There’s a joke about National Security Agency employees: You can spot the extrovert because he’s the guy looking at someone else’s shoes.
I’m not an NSA agent, but I do spend a lot of time looking at the ground. Sometimes what I see is annoying — cigarette butts, broken glass, gum. But there’s history underfoot, too.
Nearly 20 years ago I lived on East Sumach Street, across the street from what is now Ty Baffney Field at DeSales Catholic High School. My route to school ran down Penrose Avenue, named in honor of the former Whitman College president, Stephen B.L. Penrose, who died in 1947.
But I noticed, as I stood at the corner of Penrose and Isaacs Avenue one day, that an imprint in the pavement read College Ave. “Neato,” I thought, and filed that tidbit away.
A couple of years ago, when the U-B published a series of stories on the history and future of our city’s streets, my colleague Terry McConn and I had a good time checking out old maps and clippings that showed additions and eliminations of actual roadways as well as name changes.
Perhaps the highest-profile switch relates to the set of streets from First to 13th avenues.
Newspaper archives show the numbered avenues have changed names a couple of times, from being lettered streets — A Street, B Street, C Street — to being numbered streets and then numbered avenues.
The street vs. avenue struggle isn’t exactly settled: Business names and common usage are split, for example, on Ninth Avenue and Ninth Street.
I filed all that away, too. But I recently saw while walking from Martin Field along Park Street toward town that several stamps in the concrete along the way identify Park as Idaho. I couldn’t come up with an easy explanation, so I dug into old editions of the U-B to find out more.
I didn’t turn up anything on the Park-Idaho switch, but I found the College-Penrose change appears to date to early 1953. A Feb. 17 story from that year said the Stadium Community Improvement Association suggested the switch to alleviate confusion caused by College Place also having a College Avenue and to memorialize Penrose, who lived on the street.
Most street names you’ll see are the same on today’s street signs as they were when the concrete was poured and stamped in the early part of the 20th century.
Just like the stamps all over town that tell you which contractor was responsible for which sidewalks — and sometimes the date of installation and the contractor’s phone number — these pieces of our shared history have toughed out the decades.
But how many have been lost to demolition and construction over the past 90 to 100 years is as much a mystery as the reasons some of the names were changed in the first place.