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How Philadelphia's Neighborhoods Got Their Names

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Philadelphia is a city of American history, and that history is reflected in its various neighborhoods. Here are the stories of how some of them got their names.

Bella Vista

John Donges

This classic Philly Italian neighborhood where you can still play bocce ball or get a perfect cannoli got its name—the Italian phrase for “beautiful view”—in the 1970s.

Belmont

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Belmont, an area along the west bank of the Schuylkill River, was named for a mansion built in Fairmount Park before the Revolutionary War. Visitors to the home included Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and George Washington, who probably slept there.

Bridesburg

Adam Moss

Bridesburg was originally called Point No Point because, as you approached it from the Delaware River, it first looked like a point, and then didn’t. After the Revolution, it was named for Joseph Kirkbride, the largest landholder there at the time. But people eventually decided Kirkbridesburg was too long to say, so it became Bridesburg.

Bustleton

Violette79

This northeast neighborhood was probably settled by people from Brislington, England, which was formerly called Busselton. It grew around a tavern called the Busseltown Tavern and took that name for the whole area.

Center City

Forsaken Fotos

Where most cities have a downtown, Philadelphia has a Center City. It’s the heart of the business district, encompassing the original city of Philadelphia and is, of course, centrally located.

Chestnut Hill

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This northwest neighborhood has been called Chestnut Hill since at least 1704. Due to its higher elevation and cooler temperatures, it was originally an attractive summer retreat for well-off Philadelphians. It got its name from the now almost extinct chestnut trees.

East Falls

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East Falls was named for nearby rapids on the Schuylkill River. The rapids disappeared after the Fairmount Dam was completed in 1822, but the name remained.

Eastwick

This neighborhood near the airport in the far southwest corner of the city was named for locomotive builder Andrew M. Eastwick.

Fishtown

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Fishtown, on the Delaware River, was once the center of the city’s shad fishing industry. Legend has it that Charles Dickens himself named it when he visited Philadelphia in 1842, but it was in use before that.

Fox Chase

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Fox Chase was named for a local inn that was built in 1705. It was a destination for wealthy colonists who enjoyed the recreational pastimes of their homeland, such as fox hunting.

Germantown

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Settled by 13 German families in 1683 and named German Town by founder Francis Pastorius, this northwest neighborhood for a time had the nickname “armentown” (poor town), but soon became a flourishing community of German farmers and craftsmen.

Graduate Hospital

The neighborhood acquired its name when the University of Pennsylvania ran their Graduate School of Medicine at a hospital here. The facility is no longer a graduate hospital, but the neighborhood name stuck.

Holmesburg

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There is some disagreement over whether Holmesburg was named for Thomas Holme, William Penn’s surveyor, or for the descendants of John Holme, a judge who lived and owned property there. It’s possible that they were cousins, so it might all be for one family name anyway.

Juniata Park

Juniata Park, a community built in the 1920s and '30s, was named for the park in its northeast section. Juniata is the name of a tributary of the Susquehanna River and is thought to come from a Native American word for “standing stone.”

Kensington

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Kensington was named by a colonial merchant named Anthony Palmer, who purchased almost 200 acres of land northeast of the center of Philadelphia and sold it in lots to shipbuilders. He named the town he founded after the London area where Kensington Palace is located. His own name lives on in the burial ground there, known as Palmer Cemetery.

Kingsessing

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This area west of Center City got its name from the Lenape word for “place where there is a meadow.”

Manayunk

Harry Feigel

There is a pretty active strip of bars and restaurants in Manayunk, and some say this is fitting considering the name comes from a Lenape word for “place we go to drink.” However, it seems that the word was just the ordinary Lenape term for the nearby Schuylkill River, which, after all, is a place where one goes to drink—water.

Mantua

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Judge Peters, who owned the Belmont Mansion that gave the Belmont neighborhood its name, also owned this land west of the Schuylkill that he developed into Mantua, named for the Italian city where Virgil was born.

Mayfair

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Legend has it that Mayfair got its name during a 1928 meeting where local citizen Thomas Donahue announced, “We ‘may fare’ well if we get behind this community and push—so why not call it Mayfair?” Or it might have just been the name of the telephone exchange there.

Mt. Airy

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William Allen, loyalist, freemason, Chief Justice of Pennsylvania, Mayor of Philadelphia, and founder of Allentown, built a country estate called Mt. Airy. The neighborhood that eventually formed around it took the name of the estate.

Nicetown

InSapphoWeTrust

Nicetown doesn’t actually have anything to do with “nice” as we know it. It comes from the family name of a pair of Dutch settlers, Hans and Jan de Neus, who arrived in Philadelphia in the 17th century. Their descendants go by Nice or Nyce.

Northern Liberties

Susan Sermoneta

According to the colonial land policy of William Penn, those who purchased large tracts of land in Philadelphia got a bonus of free “liberty lands” in the surrounding rural areas. The “Northern Liberties,” now home to some of the city’s most happening spots, are no longer rural in the slightest.

Queen Village

John Dillion

Queen Village, originally part of Southwark, was named in the 1970s to honor Queen Christina of Sweden, who reigned when the area was settled by Swedes in the 1600s.

Society Hill

Payton Chung

Though there is certainly some high society living going on in Society Hill, it was originally named not for its wealthy citizens but for the Free Society of Traders, a stock company established by William Penn that was granted the land there.

Roxborough

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This northwest neighborhood was described in a 1694 letter by Johannes Kelpius as a place “where foxes burrow in the rocks, ” and he persisted in spelling it as Rockburrow. Though that makes a good origin story, it was probably first named after Roxburgh, Scotland, where one of its prominent settlers was born.

Olde City

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Olde City is also called Old City, but the Olde makes it look older. Known as “America’s most historic square mile,” Olde City has all the olde stuff—Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, the Betsy Ross House, Physick House, the American Philosophical Society, and many other olde things.

Olney

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Alexander Wilson was a great admirer of poet William Cowper who lived in Olney, England and wrote Olney Hymns. So when Wilson built his estate north of Philadelphia, he named it Olney and the surrounding neighborhood took the name from the estate.

Overbrook

Adam Moss

In the late 19th century a rail station was built here over a brook, and the station, and subsequently the area around it, was named Overbrook. The name later went Hollywood, when Will Smith, who went to high school in this West Philadelphia neighborhood, named his production company Overbrook Entertainment.

Passyunk

Imnop88a / Kaitlin

This important south Philadelphia neighborhood is home to a famous cheesesteak rivalry. It was named for main thoroughfare Passyunk Avenue, which got its name from a Lenape word meaning “in the valley.” When you walk in the valley of the cheesesteaks, you must choose sides: Pat’s or Geno’s?

Powelton Village

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Powelton was the name of the Powel family mansion that gave this west Philadelphia neighborhood its name. The third Samuel Powel, the first post-Revolutionary War mayor of Philadelphia, escaped to Powelton during the 1793 Yellow Fever Epidemic, but was bitten by a mosquito on a quick trip back into the city to check on his servants and died.

Rising Sun

According to one early 20th century history of Philadelphia, the son of the Native American Chief Tammany befriended a pair of German settlers and brought them to his father, who spent the night “feasting and smoking” with them and then led them to the top of a little hill and declared all the land within their line of vision to be theirs. “And as they looked in admiration at the extent of the gift, the sun rose gloriously, and they named their land the 'Aufgehende Sonne,' the 'Rising Sun.'” Take this story with a grain of salt.

Rittenhouse Square

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In 1825 the Center City green space known as Southwest Square was renamed Rittenhouse Square for David Rittenhouse—inventor, scientist, mathematician, member of the American Philosophical Society and the Royal Society of London, and first director of the U.S. Mint.

South Philadelphia

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This is a very apt name for the area south of Center City. Its main drag, South Street, was the original southern border of the city limits.

Southwark

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This area along the Delaware River was named by William Penn for another area similarly situated on a river, the London neighborhood of Southwark on the Thames.

Strawberry Mansion

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Strawberry Mansion was the name acquired in the 1870s by a grand house (formerly called Summerville) in Fairmount Park that later became a popular restaurant. There may have been a signature dish of strawberries and cream involved. The neighborhood and a nearby bridge were named for it.

Tacony

Floyd B. Kelley Jr. 

Tacony comes from a Lenape word, though there is some disagreement as to whether the word it comes from meant “wilderness,” “forest creek,” or the name of a chief.

Torresdale

Floyd B. Kelley Jr.

This northeast neighborhood was named by banker Charles Macalaster after his family home in Scotland.

University City

Wikimedia Commons

When this formerly bucolic area of West Philadelphia went on the decline during the rapid expansion of the city in the first half of the 20th century, officials from the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel came up with a revitalization plan that included referring to the area as University City.

Wissinoming

marc-cleansweep.com

There used to be a creek called Wissinoming running through this neighborhood near the Delaware, but it has long since been filled in. Wissinoming was the Lenape word for “place where the grapes grow.”

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

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6 East Coast Castles to Visit for a Fairy Tale Road Trip
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Once the stuff of fairy tales and legends, a variety of former castles have been repurposed today as museums and event spaces. Enough of them dot the East Coast that you can plan a summer road trip to visit half a dozen in a week or two, starting in or near New York City. See our turrent-rich itinerary below.

STOP 1: BANNERMAN CASTLE // BEACON, NEW YORK

59 miles from New York City

The crumbling exterior of Bannerman Castle
Garrett Ziegler, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Bannerman Castle can be found on its very own island in the Hudson River. Although the castle has fallen into ruins, the crumbling shell adds visual interest to the stunning Hudson Highlands views, and can be visited via walking or boat tours from May to October. The man who built the castle, Scottish immigrant Frank Bannerman, accumulated a fortune shortly after the Civil War in his Brooklyn store known as Bannerman’s. He eventually built the Scottish-style castle as both a residence and a military weapons storehouse starting in 1901. The island remained in his family until 1967, when it was given to the Taconic Park Commission; two years later it was partially destroyed by a mysterious fire, which led to its ruined appearance.

STOP 2. GILLETTE CASTLE STATE PARK // EAST HADDAM, CONNECTICUT

116 miles from Beacon, New York

William Gillette was an actor best known for playing Sherlock Holmes, which may have something to do with where he got the idea to install a series of hidden mirrors in his castle, using them to watch guests coming and going. The unusual-looking stone structure was built starting in 1914 on a chain of hills known as the Seven Sisters. Gillette designed many of the castle’s interior features (which feature a secret room), and also installed a railroad on the property so he could take his guests for rides. When he died in 1937 without designating any heirs, his will forbade the possession of his home by any "blithering sap-head who has no conception of where he is or with what surrounded.” The castle is now managed by the State of Connecticut as Gillette Castle State Park.

STOP 3. BELCOURT CASTLE // NEWPORT, RHODE ISLAND

74 miles from East Haddam, Connecticut

The exterior of Belcourt castle
Jenna Rose Robbins, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Prominent architect Richard Morris Hunt designed Belcourt Castle for congressman and socialite Oliver Belmont in 1891. Hunt was known for his ornate style, having designed the facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island, but Belmont had some unusual requests. He was less interested in a building that would entertain people and more in one that would allow him to spend time with his horses—the entire first floor was designed around a carriage room and stables. Despite its grand scale, there was only one bedroom. Construction cost $3.2 million in 1894, a figure of approximately $80 million today. But around the time it was finished, Belmont was hospitalized following a mugging. It took an entire year before he saw his completed mansion.

STOP 4. HAMMOND CASTLE MUSEUM // GLOUCESTER, MASSACHUSETTS

111 miles from Newport, Rhode Island

Part of the exterior of Hammond castle
Robert Linsdell, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Inventor John Hays Hammond Jr. built his medieval-style castle between 1926 and 1929 as both his home and a showcase for his historical artifacts. But Hammond was not only interested in recreating visions of the past; he also helped shape the future. The castle was home to the Hammond Research Corporation, from which Hammond produced over 400 patents and came up with the ideas for over 800 inventions, including remote control via radio waves—which earned him the title "the Father of Remote Control." Visitors can take a self-guided tour of many of the castle’s rooms, including the great hall, indoor courtyard, Renaissance dining room, guest bedrooms, inventions exhibit room, library, and kitchens.

STOP 5. BOLDT CASTLE // ALEXANDRIA BAY, THOUSAND ISLANDS, NEW YORK

430 miles from Gloucester, Massachusetts

It's a long drive from Gloucester and only accessible by water, but it's worth it. The German-style castle on Heart Island was built in 1900 by millionaire hotel magnate George C. Boldt, who created the extravagant structure as a summer dream home for his wife Louise. Sadly, she passed away just months before the place was completed. The heartbroken Boldt stopped construction, leaving the property empty for over 70 years. It's now in the midst of an extensive renovation, but the ballroom, library, and several bedrooms have been recreated, and the gardens feature thousands of plants.

STOP 6. FONTHILL CASTLE // DOYLESTOWN, PENNSYLVANIA

327 miles from Alexandria Bay, New York

Part of the exterior of Fonthill castle

In the mood for more castles? Head south to Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where Fonthill Castle was the home of the early 20th century American archeologist, anthropologist, and antiquarian Henry Chapman Mercer. Mercer was a man of many interests, including paleontology, tile-making, and architecture, and his interest in the latter led him to design Fonthill Castle as a place to display his colorful tile and print collection. The inspired home is notable for its Medieval, Gothic, and Byzantine architectural styles, and with 44 rooms, there's plenty of well-decorated nooks and crannies to explore.

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7 Famous People Researchers Want to Exhume
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This week, the surrealist painter Salvador Dali is being exhumed from his grave in Figueres, northeastern Spain, where he has lain beneath the stage of a museum since his death in 1989. Researchers hope to collect DNA from his skeleton in order to settle a paternity suit brought by a tarot card reader named Pilar Abel, who claims that her mother had an affair with the artist while working as a maid in the seaside town where the Dalis vacationed. If the claim is substantiated, Abel may inherit a portion of the $325 million estate that Dali, who was thought to be childless, bequeathed to the Spanish state upon his death.

The grave opening may seem like a fittingly surreal turn of events, but advances in DNA research and other scientific techniques have recently led to a rise in exhumations. In the past few years (not to mention months), serial killer H. H. Holmes, poet Pablo Neruda, astronomer Tycho Brahe, and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, among many others, have all been dug up either to prove that the right man went to his grave—or to verify how he got there. Still, there are a number of other bodies that scientists, historians, and other types of researchers want to exhume to answer questions about their lives and deaths. Read on for a sampling of such cases.

1. LEONARDO DA VINCI

An international team of art historians and scientists is interested in exhuming Leonardo da Vinci's body to perform a facial reconstruction on his skull, learn about his diet, and search for clues to his cause of death, which has never been conclusively established. They face several obstacles, however—not the least of which is that da Vinci's grave in France's Loire Valley is only his presumed resting place. The real deal was destroyed during the French Revolution, although a team of 19th century amateur archaeologists claimed to have recovered the famed polymath's remains and reinterred them in a nearby chapel. For now, experts at the J. Craig Venter Institute in California are working on a technique to extract DNA from some of da Vinci's paintings (he was known to smear pigment with his fingers as well as brushes), which they hope to compare with living relatives and the remains in the supposed grave.

2. MERIWETHER LEWIS

A portrait of Meriwether Lewis
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

As one half of Lewis and Clark, Meriwether Lewis is one of America's most famous explorers, but his death belongs to a darker category—famous historical mysteries. Researchers aren't sure exactly what happened on the night of October 10, 1809, when Lewis stopped at a log cabin in Tennessee on his way to Washington, D.C. to settle some financial issues. By the next morning, Lewis was dead, a victim either of suicide (he was known to be suffering from depression, alcoholism, and possibly syphilis) or murder (the cabin was in an area rife with bandits; a corrupt army general may have been after his life). Beginning in the 1990s, descendants and scholars applied to the Department of the Interior for permission to exhume Lewis—his grave is located on National Park Service Land—but were eventually denied. Whatever secrets Lewis kept, he took them to his grave.

3. SHAKESPEARE

A black and white portrait of Shakespeare
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Shakespeare made his thoughts on exhumation very clear—he placed a curse on his tombstone that reads: "Good frend for Jesus sake forebeare/ To digg the dust encloased heare/ Bleste be the man that spares thes stones/ And curst be he that moves my bones." Of course, that hasn't stopped researchers wanting to try. After Richard III's exhumation, one South African academic called for a similar analysis on the Bard's bones, with hopes of finding new information on his diet, lifestyle, and alleged predilection for pot. And there may be another reason to open the grave: A 2016 study using ground-penetrating radar found that the skeleton inside appeared to be missing a skull.

4. JOHN WILKES BOOTH

A black and white photograph of John Wilkes Booth
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The events surrounding Abraham Lincoln's death in 1865 are some of the best-known in U.S. history, but the circumstances of his assassin's death are a little more murky. Though most historical accounts say that John Wilkes Booth was cornered and shot in a burning Virginia barn 12 days after Lincoln's murder, several researchers and some members of his family believe Booth lived out the rest of his life under an assumed name before dying in Oklahoma in 1903. (The corpse of the man who died in 1903—thought by most people to be a generally unremarkable drifter named David E. George—was then embalmed and displayed at fairgrounds.) Booth's corpse has already been exhumed from its grave at Baltimore's Greenmount Cemetery and verified twice, but some would like another try. In 1994, two researchers and 22 members of Booth's family filed a petition to exhume the body once again, but a judge denied the request, finding little compelling evidence for the David E. George theory. Another plan, to compare DNA from Edwin Booth to samples of John Wilkes Booth's vertebrae held at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, has also come to naught.

5. NAPOLEON

A portrait of Napoleon
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Napoleon has already been exhumed once: in 1840, when his body was moved from his burial-in-exile on St. Helena to his resting place in Paris's Les Invalides. But some researchers allege that that tomb in Paris is a sham—it's not home to the former emperor, but to his butler. The thinking goes that the British hid the real Napoleon's body in Westminster Abbey to cover up neglect or poisoning, offering a servant's corpse for internment at Les Invalides. France's Ministry of Defense was not amused by the theory, however, and rejected a 2002 application to exhume the body for testing.

6. HENRY VIII

A portrait of Henry VIII
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In his younger years, the Tudor monarch Henry VIII was known to be an attractive, accomplished king, but around age 40 he began to spiral into a midlife decline. Research by an American bioarchaeologist and anthropologist pair in 2010 suggested that the king's difficulties—including his wives' many miscarriages—may have been caused by an antigen in his blood as well as a related genetic disorder called McLeod syndrome, which is known to rear its head around age 40. Reports in the British press claimed the researchers wanted to exhume the king's remains for testing, although his burial at George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle means they will need to get the Queen’s permission for any excavation. For now, it's just a theory.

7. GALILEO

A portrait of Galileo
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The famed astronomer has had an uneasy afterlife. Although supporters hoped to give him an elaborate burial at the Basilica of Santa Croce, he spent about 100 years in a closet-sized room there beneath the bell tower. (He was moved to a more elaborate tomb in the basilica once the memory of his heresy conviction had faded.) More recently, British and Italian scientists have said they want to exhume his body for DNA tests that could contribute to an understanding of the problems he suffered with his eyesight—problems that may have led him to make some famous errors, like saying Saturn wasn't round. The Vatican will have to sign off on any exhumation, however, so it may be a while.

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