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 6th 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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October 7, 2012 - 11:00am
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