Neighborhood names evoke a specific sense of place.
The best names connect places to their geography and history, and emphasize the qualities that make a place unique. This is especially important now, when bland, placeless design is making many cities feel homogenous.
In most cities, neighborhood boundaries are generally not well-defined, and neighborhood names change over the years as people try to change the associations around places. Just looking at New York City: native place names gave way to Dutch names, which in turn became English names. And historic names gave way to names created and promoted by real estate developers and urban planners.
There are three reasons why neighborhood names change. To distance themselves from a troubled past, to be associated with a more desirable area, or to establish a grandiose vision for an area.
Separating from a troubled past
In 1979, Ridgewood separated from both Bushwick — and Brooklyn — after the blackouts and looting of 1977. At the time, it was a prudent move. Few people could have imagined how desirable Bushwick and Brooklyn would become. However, today, the average price in Ridgewood is $417 per square foot compared to $718 in Bushwick. Perhaps Ridgewood should consider becoming part of Brooklyn again?
Similarly, during the height of the crack epidemic in the early 1990s, one section of Washington Heights cleverly chose to distance itself from the negative press about the surrounding neighborhood by renaming itself Hudson Heights.
Creating positive associations
On the other hand, several downtown Manhattan neighborhoods have leveraged their proximity to Greenwich Village, possibly the most iconic neighborhood of the city.
What we think of today as the East Village — between Houston and 14th streets — was known as the Lower East Side until the 1960s. As Eric Ferrara, founder of the Lower East Side History Project, states in this interview with The Villager, the rebranding was driven by developers who sought to attract renters and buyers by linking the area with the Greenwich Village counterculture. It evolved to “East of Village” and finally, East Village.
Although it may be difficult to imagine today, in the 1980s, Chelsea was not yet a destination neighborhood. As a result, developers and brokers marketed southern Chelsea as “Greenwich Village North” to leverage the cachet of the more established area. Today, however, Chelsea has such a positive brand that sections of Midtown South are being marketed as “North Chelsea.”
Aspirational neighborhood names
At least two neighborhoods of New York City were renamed to reflect grandiose aspirations of the developers — City Island and East New York. In the 1860s, Great Minneford Island in the Bronx was renamed City Island in order to attract investors to a vision of a port that could rival Manhattan. The Civil War ended that venture, and the island remained a quaint fishing village, but the incongruous name stuck. Similarly, East New York received its grandiose name in the 1830s when it was planned as a metropolis to rival Manhattan (a pattern begins to emerge here).
A distinct sense of place
It seems there is a Highlands or Riverside in almost every city. But some neighborhoods have distinctive names that not just evoke a sense of place, but are strikingly unusual and specific to their cities.
The Ironbound (Newark, NJ) is named for the surrounding rail tracks. Back of the Yards (Chicago) refers to the stockyards that made Chicago (and Sinclair Lewis) famous. The Tenderloin in San Francisco has similar roots. There’s also an Up the Flint (Fall River, MA), Over-the-Rhine (Cincinnati, OH), and Foggy Bottom (Washington, DC). In New York City, there is a Utopia and Blissville in Queens and a group of homes known as “Futurama” in the Flatlands section of Brooklyn with its own civic association (the Futurama Civic Association), detailed in this New York Times article. And the Garment District, just south of Hell’s Kitchen, was once known as the Devil’s Arcade.
Surprisingly, some distinct names have appeared in multiple places — there’s a Swampoodle in both Philadelphia and Washington, DC, and a Dogtown in both Los Angeles and Gloucester, Mass.
Neighborhoods named for things that are no longer there.
College Point, Queens, no longer has a college, and Bath Beach in Brooklyn no longer has a beach.
What were they thinking?
A map of England reveals truly amazing place names including Back Passage, Balls Cross, Bitch Field, Great Cockup, and Little Cockup. But one of the best, worldwide, is the Dubiotech Free Zone (Dubai, UAE) – one would think that any place which sounds like a contraction of “dubious technology” might make it more difficult to obtain venture capital.
There is a Funk Zone in Santa Barbara, CA, a MACH 8 in Tempe, AZ, a District 9 in Cambridge, Mass., and a district called 10 de Octubre in Havana.
Constantine A. Valhouli is the co-founder of NeighborhoodX, a site that offers neighborhood-level reports to complement property-level data and individual property listings. ‘Neighborhood Mitosis’ first appeared on medium.com.