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How the Neighborhoods of Manhattan Got Their Names

For an island of only 24 square miles, Manhattan sure has a lot of neighborhoods. Many have distinct monikers that might not seem intuitive to the lay-tourist, or even to a lifelong New Yorker. Here's where the names of New York's most famous 'hoods came from.

More in This Series: Brooklyn, Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle

Hell’s Kitchen vs. Clinton

In recent decades, businesses and real estate agents have tried in vain to clean up the lively reputation of this west side neighborhood by renaming it “Clinton.” Gentrification and expansion from the neighboring theater district have certainly helped the beautification cause. Nonetheless, the area spanning 34th Street to 59th Street and 8th Avenue (or 9th, depending on who you ask) to the Hudson River just can’t shake the nickname “Hell’s Kitchen.”

At one time not so long ago, Hell’s Kitchen lived up to the nightmarish implications of its name—and then some—but the actual origins of the name have become something of folklore. One legend involves a seasoned cop and a green cop watching a riot take place in the heart of the neighborhood. The story goes that the young cop remarked, “This place is hell itself!” to which the older cop responded “Hell is a mild climate. This is hell’s kitchen.”

The second widely accepted origin comes from the name of a local gang, aptly called “The Hell’s Kitchen Gang.” It was the transgressions of this rough group upon which Herbert Asbury based his 1927 book Gangs of New York, which Martin Scorsese would later adapt into a film by the same name. Hell’s Kitchen was first mentioned in the New York Times on September 22, 1881; the paper used the term to refer to a tenement house on 39th between 9th and 10th.

The days of ethnic strife and poverty that once defined Hell’s Kitchen are long gone, but the name has stuck. Government and business officials drew the alternative name from DeWitt Clinton Park located on the outskirts of the neighborhood. Named for the 19th century New York governor, officials thought the local park and the name Clinton would evoke a sense of New York pride. But for now, residents and other New Yorkers alike proudly call this area Hell’s Kitchen.

Harlem

For a neighborhood with such a rich artistic and cultural history, the origins of its name are rather muted. Harlem is a modification of the name Haarlem, a city in the Netherlands after which this former Dutch village was named. The neighborhood is huge, beginning at 110th Street between 5th and 8th Avenues, and from 125th Street up to 155th Street from 5th Avenue to the water, and eventually from the East River to the Hudson River.

Greenwich Village

A hotdog stand in Greenwich Village, circa 1914.

The heart of bohemia in 1960s New York, this lower Manhattan neighborhood has the Dutch and the British to thank for its name. Greenwich comes for the Dutch word “Greenwijck” which means “Pine District.” When the Dutch ran New York (or New Amsterdam, as they called it), a Dutch man named Yellis Mandeville purchased property in the Village. He allegedly renamed the area after another village on Long Island by the same name. The first recorded appearance of this name change appeared in Yellis’ will at the turn of the 1700s; the name has since been Anglicized to Greenwich. "The Village," as it's often now called, extends from 14th Street to Houston Street and from Broadway west to the Hudson River.

Chelsea

A quarter century before the American Revolution, retired British Major Thomas Clarke bought 94 acres of land located between what is now 21st and 24th Streets, and from 8th Avenue to the water. He built a home on the property and named it “Chelsea,” after a veterans’ hospital and retirement home for elderly soldiers located in Britain. Chelsea Estate would pass through many more hands over the years, but the name Chelsea hung around long enough to become the official name of the neighborhood, which currently extends from 14th Street up to 30th Street, and from 6th Avenue to the water.

The Districts

Many districts make up the island of Manhattan, but the names of a few in particular have become part of the geographic vernacular.

The Flatiron District

A rather recent addition to the Manhattan neighborhood family, the Flatiron District has the triangular shaped Flatiron Building on 23rd Street to thank for its eponym. The structure, built in 1902, was one of the tallest at the time of its construction and its shape resembles a hot clothing iron. Though initially designated the Fuller Building, people kept referring to it as the Flatiron until eventually that just became the accepted name. The Flatiron District became a “named district” in the mid-1980’s when the neighborhood started to become more residential. Today, it is also nicknamed “Silicon Alley” due to the proliferation of tech start-ups in the vicinity, and ranges from E. 20th Street up to 26th Street, between Park Avenue South/Lexington Avenue and Sixth Avenue.

The Meatpacking District
Now bustling with hot clubs and expensive clothing retailers, the “Meatpacking District” name has a very literal beginning. In the late 1800s, New York decided to name two acres of lower Manhattan’s west side after General Peter Gansevoort. This area became a commercial district, known as Gansevoort Market. By 1900, the market would boast more than 250 slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants. In the later part of the century, the district—which stretches between 9th and 11th Avenues, from Gansevoort Street to 14th Street—became less of a commercial food market and more of a haven for sex clubs and other “special interest” nightlife. Eventually, all other industry gave way to exclusive nightlife and high-end apparel, but the name remains.

The Garment District
Only one square mile, this midtown west area located just below Times Square (from 34th to 40th Streets, between Sixth and Ninth Avenues) housed half of New York City’s garment plants in the early 20th century. In its heyday, the Garment District serviced all facets of the fashion industry, from design to manufacture to sale. Most of the manufacturing business has since faded away from the area, but its historical contributions live on through the name—and a giant needle and button sculpture on 7th Avenue.

In The Heights

Though the island is relatively flat, Upper Manhattan still has a few heights.

Morningside Heights

Columbia University, circa 1903.

The Heights formerly known as Vandewater, from the name of Dutch settler Harmon Vandewater, became Morningside around the time Columbia University was expanding into the area (around 1896). A city surveyor appraising the surrounding land found one spot he deemed unsuitable for anything other than a city park. This particular park was situated on the east side of a hill, perfectly positioned for a nice wash of sunlight every morning. In 1870, the city named it “Morning Side Park,” and it is believed to have inspired this particular Heights’ new first name of Morningside. The neighborhood's current boundaries are 110th to 125th, from 8th Avenue to the Hudson River.

Washington Heights
Located below Inwood, the uppermost part of Manhattan, and above Harlem and Morningside Heights, Washington Heights (155th Street to 181st Street, river to river) is named in honor of Fort Washington. Built on what was at the time the highest elevated part of Manhattan, this fortress allowed American Revolutionary forces to observe the British Redcoats from afar. The name started commonly appearing in association with the area in the late 19th century.

Hamilton Heights
Once an under-settled area of mansions and estates in what is now West Harlem/Upper Manhattan, Hamilton Heights—which stretches from 135th to 155th Streets between St. Nicholas Avenue and the Hudson River—derives its name from the Hamilton Grange, the country home of Federalist leader Alexander Hamilton. He had little time to enjoy the leisurely life on his vacation estate, as he was gunned down in the infamous duel with Aaron Burr only two years after the home was built.

The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Murray

The hill may be long gone, literally leveled by urbanization, but its namesake lives on below 34th Street, from Madison Avenue to the East River. In the 1760’s, Robert Murray was a Quaker merchant who purchased land in the area of Iclenberg, a large hill somewhere around modern day 36th and Park Ave. Though the Murrays may have called their homestead Iclenberg or, later, Belmont, locals referred to his family’s estate as Murray Hill. The voice of the people won, and we have them to thank for the neighborhood’s name, though we can hardly blame them for its modern reputation as a frat boy haven.

To Bay or Not To Bay

These areas along the East River aren't technically bays, but that didn't stop residents from using the word.

Turtle Bay
In 1639, the Dutch Governor bequeathed to a few Englishmen a piece of farmland, through which a creek flowed—well, trickled—into the East River bay. The men would call the property Turtle Bay Farm. Some historians believe “Turtle Bay” came from the healthy population of turtles living in the creek, but the Turtle Bay Association posits the name was actually adapted from the Dutch word “deutal,” meaning “bent blade," because the bay resembles that shape. At some point in time, New Yorkers dropped the Farm part of the name and that area east of Midtown Manhattan—which stretches from E. 42nd Street to E. 53rd Street between Lexington Avenue and the East River—simply became “Turtle Bay.”

Kips Bay
Just a few blocks south of Turtle Bay, from E. 23rd Street to E. 38th Street and between Lexington Avenue and the East River, is Kips Bay. The neighborhood was named for Dutch settler Jacobus Hendrickson Kip, who bought property in the area during the 1600s.

Hip to Be Squares

Though technically not neighborhoods, the names of these rectangular city hubs have a few stories—and mysteries—of their own.

Times Square

Times Building

When the New York Times moved its headquarters to then-named Long Acre Square in 1904, publisher/owner Adolph Ochs strongly encouraged Mayor George B. McClellan, Jr. to change the name to Times Square. McClellan agreed, and it was henceforth Times Square. Today, the tourist trap—and the 'hood most dreaded by New Yorkers—stretches from W. 40th Street to W. 53rd Street between 6th and 8th Avenues.

Union Square

Originally named Union Place, this New York City hub marked the intersection, or “union,” of two major city thoroughfares—what are now 4th Avenue and Broadway at 14th Street. There has been some speculation that the Civil War might have influenced the naming, but historical evidence points to Union Square receiving its name many years before the war broke out.

Lincoln Square
Lincoln Square, which lies between W. 59th Street and W. 72nd Street and stretches from Central Park West to the Hudson River, remains one of the great name mysteries in Manhattan. City records from 1906 show a NYC Board of Aldermen decreeing this piece of property be called “Lincoln Square.” However, either no one took minutes at this meeting or they were lost somewhere in the annals of time, because there exists little evidence as to why they chose “Lincoln.” Historians have yet to uncover public records of a prominent New York landowner with the surname Lincoln. Perhaps it was an homage to President Abraham Lincoln, but there’s just as little evidence to support this theory.

Herald Square

This busy intersection on 34th Street and 6th Avenue was named after the New York Herald. The newspaper no longer exists, leaving this Square’s name as its lasting legacy to the city.

Madison Square

Not to be confused with home of the New York Rangers—Madison Square Garden—Madison Square refers to the park at 23rd Street and 5th Avenue and the square surrounding it, both of which attribute their name to the fourth President of the United States, James Madison.

Washington Square

Originally farmland, like most of Manhattan, this public park located at 5th Avenue and Waverly Place was named after President George Washington, who was inaugurated in New York City. Fun fact: It was once a cemetery. A 2005 archaeological assessment by the City Parks Department estimates some 20,000 bodies are buried beneath the park.

The Acronyms

Finally there are the original acronym neighborhoods, which popped up throughout lower Manhattan and have a reputation for hipness. They’re also pretty handy helpers for learning downtown geography:

SoHo: SOuth of HOuston Street
NoHo: NOrth of HOuston
Tribeca: the TRIangle BElow CAnal Street
Nolita: NOrth of Little ITAly

We're slowly working our way across the country. See how the neighborhoods in other cities got their names.

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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9 Scandals that Rocked the Figure Skating World
ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images
ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images

Don't let the ornate costumes and beautiful choreography fool you, figure skaters are no strangers to scandal. Here are nine notable ones.

1. TONYA AND NANCY.

Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding
Pascal Rondeau, ALLSPORT/Getty Images

In 1994, a little club-and-run thrust the sport of figure skating into the spotlight. The assault on reigning national champion Nancy Kerrigan (and her subsequent anguished cries) at the 1994 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships in Detroit was heard round the world, as were the allegations that her main rival, Tonya Harding, may have been behind it all.

The story goes a little something like this: As America's sweetheart (Kerrigan) is preparing to compete for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team bound for Lillehammer, Norway, she gets clubbed in the knee outside the locker room after practice. Kerrigan is forced to withdraw from competition and Harding gets the gold. Details soon emerge that Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, was behind the attack (he hired a hitman). Harding denies any knowledge or involvement, but tanks at the Olympics the following month. She then pleads guilty to hindering prosecution of Gillooly and his co-conspirators, bodyguard Shawn Eckhart and hitman Shane Stant. And then she's banned from figure skating for life.

Questions about Harding's guilt remain two decades later, and the event is still a topic of conversation today. Recently, both an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary and the Oscar-nominated film I, Tonya revisited the saga, proving we can't get enough of a little figure skating scandal.

2. HAND-PICKED FOR GOLD.

Mirai Nagasu and Ashley Wagner at the podium
Jared Wickerham, Getty Images

Usually it's the top three medalists at the U.S. Nationals that compete for America at the Winter Olympics every four years. But in 2014, gold medalist Gracie Gold (no pun intended), silver medalist Polina Edmunds, and ... "pewter" medalist Ashley Wagner were destined for Sochi.

What about the bronze medalist, you ask? Mirai Nagasu, despite out-skating Wagner by a landslide in Boston and despite being the only skater with prior Olympic experience (she placed fourth at Vancouver in 2010) had to watch it all on television. The decision by the country's governing body of figure skating (United States Figure Skating Association, or USFS) deeply divided the skating community as to whether it was the right choice to pass over Nagasu in favor of Wagner, who hadn't skated so great, and it put a global spotlight on the selection process.

In reality, the athletes that we send to the Olympics are not chosen solely on their performance at Nationals—it's one of many criteria taken into consideration, including performance in international competition over the previous year, difficulty of each skater's technical elements, and, to some degree, their marketability to a world audience. This has happened before to other skaters—most notably Michelle Kwan was relegated to being an alternate in 1994 after Nancy Kerrigan was granted a medical bye after the leg-clubbing heard round the world. Nagasu had the right to appeal the decision, and was encouraged to do so by mobs of angry skating fans, but she elected not to.

3. SALT LAKE CITY, 2002.

Pairs skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada and Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia perform in the figure skating exhibition during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games at the Salt Lake Ice Center in Salt Lake City, Utah
Brian Bahr, Getty Images

Objectively, this scandal rocked the skating world the hardest, because the end result was a shattering of the competitive sport's very structure. When Canadian pairs team Jamie Sale and David Pelletier found themselves in second place after a flawless freeskate at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake, something wasn't right. The Russian team of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze placed first, despite a technically flawed performance.

An investigation into the result revealed that judges had conspired to fix the results of the pairs and dance events—a French judge admitted to being pressured to vote for the Russian pair in exchange for a boost for the French dance team (who won that event). In the end, both pairs teams were awarded a gold medal, and the entire system of judging figure skating competition was thrown out and rebuilt.

4. AGENT OF STYLE.

Jackson Haines was an American figure skater in the mid-1800s who had some crazy ideas about the sport. He had this absolutely ludicrous notion of skating to music (music!), waltzing on ice, as well as incorporating balletic movements, athletic jumps, and spins into competition. His brand new style of skating was in complete contrast to the rigid, traditional, and formal (read: awkward) standard of tracing figure-eights into the ice. Needless to say, it was not well received by the skating world in America, so he was forced to take his talents to the Old World.

His new “international style” did eventually catch on around the globe, and Haines is now hailed as the father of modern figure skating. He also invented the sit spin, a technical element now required in almost every level and discipline of the sport.

5. LADIES LAST.

In 1902, competitive figure skating was a gentlemen's pursuit. Ladies simply didn't compete by themselves on the world stage (though they did compete in pairs events). But a British skater named Madge Syers flouted that standard, entering the World Figure Skating Championships in 1902. She ruffled a lot of feathers, but was ultimately allowed to compete and beat the pants off every man save one, earning the silver medal.

Her actions sparked a controversy that spurred the International Skating Union to create a separate competitive world event for women in 1906. Madge went on to win that twice, and became Olympic champion at the 1908 summer games [PDF] in London—the first “winter” Olympics weren't held until 1924 in France, several years after Madge died in 1917.

6. AGENT OF STYLE, PART 2.

A picture of Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie
Keystone/Getty Images

Norwegian skater Sonja Henie was the darling of the figure skating world in the first half of the 20th century. The flirtatious blonde was a three-time Olympic champion, a movie star, and the role model of countless aspiring skaters. She brought sexy back to skating—or rather, introduced it. She was the first skater to wear scandalously short skirts and white skates. Prior to her bold fashion choices, ladies wore black skates and long, conservative skirts. During WWII, a fabric shortage hiked up the skirts even further than Henie's typical length, and the ladies of figure skating have never looked back.

7. TOO SEXY FOR HER SKATES.

Katarina Witt displaying her gold medal
DANIEL JANIN, AFP/Getty Images

A buxom young beauty from the former Democratic German Republic dominated ladies figure skating in the mid- to late 1980s. A two-time Olympic champion, and one of the most decorated female skaters in history, Katarina Witt was just too sexy for her shirt—she tended to wear scandalously revealing costumes (one of which resulted in a wardrobe malfunction during a show), and was criticized for attempting to flirt with the judges to earn higher scores.

The ISU put the kibosh on the controversial outfits soon afterward, inserting a rule that all competitive female skaters “must not give the effect of excessive nudity inappropriate for an athletic sport.” The outrage forced Witt to add some fabric to her competitive outfits in the late '80s. But 10 years later she took it all off, posing naked for a 1998 issue of Playboy.

8. MORE COSTUME CONTROVERSY.

For the 2010 competitive year, the ISU's annual theme for the original dance segment (since defunct and replaced by the “short dance”) was “country/folk.” That meant competitors had to create a routine that explored some aspect of it, in both music and costume as well as in maneuvers. The top Russian pair chose to emulate Aboriginal tribal dancing in their program, decked in full bodysuits adorned with their interpretation of Aboriginal body paint (and a loincloth).

Their debut performance at the European Championships drew heavy criticism from Aboriginal groups in both Australia and Canada, who were greatly offended by the inaccuracy of the costumes and the routine. The Russian pair, Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, were quick to dial down the costumes and dial up the accuracy in time for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, but the judges were not impressed. They ended up with the bronze, ending decades of Russian dominance in the discipline. (With the glaring exception of 2002, of course.)

9. IN MEMORIAM.

While not a scandal, this event bears mentioning because it has rocked the figure skating world arguably more than anything else. In February of 1961, the American figure skating team boarded a flight to Belgium from New York, en route to the World Championships in Prague. The plane went down mysteriously (cause still questioned today) as it tried to land in Brussels, killing all 72 passengers. America's top skaters and coaches had been aboard, including nine-time U.S. Champion and Olympic bronze medalist-turned-coach Maribel Vinson-Owen and her daughter Laurence Owen, a 16-year-old who had been heavily favored to win the ladies event that year.

The ISU canceled the competition upon the news of the crash and the United States lost its long-held dominance in the sport for almost a decade. The United States Figure Skating Association (USFS) soon after established a memorial fund that helped support the skating careers of competitors in need of financial assistance, including future Olympic champions like Scott Hamilton and Peggy Fleming.

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