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Wikimedia Commons

How Brooklyn's Neighborhoods Got Their Names

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Brooklyn's modern history began as six small Dutch towns on the southern tip of Long Island. From these inauspicious beginnings sprouted New York's most populous borough, full of unique and distinct neighborhoods. You may know where these neighborhoods are, but do you know what their names mean?

Bay Ridge

Bay Ridge, ca. 1872-1887

Dutch settlers landed in this area and dubbed it “Yellow Hook” for its yellow clay soil along the water. In 1853, a yellow fever epidemic broke out and, in a move of astute marketing, Yellow Hook’s citizens changed the neighborhood’s name to Bay Ridge. Wealthy New Yorkers were attracted to the area’s beautiful views of New York Bay—a much better draw than a virulent blood disease.

Bergen Beach

The Bergen family were some of the first Dutch settlers to land in Brooklyn. Their clan originated in Bergen, Norway, and descendent Hans Hansen Bergen migrated to Kings County in 1633. His wife, Sarah Rapelye, arrived with the first Dutch ship to the borough and, according to the book Brooklyn by Name, she called herself the “first-born Christian Daughter of New Netherland.” What people actually called her behind her back, however, has been lost in the tides of history.

Bedford-Stuyvesant

This hybrid name comes from the time when the town of Bedford merged with Stuyvesant Heights. Stuyvesant Heights was named for Peter Stuyvesant, the last governor of the Dutch-controlled New Netherlands colony before it was given to British rule in 1664.

Boerum Hill

The Boerums were early Dutch settlers who arrived in Brooklyn in 1649 and rose to prominence as farmers in the area. The name Boerum Hill was out of fashion for much of the 20th century and the area was often just referred to as “South Brooklyn.” When the neighborhood’s popularity rose in the 1990s, South Brooklyn was out and Boerum Hill was in.

Brooklyn Heights

This one is relatively self-explanatory, but the name "Brooklyn" isn't (at least for those of us who don't speak Dutch). It comes from Breuckelen, one of the aforementioned six original towns of Kings County. New York's first suburb was named for the ridge it's perched upon over the East River. It was known as "Brooklyn Village" for years before the name "Brooklyn Heights" stuck as the borough grew.

Carroll Gardens

Like Boerum Hill, Carroll Gardens was just “South Brooklyn” for most of its history. The name “Carroll Gardens” comes from Charles Carroll, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Carroll led a failed assault on a British encampment near the Gowanus Canal in 1776 and lost about 300 of his 400 troops. In the mid-20th century, a neighborhood civic association popularized the name Carroll Gardens in an attempt to revitalize the area. Their plan wound up being far more successful than Carroll's assault.

Clinton Hill

This neighborhood just east of Fort Greene is named after Clinton Avenue, which is itself named after New York Governor DeWitt Clinton (in office from 1817 to '22 and again from 1825 to '28). “Hill” alludes to the area's downright dizzying elevation of 95 feet.

Cobble Hill

This area is named for the steep cobblestone street that once rose from what today is the corner of Court and Pacific Streets. Early Dutch settlers called it "Ponkiesbergh," which literally translates to "Cobble Hill." George Washington used it as a vantage point during the Revolutionary War's Battle of Long Island. The Americans lost, but as least he had a great view.

Coney Island

The Dutch called this land "Conyne Eylandt," meaning "Rabbit Island."

Crown Heights

Crown Heights was originally Crow Hill until Crown Street was laid through the neighborhood in 1916. We may never know why they didn't just change the name to "Crown Hill" so they would only have to buy one letter to change all the signs.

Cypress Hills

The sprawling Cypress Hills Cemetery was incorporated on November 21, 1848 by New York state as a non-profit, non-sectarian organization, and the surrounding neighborhood soon took its name.

Downtown Brooklyn

Downtown Brooklyn became the business hub of the borough largely because Fulton's steamship, which was the first form of mass transit between Manhattan and Brooklyn, connected the area to New York's financial center.

Dyker Heights

Dyker Beach and Meadow is thought to have been named after the Van Dykes, a Dutch family who divided the land when it was part of New Utrecht, one of the original Dutch towns on Long Island. The overhang above it was disregarded as unfarmable for centuries before 1893, when Walter L. Johnson inherited it and turned it into a livable suburb named after the beach below. Above is a Popular Science Monthly cross-section of Dyker Beach and Meadow from 1876.

DUMBO

This acronym stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass and was coined in the 1970s after artists began to migrate to the then-unnamed, sparsely populated former industrial hub between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges. The name was inspired by Manhattan’s sing-song neighborhoods like SoHo and Tribeca.

East New York

East New York was the brainchild of John R. Pitkin, a rich merchant from Connecticut who began developing the area in 1835. He wanted it to rival New York City, but an economic depression ruined those plans. East New York eventually became incorporated into regular New York in 1897. Sorry, John.

Flatlands

Jans Martense Schecnk House, ca. 1891

Flatlands was originally known by Dutch settlers as Nieuw Amersfoort. Once British rule set in, the name became "Flatlands" because the area was—wait for it—flat. The region was primarily used for farming tobacco and other crops.

Fort Greene

Here’s a simple one: Fort Greene was once a fort. It was named after Nathanael Greene, a Major General in the Continental Army and one of George Washington’s most trusted officers. Washington withdrew troops from this earthen fort when he knew the Battle of Long Island was lost, preventing further casualties.

Gerritsen Beach

This hard-to-access, crescent-shaped neighborhood adjacent to Marine Park is named for Wolfert Gerritsen, a 17th century settler. The area was mostly marsh until New Yorkers began building summer homes there after the first World War.

Gowanus

Named after the canal, which itself was named after Gouwane, a chief of the Lenape (also known as Canarsee) tribe of Native Americans who lived in the area long before any Dutch or British people came and started calling it "Brooklyn" or "Breuckelen."

Gravesend

The origin of this neighborhood name was under some dispute, but the argument didn't last long. Historical archeologist (and Bayside, Queens resident) Richard Schaeffer settled it with a one-punch knockout of a letter to the editor in the New York Times. The Times had said that "Gravesend" comes from the British township where Lady Deborah Moody had migrated from. According to Schaeffer, it actually comes from Dutch governor-general William Kieft, who “chose to name the settlement 's- Gravesande after the town in Holland that had been the seat of the Counts of Holland before they moved to the Hague. It means the count's sand or beach. The odd spelling, with hyphen and apostrophe, is an archaic Dutch possessive form.”

So there.

Greenpoint

Early European settlers called a small, grassy bluff protruding out into the East River “greenpoint,” and the name stuck for the entire area. The original greenpoint would have been at the end of Freeman street, where a truck yard stands now.

Mill Basin

This tiny protected peninsula inside Jamaica Bay was once the site of tidal mills, hence “Mill Basin.”

Navy Yard

This stretch of piers, channels, and dry docks on the East River became an official United States Navy Yard in 1806 and was in service until 1966. After a short period of commercial shipbuilding, the Navy Yard has been out of maritime service since 1987.

Park Slope and Prospect Heights

These adjacent neighborhoods are both named for Prospect Park. The names were interchangeable when referring to the whole area for years until residents and real estate brokers began firmly differentiating the two. 

Red Hook

Red Hook, ca. 1875

Red Hook's name comes from the red soil found at the point of South Brooklyn (“hoek” is Dutch for “point”). Red Hook was of great strategic importance in the defense of New York Harbor during the Revolutionary War. There’s an IKEA there now, so score a surprising victory for the Swedes.

Sea Gate

Not many people know about Sea Gate, a tiny beachside community located on the western tip of Coney Island. The area was originally named "Norton’s Point" after a casino that once operated there, but the gaming industry was ushered out in 1892 in favor of a small, gated community. Hence, “Sea Gate.”

Sheepshead Bay

The sheepshead fish was such a popular catch in the 1800s in Brooklyn that they named the sliver of a bay and the adjacent plot of land after it. Oddly, the sheepshead prefers much warmer climes, but the funny-looking fish with human-like teeth couldn't get enough of Brooklyn. Nowadays, it's remarkably rare to find one swimming in the area. It’s theorized that pollution killed the oyster reefs they fed on and eventually thinned out their numbers. That, or their rents got jacked up when yuppie fish moved in.

Sunset Park

Another neighborhood known simply as “South Brooklyn” for years, Sunset Park got its current name from the local park just south of Green-Wood Cemetery. The park offers terrific views of the Manhattan skyline during sunsets, hence the name "Sunset Park." If you are poetic at heart, feel free to ascribe the name as a sorrowful allusion to the neighboring cemetery.

Williamsburg

This area along the East River was dubbed "Bushwick Shores" before it was purchased in 1802 by real estate investor Richard Woodhull. He named it "Williamsburgh" after Jonathan Williams, the engineer who surveyed the land.

British Brooklyn

These neighborhood names skip the anglicized Dutch and come directly from towns in the UK.

Brighton Beach

Brighton Beach got its name in 1878 after a group of business developers held a contest to decide what the area would be called.

Bath Beach

Bath Beach, which rests up against Gravesend Bay, is named for the town located in the southwest of England. 

Kensington

Kensington, Flatbush’s quiet and small neighbor, is named for the residential West London borough.

The Modest Men of Brooklyn

These three communities have one thing in common: The men who established them humbly named each one after themselves.

Bensonhurst 

In 1835, Brooklyn Gas Light president Arthur W. Benson bought a large plot of farmland and developed it into a suburb he named Bensonhurst.

Brownsville

Browsnsville, ca. 1962

Two decades later, a man named Charles S. Brown subdivided a patch of unclaimed land between East New York and Bushwick and renamed it Brownsville.

Lefferts Gardens

In 1893, James Lefferts inherited a swath of Dutch farmland that he divided into 600 separate building lots for single-family homes. That area, within Lefferts Gardens, still stands and goes by its original name, Lefferts Manor.

The Woods

Much of Brooklyn was at one time dense woodlands, hence these names from the endlessly creative Dutch.

Midwood

Midwood, 1977

From “Midwout,” meaning “middle woods.”

Flatbush

Originally “Vlackte Bosch," which means “flat forest," or "a plain with woods."

Bushwick

Evolved from “Boswijck,” meaning “little town in the woods.”

UPDATE: As many readers have correctly pointed out, this article omits Canarsie. The name "Canarsie" comes from a translation of what the original Dutch settlers called the Lenape Native Americans who lived in what is now Brooklyn.

Also omitted: Vinegar Hill (named by Irish immigrants after the Battle of Vinegar Hill), Windsor Terrace (which is said to have been coined by Robert Bell, an early resident in the area), and Boro Park (State Senator William H. Reynolds bought the land in 1898 and called it "Borough Park").

All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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

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Food
The History Behind Why We Eat 10 Dishes at Thanksgiving
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Halloween is for candy comas, and on Independence Day we grill, but no holiday is as completely defined by its cuisine as Thanksgiving. No matter what part of the country you're in, it's a safe bet that at least a few of the below dishes will be making an appearance on your table this week. But what makes these specific entrees and side dishes so emblematic of Thanksgiving? Read on to discover the sometimes-surprising history behind your favorite fall comfort foods.

1. TURKEY

A roasted turkey on a platter.
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Turkey has become so synonymous with Thanksgiving that most of us probably imagine the pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans chowing down on a roast bird in 1621. Although we don't know the exact menu of that first Plymouth Colony feast, a first-person account of the year's harvest from governor William Bradford does reference "a great store of wild turkeys," and another first-person account, from colonist Edward Winslow, confirms that the settlers "killed as much fowl as…served the company almost a week." However, culinary historian Kathleen Wall believes that, although turkeys were available, it's likely that duck, goose, or even passenger pigeons were the more prominent poultry options at the first Thanksgiving. Given their proximity to the Atlantic, local seafood like oysters and lobsters were likely on the menu as well.

As the holiday grew in popularity, however, turkey became the main course for reasons more practical than symbolic. English settlers were accustomed to eating fowl on holidays, but for early Americans, chickens were more valued for their eggs than their meat, and rooster was tough and unappetizing. Meanwhile, turkeys were easy to keep, big enough to feed a whole family, and cheaper than ducks or geese. Even before Thanksgiving was recognized as a national holiday, Alexander Hamilton himself remarked that "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day." The country followed his advice: according to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of Americans will eat turkey in some form on Thanksgiving Day—an estimated 44 million birds!

2. STUFFING

Pan of breaded stuffing.
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Stuffing would have been a familiar concept to those early settlers as well, although their version was likely quite different from what we're used to. We know that the first Plymouth colonists didn't have access to white flour or butter, so traditional bread stuffing wouldn't have been possible yet. Instead, according to Wall, they may have used chestnuts, herbs, and chunks of onion to flavor the birds, all of which were already part of the local fare. Centuries later, we're still stuffing turkeys as a way to keep the bird moist through the roasting process and add extra flavor.

3. CRANBERRIES

Dish of cranberry sauce.
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Like turkeys, cranberries were widely available in the area, but cranberry sauce almost certainly did not make an appearance at the first Thanksgiving. Why not? The sugar reserves the colonists would have had were almost completely depleted after their long sea journey, and thus they didn't have the means to sweeten the terrifically tart berries.

So how did cranberries become such an autumnal staple? For starters, they're a truly American food, as one of only a few fruits—along with Concord grapes, blueberries, and pawpaws—that originated in North America. They grow in such abundance in the northeast that colonists quickly began incorporating cranberries into various dishes, such as pemmican, which mixed mashed cranberries with lard and dried venison. By the Civil War, they were such a holiday staple that General Ulysses S. Grant famously demanded his soldiers be provided cranberries for their Thanksgiving Day meal.

4. MASHED POTATOES

Bowl of mashed potatoes.
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Potatoes weren't yet available in 17th-century Plymouth, so how did mashed potatoes become another Thanksgiving superstar? The answer lies in the history of the holiday itself. In America’s earliest years, it was common for the sitting President to declare a "national day of thanks," but these were sporadic and irregular. In 1817, New York became the first state to officially adopt the holiday, and others soon followed suit, but Thanksgiving wasn't a national day of celebration until Abraham Lincoln declared it so in 1863.

Why did Lincoln—hands full with an ongoing war—take up the cause? Largely due to a 36-year campaign from Sarah Josepha Hale, a prolific novelist, poet, and editor, who saw in Thanksgiving a moral benefit for families and communities. In addition to her frequent appeals to officials and presidents, Hale wrote compellingly about the holiday in her 1827 novel Northwood, as well as in the womens' magazine she edited, Godey's Lady's Book. Her writing included recipes and descriptions of idealized Thanksgiving meals, which often featured—you guessed it—mashed potatoes.

5. GRAVY

Plate of turkey and potatoes covered in gravy.
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Despite a dearth of potatoes, it's likely that some type of gravy accompanied the turkey or venison at the earliest Thanksgiving gatherings. The concept of cooking meat in sauce dates back hundreds of years, and the word "gravy" itself can be found in a cookbook from 1390. Because that first celebration extended over three days, historian Wall speculates: "I have no doubt whatsoever that birds that are roasted one day, the remains of them are all thrown in a pot and boiled up to make broth the next day." That broth would then be thickened with grains to created a gravy to liven day-old meat. And, if Wall's correct, that broth sounds suspiciously like the beginning of another great Thanksgiving tradition: leftovers!

6. CORN

Plate of corn.
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Corn is a natural symbol of harvest season—even if you're not serving it as a side dish, you might have a few colorful ears as a table centerpiece. We know that corn was a staple of the Native American diet and would have been nearly as plentiful in the 17th century as today. But according to the History Channel, their version would have been prepared quite differently: corn was either made into a cornmeal bread or mashed and boiled into a thick porridge-like consistency, and perhaps sweetened with molasses. Today, we eat corn in part to remember those Wampanoag hosts, who famously taught the newcomers how to cultivate crops in the unfamiliar American soil.

7. SWEET POTATOES

Bowl of mashed sweet potatoes.
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In the midst of so many New England traditions, the sweet potatoes on your table represent a dash of African-American culture. The tasty taters originally became popular in the south—while pumpkins grew well in the north, sweet potatoes (and the pies they could make) became a standard in southern homes and with enslaved plantation workers, who used them as a substitution for the yams they'd loved in their homeland. Sweet potato pie was also lovingly described in Hale's various Thanksgiving epistles, solidifying the regional favorite as a holiday go-to. More recently, some families further sweeten the dish by adding toasted marshmallows, a love-it-or-hate-it suggestion that dates to a 1917 recipe booklet published by the Cracker Jack company.

8. GREEN BEAN CASSEROLE

Plate of green bean casserole.
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Beans have been cultivated since ancient times, but green bean casserole is a decidedly modern contribution to the classic Thanksgiving canon. The recipe you love was whipped up in 1955 by Dorcas Reilly, a home economist working in the Campbell's Soup Company test kitchens in Camden, New Jersey. Reilly's job was to create limited-ingredient recipes that housewives could quickly replicate (using Campbell's products, of course). Her original recipe (still available at Campbells.com), contains just six ingredients: Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, green beans, milk, soy sauce, pepper, and French's French Fried Onions. Her recipe was featured in a 1955 Associated Press feature about Thanksgiving, and the association has proven surprisingly durable—Campbell’s now estimates that 30 percent of their Cream of Mushroom soup is bought specifically for use in a green bean casserole.

9. PUMPKIN PIE

Slice of pumpkin pie.
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Like cranberries, pumpkin pie does have ties to the original Thanksgiving, albeit in a much different format. The colonists certainly knew how to make pie pastry, but couldn't have replicated it without wheat flour, and might have been a bit perplexed by pumpkins, which were bigger than the gourds they knew in Europe. According to Eating in America: A History, however, Native Americans were already using the orange treats as a dessert meal: "Both squash and pumpkin were baked, usually by being placed whole in the ashes or embers of a dying fire and they were moistened afterwards with some form of animal fat, or maple syrup, or honey." It's likely that Hale was inspired by those stories when pumpkin pie appeared in her culinary descriptions.

10. WINE

Two glasses of wine.
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Chances are good that a few glasses of wine will be clinked around your table this November, but did the pilgrims share a tipsy toast with their new friends? Kathleen Wall thinks that water was probably the beverage of choice, considering that the small amount of wine the settlers had brought with them was likely long gone. Beer was a possibility, but since barley hadn't been cultivated yet, the pilgrims had to make do with a concoction that included pumpkins and parsnips. Considering the availability of apples in what would become Massachusetts, however, other historians think it's possible that hard apple cider was on hand for the revelers to enjoy. Whether or not the original feast was a boozy affair, cider rapidly became the drink of choice for English settlers in the area, along with applejack, apple brandy, and other fruit-based spirits. New England cider thus indirectly led to a less-beloved Thanksgiving tradition: your drunk uncle's annual political rant. Bottoms up!

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Big Questions
Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
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Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.

HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?


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The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.

WHAT'S WITH THE NIGHT GAME?


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

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