This one has long puzzled me as well, precisely because many of this South Oakland street's neighbors do come from Shakespeare's plays: Ophelia and Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet. Developers are fond of picking themes for the neighborhoods they build. Laying out streets with related names gives them a community feel, and it allows the developer to engage in a bit of vanity that will make a lasting imprint on the city -- one that may outlive any of the homes actually built there. (The streets running parallel to Carson Street in the South Side, for example, are named after female relatives of the guy who laid out the street grid.)
Too, Shakespearean names made special sense for the neighborhood, given its proximity to the University of Pittsburgh, and the later introduction of the Point Park Playhouse, one of whose theaters was serendipitously named the "Hamlet Street Theater." All of which made me wonder: Was "Joe Hammer" a character I'd missed in a Shakespeare play? Maybe Shakespeare had a subplot about a tough private eye or a streetwise cop in Troilus and Cressida that I'd missed?
Not quite. But English majors will be pleased to find out that for more than 40 years, Joe Hammer Square was actually named "Elsinore Square" -- the name of the castle where Hamlet does his existential dickering and Ophelia drowns herself. According to documents on file at the city's Public Works department, the square appears to have been developed around 1900, but the name dates to at least the early 1880s: An 1882 city atlas shows a parcel dubbed "Elsenore [sic]" belonging to a William Schmertz.
The name of Joe Hammer, however, dates to 1944, and has its origins in a much more recent, and more real, tragedy than anything you'll find in Shakespeare.
Joseph Hammer was a lieutenant serving in the US Army during the Second World War who was killed in action in the south of France on Sept. 11, 1944. According to a brief obituary that appeared in the Pittsburgh Press back in October of 1944, Hammer had grown up on street. His parents had moved there when he was 6 months old, and he'd lived at 3222 Elsinore for 22 years. Until the outbreak of the war, in fact, Joe Hammer had almost no reason to leave the neighborhood at all. He went to high school at Oakland's Schenley High, and graduated from the University of Pittsburgh. But he enlisted in the Army in February of 1942, just a few weeks after the Pearl Harbor attacks, and became an infantry officer who shipped off to North Africa and Italy before the campaign in France. He was just 23 years old when he was killed.
The tribute for Hammer was somewhat unusual; there aren't enough streets in Pittsburgh to name after all the city's war dead. But squares form their own sense of community, and Hammer had lived his entire life there. Plus, he was said to be Elsinore Square's first casualty of the Second World War. Thus, the Pittsburgh Press reported, "The [name] change was requested in a petition signed by 60 residents of the street," and passed by council just a few weeks after Hammer's death. Council probably hasn't moved that quickly on anything before or since, a testament to how deeply felt Hammer's loss was.
And anyway, Joe Hammer could have used the commemoration a lot more than William Shakespeare did.