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How Brooklyn's Neighborhoods Got Their Names

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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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13 Fantastic Museums You Can Visit for Free on Saturday
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On Saturday, September 23, museums and cultural institutions across the United States will open their doors to the public for free, as part of Smithsonian magazine’s annual Museum Day Live! event. Hundreds of museums are set to participate, ranging from world-famous institutions in major cities to tiny, local museums in small towns. While the full list of museums can be viewed, and tickets can be reserved, on the Smithsonian website, we’ve collected a small selection of the fantastic museums you can visit for free this Saturday.

1. NEWSEUM // WASHINGTON, D.C.

The Newseum in Washington, D.C. is an entire museum dedicated to the First Amendment. Celebrating freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition, the museum features exhibits on civil rights, the Berlin Wall, and the history of news media in America. Their latest special exhibitions take a look back at the event of September 11, 2001 and go inside the FBI's crime-fighting tactics.

2. INTREPID SEA, AIR & SPACE MUSEUM // NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK

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New York's Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum doesn’t just showcase America’s military and maritime history—it is a piece of that history. The museum itself is one of the Essex-class aircraft carriers built by the United States Navy during World War II. Visitors can explore its massive deck and interior, and view historic airplanes, a real World War II submarine, and a range of interactive exhibits. Normally, a ticket will set you back a whopping $33 (or $19 for New York City residents), but on Saturday, general admission is free with a Museum Day Live! ticket.

3. AUTRY MUSEUM OF THE AMERICAN WEST // LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA

Perfect for art lovers, history buffs, and cinephiles alike, the Autry Museum of the American West (named for legendary singing cowboy Gene Autry) offers up an eclectic mix of art, historical artifacts from the real American West, and Western film memorabilia and props.

4. MUSEUM OF ARTS AND SCIENCES // DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA

A massive art, science, and history museum located on a 90-acre nature preserve, the Museum of Arts and Sciences features the largest collection of Florida art anywhere in the world, as well as the largest collection of Coca-Cola memorabilia in all of Florida. Its diverse exhibits are alternately awe-inspiring, informative, and quirky, ranging from an exploration of 2000 years of sculpture art to an exhibition of 19th and 20th century advertising posters.

5. INTERNATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE HORSE AT THE KENTUCKY HORSE PARK // LEXINGTON, KENTUCKY

The International Museum of the Horse explores the history of—you guessed it!—the horse. That might sound like a narrow scope, but the museum doesn’t just display horse racing artifacts or teach you about modern horse breeds. Instead, it endeavors to tackle the 50-million-year evolution of the horse and its relationship with humans from ancient times to modern times.

6. THE PEGGY NOTEBAERT NATURE MUSEUM // CHICAGO, ILLINOIS

Pete LaMotte, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The 160-year-old Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum is pulling out all the stops for this year’s Museum Day Live! In addition to their vast exhibits of animal specimens and cultural artifacts, the museum will be hosting a live animal feeding and a butterfly release throughout the day.

7. OGDEN MUSEUM OF SOUTHERN ART // NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA

The Ogden Museum of Southern Art aims to teach visitors about the rich culture and diverse visual arts of the American South. Right now, visitors can view a collection of William Eggleston's photographs and check out the museum's 10th annual invitational exhibition of ceramic teacups and teapots.

8. BALTIMORE MUSEUM OF INDUSTRY // BALTIMORE, MARYLAND

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Located in a 19th century oyster cannery on the Baltimore waterfront, the Baltimore Museum of Industry tells the story of American manufacturing from garment making to video game design. Visitors this weekend can meet video game designers and create custom games at the museum’s interactive “Video Game Wizards” exhibit.

9. SYLVAN HEIGHTS BIRD PARK // SCOTLAND NECK, NORTH CAROLINA

You can meet 2000 birds from around the world this weekend at the 18-acre Sylvan Heights Bird Park. Visitors to the massive garden can walk through aviaries displaying birds from every continent except Antarctica, including ducks, geese, swans, and exotic birds from all over the world.

10. DELTA BLUES MUSEUM // CLARKSDALE, MISSISSIPPI

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Visitors to the Delta Blues Museum can learn about the unique American musical art form in “the land where blues began,” with audiovisual exhibits centered on blues and rock legend Don Nix, as well as Paramount Records illustrator Anthony Mostrom.

11. NATIONAL MUSEUM OF NUCLEAR SCIENCE & HISTORY // ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO

America’s only congressionally chartered museum dedicated to the story of the Atomic Age, the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History features exhibits on everything from nuclear medicine to representations of atomic power in pop culture. Adult visitors to the museum will delight in its impressively nuanced take on nuclear technology, while kids will love the museum’s outdoor airplane exhibit and hands-on science activities at Little Albert’s Lab.

12. MUSEUM OF THE MOUNTAIN MAN // PINEDALE, WYOMING

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Dedicated to the mountain men who explored and settled Wyoming in the 19th century, the Museum of the Mountain Man brings American folklore and legends to life. The museum features exhibits on the Rocky Mountain fur trade and tells the story of American folk legend and famed mountain man Hugh Glass (the man Leonardo DiCaprio won an Oscar playing in 2015's The Revenant).

13. BESH BA GOWAH ARCHAEOLOGICAL PARK AND MUSEUM // GLOBE, ARIZONA

Arizona’s Besh Ba Gowah Archaeological Park and Museum lets visitors connect with history firsthand. The museum is home to the ruins and artifacts of the Salado Indians who inhabited Arizona from the 13th century through the 15th century, and even lets visitors wander through an 800-year-old Salado pueblo.

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‘American Gothic’ Became Famous Because Many People Saw It as a Joke
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In 1930, Iowan artist Grant Wood painted a simple portrait of a farmer and his wife (really his dentist and sister) standing solemnly in front of an all-American farmhouse. American Gothic has since inspired endless parodies and is regarded as one of the country’s most iconic works of art. But when it first came out, few people would have guessed it would become the classic it is today. Vox explains the painting’s unexpected path to fame in the latest installment of the new video series Overrated.

According to host Phil Edwards, American Gothic made a muted splash when it first hit the art scene. The work was awarded a third-place bronze medal in a contest at the Chicago Art Institute. When Wood sold the painting to the museum later on, he received just $300 for it. But the piece’s momentum didn’t stop there. It turned out that American Gothic’s debut at a time when urban and rural ideals were clashing helped it become the defining image of the era. The painting had something for everyone: Metropolitans like Gertrude Stein saw it as a satire of simple farm life in Middle America. Actual farmers and their families, on the other hand, welcomed it as celebration of their lifestyle and work ethic at a time when the Great Depression made it hard to take pride in anything.

Wood didn’t do much to clear up the work’s true meaning. He stated, "There is satire in it, but only as there is satire in any realistic statement. These are types of people I have known all my life. I tried to characterize them truthfully—to make them more like themselves than they were in actual life."

Rather than suffering from its ambiguity, American Gothic has been immortalized by it. The country has changed a lot in the past century, but the painting’s dual roles as a straight masterpiece and a format for skewering American culture still endure today.

Get the full story from Vox below.

[h/t Vox]

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