A Map To Memory Lane: Providence Tries To Keep Street Names Straight

Originally published on August 19, 2014 9:34 am

The city of Providence is embarking on a project to sort out street names that sound alike or have similar spellings. Peter Gaynor, who runs the city's Emergency Management Agency, talks to Robert Siegel about Operation Karat — not "carrot," mind you.

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In Providence, Rhode Island, Peter Gaynor, who runs the city's Emergency Management Agency, has launched something called Operation Karat. That's K, A, R, A, T as opposed to carrot - C, A, R, R, O, T. The obvious confusion is what Operation Karat is all about - Providence street names that sound so much alike or that, actually, are the same. Mr. Gaynor, what's the problem with there being an Abbott Street, say, and an Abbott Park Place within Providence?

PETER GAYNOR: Well, our problem is that we want to make sure that we can dispatch our emergency response assets without any confusion with police and fire to the correct address. And it seems like a simple proposition, and it should be. But we have some local problems.

SIEGEL: How common is it for you to have a problem? - that you live on a street that has a name that's very similar to another residential street, let's say?

GAYNOR: We have about 1,980 streets, and of those, there's probably 75 streets in total that have some sort of conflict. And so there may be that there are some streets that have five names - five different streets across the city that have a similar name. And then, there are others that there are two streets that have the similar name. So it's wide-ranging. We haven't looked in detail about how we resolved every single one.

SIEGEL: Let's say you have two streets both called Brown Street, and residents or shopkeepers may have years worth of documents or even advertising saying number 11, Brown Street - who gets to decide which group gets to keep their address and who has to tell the entire world I now live at number 11 Tan Street, but I actually haven't moved.

GAYNOR: It's a great problem, and I don't think we've resolved it yet, but I think our concept is to have the least amount of impact on the least amount of people with the least amount of money or inconvenience that we can provide.

SIEGEL: You mentioned some place that might have five different streets using the same name in a variety of ways. What's the champion name in Providence?

GAYNOR: The champion name seems to be Grand. So we have Grand Broadway, Grand Street - we have Grant Street. And we have Grand Street. That seems to be the champion. And, again, we have a host of Park View, Park Lane, Park Row, Park Row West - so there's a few that are challenging problems.

SIEGEL: So right now - what stage are you at right now in Operation Karat?

GAYNOR: Well, we just finished one-on-one service with the 20 largest institutions in the city. And next, we're going to go through all the streets and see, really, which ones are problematic. We're going to make some recommendations, I think, throughout the next year to make sure that we have a clear process in City Hall so that when someone changes the name of a business that it actually is done through all departments to include the public safety department.

SIEGEL: Who came up with the name Operation Karat, by the way?

GAYNOR: I've got to say it was my...

SIEGEL: That's your idea.

GAYNOR: Right, I wanted to be vague and confusing. And we actually have a little slideshow that we gave and I have the word Karat with a K, A, R, A, T and a picture of a carrot that you eat and I got a lot of quizzical looks from around the room when I first did it. But once you spell it out for everyone, then it all makes sense.

SIEGEL: Well, Mr. Gaynor, good luck with Operation Karat, and congratulations on the naming.

GAYNOR: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: That's Peter Gaynor who's the director of the Emergency Management Agency of Providence, Rhode Island. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.