John McNamara, who died Friday at age 91,was an amateur historian
whose great obsession of documenting every street and place-name in the
Bronx culminated in a 600-page historical guide to the borough,
"History in Asphalt."
Starting at age 10, McNamara walked every single street in the Bronx, paddled each of its waterways by canoe and kayak, and devoted countless hours in the archives documenting street names and how they changed over the years. "I can tell you that it's comprehensive," said Lloyd Ultan, the official Bronx borough historian, who helped McNamara edit down drawers full of index cards into the finished product. The book was published in 1978 by the Bronx County Historical Society, and is now in its third edition, reflecting many changes to street names in the interim.
McNamara was born on East 156th Street in the Melrose section of the Bronx. His family also had a small bungalow at Edgewater, a small community near Throggs Neck, meaning that he had roots in two sections of the borough.
In "History in Asphalt," McNamara traced Throggs Neck to John Throckmorton, who founded a small, brief-lived Anabaptist colony there in 1642. "Neck" means a narrow peninsula, and McNamara documented its succession of names: "Throgmorton's Neck," "Frockes Neck," and even "Frog's Neck," which is what George Washington called it in a journal entry from 1776, the same year the British Redcoats ran Washington out of New York in the first major battle of the Revolutionary War.
McNamara said he became interested in Indian history as a child, when he and his brother were portaging their canoe near Fort Schuyler. McNamara said he was fascinated to learn from the local lighthouse keeper that Siwanoy Indians used to portage their canoes over the same path. As street signs started going up in the early 1920s, Mc-Namara began keeping meticulous notes on place names.
McNamara dropped out of James Monroe High School and during the Depression years of the early 1930s began what would be a lifetime of rambling, riding the rails in empty boxcars. Eventually he would visit every state in the Union excepting Oklahoma." He always wondered how he missed it," said Bill Twomey, a longtime friend who co wrote two books about Throgg's Neck history with McNamara.
In Yuma, Ariz., McNamara took time out from traveling to publish a kind of hobo's journal titled "Sandune."
Back in New York, McNamara found employment with the New York City Housing Authority, where he spent his career as a supervisor in the clerical production department.
He was a founding member of the Bronx County Historical Society, and beginning in 1956, McNamara wrote a weekly column titled "The Bronx and History" for the Bronx Press-Review. In the early 1990s, he switched to a biweekly format in the Bronx Times Reporter. A selection of his columns was published as "McNamara's Old Bronx."
He continued his place-name research between trips to increasingly exotic spots - the Australian outback, Pago Pago, and a trek in the Alps. Having taught himself Dutch in order to read early New Amsterdam government documents, he found himself able to get by in Afrikaans when he visited South Africa.
In addition to traveling the streets and waters of the Bronx, McNamara claimed to be the first person ever to have bicycled over the Throgs Neck Bridge - in January 1961, before the bridge officially opened. He noted in his newspaper column that the coming of the bridge was accompanied by a new spelling of "Throgs Neck" - the doubled g being removed for convenience on signage, but often retained in older place names. (Wags have it that the city compensated for the lost g with an additional r when it opened the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in 1964. But that was in Brooklyn, outside of McNamara's purview.)
McNamara led walking tours and was in demand as a lecturer on Bronx history. He retired for a few years to Florida, but the lure of the Bronx was too strong for him, and he moved back.
In 1985, Mayor Koch named a small triangle of land in Throgs Neck after him . . . . McNamara duly added his own name to the history of Bronx place names, updated for the third edition.
Born December 22, 1912, in the Bronx; died October 15 at the Throgs Neck Extended Care Nursing Home; survived by his children, John Jr. and Betty, three granddaughters, and two great-grandsons.
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