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How the Neighborhoods of Manhattan Got Their Names

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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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6 Eponyms Named After the Wrong Person
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Salmonella species growing on agar.

Having something named after you is the ultimate accomplishment for any inventor, mathematician, scientist, or researcher. Unfortunately, the credit for an invention or discovery does not always go to the correct person—senior colleagues sometimes snatch the glory, fakers pull the wool over people's eyes, or the fickle general public just latches onto the wrong name.

1. SALMONELLA (OR SMITHELLA?)

In 1885, while investigating common livestock diseases at the Bureau of Animal Industry in Washington, D.C., pathologist Theobald Smith first isolated the salmonella bacteria in pigs suffering from hog cholera. Smith’s research finally identified the bacteria responsible for one of the most common causes of food poisoning in humans. Unfortunately, Smith’s limelight-grabbing supervisor, Daniel E. Salmon, insisted on taking sole credit for the discovery. As a result, the bacteria was named after him. Don’t feel too sorry for Theobald Smith, though: He soon emerged from Salmon’s shadow, going on to make the important discovery that ticks could be a vector in the spread of disease, among other achievements.

2. AMERICA (OR COLUMBIANA?)

An etching of Amerigo Vespucci
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512) claimed to have made numerous voyages to the New World, the first in 1497, before Columbus. Textual evidence suggests Vespucci did take part in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, but generally does not support the idea that he set eyes on the New World before Columbus. Nevertheless, Vespucci’s accounts of his voyages—which today read as far-fetched—were hugely popular and translated into many languages. As a result, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing his map of the Novus Mundi (or New World) in 1507 he marked it with the name "America" in Vespucci’s honor. He later regretted the choice, omitting the name from future maps, but it was too late, and the name stuck.

3. BLOOMERS (OR MILLERS?)

A black and white image of young women wearing bloomers
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dress reform became a big issue in mid-19th century America, when women were restricted by long, heavy skirts that dragged in the mud and made any sort of physical activity difficult. Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller was inspired by traditional Turkish dress to begin wearing loose trousers gathered at the ankle underneath a shorter skirt. Miller’s new outfit immediately caused a splash, with some decrying it as scandalous and others inspired to adopt the garb.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was editor of the women’s temperance journal The Lily, and she took to copying Miller’s style of dress. She was so impressed with the new freedom it gave her that she began promoting the “reform dress” in her magazine, printing patterns so others might make their own. Bloomer sported the dress when she spoke at events and soon the press began to associate the outfit with her, dubbing it “Bloomer’s costume.” The name stuck.

4. GUILLOTINE (OR LOUISETTE?)

Execution machines had been known prior to the French Revolution, but they were refined after Paris physician and politician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin suggested they might be a more humane form of execution than the usual methods (hanging, burning alive, etc.). The first guillotine was actually designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, Secretary of the Academy of Surgery, and was known as a louisette. The quick and efficient machine was quickly adopted as the main method of execution in revolutionary France, and as the bodies piled up the public began to refer to it as la guillotine, for the man who first suggested its use. Guillotin was very distressed at the association, and when he died in 1814 his family asked the French government to change the name of the hated machine. The government refused and so the family changed their name instead to escape the dreadful association.

5. BECHDEL TEST (OR WALLACE TEST?)

Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

The Bechdel Test is a tool to highlight gender inequality in film, television, and fiction. The idea is that in order to pass the test, the movie, show, or book in question must include at least one scene in which two women have a conversation that isn’t about a man. The test was popularized by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and has since become known by her name. However, Bechdel asserts that the idea originated with her friend Lisa Wallace (and was also inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf), and she would prefer for it to be known as the Bechdel-Wallace test.

6. STIGLER’S LAW OF EPONYMY (OR MERTON’S LAW?)

Influential sociologist Robert K. Merton suggested the idea of the “Matthew Effect” in a 1968 paper noting that senior colleagues who are already famous tend to get the credit for their junior colleagues’ discoveries. (Merton named his phenomenon [PDF] after the parable of talents in the Gospel of Matthew, in which wise servants invest money their master has given them.)

Merton was a well-respected academic, and when he was due to retire in 1979, a book of essays celebrating his work was proposed. One person who contributed an essay was University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler, who had corresponded with Merton about his ideas. Stigler decided to pen an essay that celebrated and proved Merton’s theory. As a result, he took Merton’s idea and created Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, which states that “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer”—the joke being that Stigler himself was taking Merton’s own theory and naming it after himself. To further prove the rule, the “new” law has been adopted by the academic community, and a number of papers and articles have since been written on "Stigler’s Law."

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WWI Centennial: Battle of Mărăști

By summer 1917 the outlook for the Allies on the Eastern Front was grim at best, as Russia descended into chaos and a combined Austro-German counterattack routed demoralized troops on the Galician front following the failure of the Kerensky Offensive, while everywhere the once-great Russian Army was rapidly hollowed by mutiny and mass desertions.

Against this gloomy backdrop, late July brought a rare and unexpected bright spot on the Romanian front, where the Romanian Second Army (rested, reorganized and resupplied after the disaster of 1916) mounted a surprise offensive along with the Russian Fourth and Ninth Armies against the junction of the German Ninth Army and Austro-Hungarian First Army, and scored an impressive tactical victory at the Battle of Mărăști, from July 22 to August 1, 1917. However the larger planned offensive failed to materialize, and Romania’s isolated success couldn’t shore up the crumbling Eastern Front amid Russia’s collapse.

Map of Europe July 22 1917
Erik Sass

The Allied success at Mărăști was due to a number of factors, most notably the careful artillery preparation, which saw two days of heavy bombardment of Austro-German positions beginning on July 22, guided by aerial spotters. The Austro-German forces were also deployed on hilly terrain in the foothills of the Vrancea Mountains, meaning their trenches were discontinuous, separated in many places by rough terrain, although they tried to compensate for this with heavily fortified strongholds. Pockets of forest and sheltered gorges also allowed the Romanians to advance in between the zigzagging enemy trenches undetected; on the other hand, the hills and tree cover also made it difficult to move up artillery once the advance began (a task made even more difficult by torrential rain, the familiar companion of the First World War). 

After two days of fierce, concentrated bombardment, on July 24 at 4 a.m. the Romanians and Russian infantry went over the top, with the Romanians advancing along a 30-kilometer-long stretch of front behind a “creeping barrage” of the type recently adopted by the French and British on the Western Front. With three divisions from the Russian Fourth Army supporting them on the southern flank, 56 Romanian battalions advanced up to 19 kilometers in some places – a major breakthrough by the standards of trench warfare. Engineers followed close behind to create roads bypassing the most inaccessible terrain, but unsurprisingly it still proved difficult to move heavy guns as the new roads quickly turned to mud in the rain.

On July 25 the Romanians began to consolidate their gains, spelling the end of major offensive operations during the battle, although smaller actions continued until August 1. The decision was prompted by events elsewhere on the Eastern Front (above, Romanian civilians look at enemy guns captured during the battle). The Battle of Mărăști was supposed to be part of a larger pincer movement by Romanian and Russian forces, including an attack by the Romanian First Army and Russian Sixth Army to the southeast, which were supposed to outflank the German Ninth Army from the southeast. However the disastrous defeat of Russian forces further north in Galicia and Bukovina, widespread insubordination in the Russian Army, and political turmoil in the Russian rear all combined to derail the Allied plan, forcing them to go on the defensive.

The victory at Mărăști was not fruitless: along with an even bigger defensive victory atMărășești two weeks later, Mărăști seriously complicated the Central Powers’ strategy for the remainder of the year, which called for knocking Romania and Russia out of the war before returning to the Western Front to finish off France. 

But the big picture was bad and getting worse, as hundreds of thousands of Russian troops deserted or refused to fight, effectively paralyzing the Allied war effort along most of the Eastern Front, while in Galicia the Austro-German advance continued. Florence Farmborough, a British nurse serving with a Red Cross unit in the Russian Army, described a typical day during the Russian retreat in her diary entry on July 25, 1917 (and noted the growing hostility of ordinary Russian soldiers towards the foreign nurses, representatives of the Western Allies, whom the Russians accused of leaving them in the lurch):

And then there came again that peremptory voice we dreaded. It roused us as no other could ever do, for it was the voice of Retreat. ‘Wake up! Get up at once! No time to lose!’ We started up, seized what we could and helped the orderlies collect the equipment. We were told it was a proruiv [breakthrough] on the right flank of our Front and that the enemy was pouring through the gap. The Sister-on-duty began to weep… Troops were passing quickly by in the darkness; whole regiments were there. We were given a lantern and told to stand by the gate and await transport. Some soldiers entered the yard swearing; we hoped they would not see us. But they did, and soon they were shouting ugly things about us. I too felt like weeping, but we had to keep a straight face and pretend that we had not heard… The soldiers who had always been our patient, grateful men, seemed to have turned against us. Now for the first time we realised that our soldiers might become our enemies and were capable of doing us harm.

This was not an isolated occurrence, but rather one small incident in a rising tide of insubordination and sheer chaos. Later Farmborough noted another encounter:

More soldiers went by in the darkness. There were no officers with them, they too were deserters. Curing and shouting they made their way along the highroad. We were frightened and crouched low against the fence so that they could not see us, and we dared not speak lest they should hear… The night was very dark and the confusion great. Wheels creaked and scrunched; frightened horses slid forwards by leaps and bounds; cart grated against cart; whips twanged and swished; and agitated voices shouted and cursed in one and the same breath... All around us were fires; even in front of us buildings were blazing. My driver said that some of the soldiers thought that they were already surrounded by the enemy.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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