6th Avenue runs up the center of Manhattan Island; in his compilation Ferrari in the Bedroom, humorist Jean Shepherd called it “the armpit of Manhattan.” It was originally laid out in 1811 from Carmine Street in Greenwich Village north to the Harlem River, and in 1928 to facilitate the new IND Subway, it was extended south about a mile to Church and Franklin Streets in Tribeca.
Then came the gradual whittling away of its identity. After the construction of Central Park in the 1850s and 1860s, the northern portion of 6th Avenue above Central Park North was renamed (in 1887) for the Lenox family; Scotsman Robert Lenox immigrated to NYC in the 1760s and became president of the NYS Chamber of Commerce from 1826-1839. In 1839 his son James Lenox established a library on 5th Avenue and East 70th Street that was a precursor of the NY Public Library system. The name is believed to be derived from the Gaelic leamhanach: “elm trees.”
Exactly one hundred years later, in 1987, Lenox Avenue acquired a new, separate name: Malcolm X Boulevard, honoring the civil rights leader/writer/orator who was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem on February 21, 1965.
Unusually, the letter “X” has figured in those three permutations of the avenue’s name.
Most New Yorkers were aware of 6th Avenue’s renaming in 1945 by Fiorello LaGuardia as The Avenue of the Americas, honoring the USA’s participation in the Organization of American States (“American” here meaning Northern, Southern and Central). “Avenue of the Americas” is a mouthful, and this was before the era of abbreviations like “Avam” and thus New Yorkers went right on merrily calling it “6th Avenue.” The Department of Transportation finally capitulated and restored “6 AVE” signs in the 1980s.
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