbus, Bernard M. Steifel, executive director of the Queen Village Neighbors Association, pointed out that Delaware Avenue had been around for generations and that a name change would be equivalent to an outsider coming to your neighborhood and altering all the street signs [16].

Although protests continued, the City Council persisted. Similar to many projects in Philadelphia, a compromise between North Philly and South Philly was settled: Delaware Avenue would only be renamed south of Spring Garden Street.

Following the quincentennial, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania paved and landscaped Christopher Columbus Boulevard, filling in potholes, smoothing over tracks and ruts, and ornamenting with greenery [17]. However, the change from avenue to boulevard elicited additional questions from citizens about nomenclature. Simply put, there were no regulations regarding the designation of a street as a “road,” “boulevard,” “avenue,” or “lane.”

The roadway was initially supposed to be called Christopher Columbus Boulevard, but if you travel there today, you will see that it is now called Columbus Boulevard. This was due to the defacement of the signs in the 1990s, after the name change. Furthermore, as PennDOT explains, the change of “avenue” to “boulevard” has created a multitude of confusion regarding the type of care that needs to be done and whether or not to keep the same kind of care for the road south of Spring Garden Street (Columbus) and north of Spring Garden Street (Delaware) [18]. The Philadelphia Streets Department has explained that the only reason for the designation is marketing, similar to how a developer would want to to sell a house on a “lane” instead of a “street.”

In fact, there is no consistency in the city’s use of these terms. As the Daily News explained in 2016, merely changing the name did not change Columbus Boulevard into a vibrant urban space [19]. Passyunk Avenue and Frankford Avenue are much more full of life—social and arboreal. Moreover, Roosevelt Boulevard, the monstrous concrete roadway in the Northeast that Philadelphians colloquially call “the Boulevard,” shares no similarity with Columbus Boulevard, even though they are nominally in the same category.

Apart from the classification of the roadway, the name Columbus still grates on many residents. In 2020, across the United States, cities started conversations about changing and removing Columbus-themed monuments. In Philadelphia, the mayor’s office directed city workers to erect a box to hide the statue of Columbus in Marconi Plaza. New calls arose to rename the renamed Columbus Boulevard. Petitions about this go back many years [20][21][22].

The main objection is the historical association with Columbus. However, some older Philadelphians simply like the older name out of local tradition. There are a set of local understandings about the area known as the “Delly.” This allows Philadelphians to better understand and communicate with one another [23]. Some locals are more concerned with honoring their own than dishonoring Columbus, as seen by the recent renaming of a section of the Columbus Boulevard (between Oregon Avenue and Washington Avenue) after two WWII veterans, William J. Guarnere and Edward “Babe” Heffron [24].

This contentious and problematic history of one street name on the banks of the Delaware River is not over. If Philadelphia is similar to other large cities across America, there will be additional calls from citizens to change the name once more. The contested meanings of “Columbus” and “Boulevard” will continue to incite discussion and debate. Ultimately, it is up to the people of Philadelphia to decide the future of their mnemonic names, just like their monuments made of stone and metal.



[1] Roberta I. Alotta, Street Names of Philadelphia (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1975).

[2] Alotta, Street Names of Philadelphia.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Katherine Haas, “Delaware Ave./Columbus Blvd,” Clio, 13 May 2020:

[5] Alotta, Street Names of Philadelphia.

[6] Mike DiMeo, “Stephen Girard,”, Independence Hall Association, accessed November 10, 2021:

[7] Alotta, Street Names of Philadelphia.

[8] DiMeo, “Stephen Girard.”

[9] Dylan Gottlieb, “I-95,” Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia,

[10] “Beautify This Boulevard! Great Things Can Happen On  Delaware Avenue, But Not The Way It Looks Today,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 13 October 1990.

[11] Dan McQuade, “Why Is It Delaware ‘Avenue’ but Columbus ‘Boulevard’?” Philadelphia Magazine, 13 October 2016,

[12] Daniel Rubin, “‘Columbus Blvd.’ Plan Draws Protest,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 15 September 1991.

[13] “Honoring Columbus Backfires in Philadelphia,” New York Times, 25 August 1991.

[14] Roberta I. Alotta, Mermaids, Monasteries, Cherokees, and Custer: The Stories behind Philadelphia Street Names (Chicago: Bonus Books, 1990).

[15] McQuade, “Why Is It Delaware ‘Avenue.’”

[16] “Honoring Columbus Backfires in Philadelphia,” New York Times, 25 August 1991.

[17] Harry Kyriakodis, “Delaware Avenue (Columbus Boulevard),” Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia,

[18] “Sings of Confusion: Delaware Avenue or Columbus Boulevard?” Philadelphia Inquirer, 29 March 1992.

[19] “City Must Maintain Vision for Thriving Delaware Waterfront,” Philadelphia Daily News 12 October 2016.

[20] “Change Christopher Columbus Back to Delaware Avenue,”, 2020,

[21] Vienna Enos, “Remove Penn’s Landing’s Christopher Columbus Monuments,”, 2015,

[22] David Chang and Drew Smith, “Petition Calls for Removal of Christopher Columbus Monuments in Philly,” NBC10 Philadelphia, 12 October 2015,

[23] Cary Hutto, “What Was Columbus Boulevard Known as before 1992?” Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 14 October 2014,

[24] Omnibus Designations, Act of 20 December 2015, P.L. 490, no. 87,