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

Wikimedia Commons

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

Wikimedia Commons

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

Wikimedia Commons

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

Wikimedia Commons

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

Wikimedia Commons

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

Wikimedia Commons

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.

11 Weird Place Names From Around the World

The sign on the train station platform helps you pronounce this 58-letter-long Welsh town name.
The sign on the train station platform helps you pronounce this 58-letter-long Welsh town name.
hipproductions/iStock via Getty Images

Shakespeare wasn’t wrong when he said that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. But if these places had any other names, they probably wouldn’t have made this list (or international headlines, in a couple of cases). Read on to discover the fascinating details behind Tasmania’s Eggs and Bacon Bay, French Polynesia’s Disappointment Islands, and other strangely named locales from all corners of the globe.

1. Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, Wales

At 58 characters, this tiny Welsh village on the isle of Anglesey has the longest place name in Europe. Translated to English, it’s a phrase that describes the town’s location: Saint Mary's Church in the hollow of the white hazel near a rapid whirlpool and the Church of St. Tysilio of the red cave. According to Atlas Obscura, the town has existed in some form for thousands of years, but in 1880 a publicity-oriented tailor changed its name from Llanfairpwll to its current moniker in an attempt to attract tourists. Luckily for us, Llanfairpwll is still an acceptable nickname, as is Llanfair PG. Listen to weather reporter Liam Dutton pronounce it like a pro here.

2. Batman, Turkey

Both a Turkish province and its capital city are named Batman for the nearby Batman River. Batman itself could have come from the ancient unit of measurement (equal to 16.96 pounds), or it could be a shortening of the name of the nearby Bati Raman mountains. Either way, the city became the source of scandal in 2008 when its then-mayor, Huseyin Kalkan, threatened to sue Warner Bros. and director Christopher Nolan over their use of the term in the Dark Knight trilogy. (No lawsuit was ever actually filed.) There are also plenty of people who want to reinforce the connection between the place name and superhero—over 26,000 have signed a petition to change the province’s borders to look like the bat symbol.

3. Eggs and Bacon Bay, Tasmania

eggs and bacon flower
KarenHBlack/iStock via Getty Images

Tasmania’s Eggs and Bacon Bay is named after a regional wildflower commonly known as eggs and bacon, whose petals are a mixture of the sunny yellow of egg yolks and the deep red of bacon. The bay made national news in 2016 when PETA petitioned unsuccessfully to change its name to a more animal-friendly “Apple and Cherry Bay.” It doesn’t look like the idea ever made it to a vote at the local council, and officials didn’t seem keen on it. Huon Valley deputy mayor Ian Paul told The Guardian that the idea was “ludicrous,” adding “I feel pretty strongly about it. This is our heritage, it is our history.”

4. Wonowon, British Columbia

It’s not a coincidence that this Canadian town, pronounced “one-oh-one,” is located on Alaska Highway’s Mile 101, where the U.S. Army operated a 24-hour checkpoint during World War II. The town was originally named Blueberry after the nearby Blueberry River, but was eventually changed to Wonowon to prevent people from confusing it for another Blueberry in the southeastern Kootenay region. It’s not clear when the name officially changed to Wonowon, but according to a mention in a 1956 issue of the Northern Sentinel, the Post Office recognized it as Wonowon, while the residents still called it Blueberry. Why Blueberry in the first place, you ask? Possibly because British Columbia produces 96 percent of Canada’s cultivated blueberries.

5. Spa, Belgium

fountain in Spa, Belgium
Jean-Pol GRANDMONT, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Spa, Belgium, sounds relaxing, and for good reason. The word spa comes from this eastern Belgian town, whose curative mineral springs have been visited since the 16th century and were even mentioned by Pliny the Elder. Spa itself could be derived from espa, the Walloon word for "spring" or “fountain,” or the Latin word spagere, meaning “to scatter, sprinkle, moisten.” Or it could be an acronym for the Latin phrase sanitas per aquas, which fittingly means “health through water.”

6. Westward Ho!, England

book cover of Westward Ho! by Charles Kingsley
Frederick Warne & Co, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1855, Charles Kingsley published a book called Westward Ho!, in which a young man leaves his home in Bideford, England, to pursue a seafaring life of adventure under the tutelage of famed explorer Sir Francis Drake. The book became a bestseller, and some enterprising folks formed the Northam Burrows Hotel and Villa Building Company in 1863 with the intention of capitalizing on the attention. They started by building the Westward Ho! Hotel, and continued to develop the area by constructing terraces, lodges, bath houses, stables, and a golf club. As development progressed, the village that sprung up around the hotel became known as Westward Ho! also.

7. The Office Girls, Antarctica

The Office Girls are two glacial islands, also called nunataks, about seven miles away from Welcome Mountain near the Southern Ocean coast of Antarctica. There are so many tiny pieces of land to map in Antarctica that the U.S. has an Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names to name them all—and in 1970 they chose “The Office Girls” as a tribute to all of the personnel who assisted with the administrative side of the missions from home in the continental U.S.

8. Punkeydoodles Corners, Ontario

The origin of the name of this tiny hamlet has been debated for decades. Some people say it’s the product of a German tavern owner’s slurred rendition of “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” while others say Punkeydoodle was an insult thrown at resident pumpkin-grower John Burbrigg by a vexed neighbor, and from then on his plot of land was called “Punkeydoodle’s Corners.” The charming Canadian town was once home to a somewhat charming Canadian crime: Mischief-makers often stole the town’s sign, until Canada Day in 1982, when community members replaced it with a concrete monument that weighs almost a ton.

9. Malpelo Island, Colombia

Sunset over Malpelo Island
Janos/iStock via Getty Images

The Spanish words mal pelo translate to “bad hair” in English, implying that this island is in some way a nightmare for bouffants, beehives, and blowouts. It’s more likely the result of a metaphorical game of telephone that spanned half the globe and several centuries. It could be derived from the Latin malveolus, meaning “inhospitable” or “spiteful,” which might’ve become malbolo and later mal pelo [PDF]. It’s also on a world map from 1550 as ye mallabry, which probably means malabrigo, a word for “shelterless” that Spanish cartographers used to mark some islands and bays. Malabrigo sort of sounds like mal pelo, at least if you’re shouting it to someone on the opposite side of the island.

10. Hotazel, South Africa

Welcome to Hotazel, where it’s hot as hell—or at least it was on the day in 1915 when a group of land surveyors assessed a farm in South Africa and named the whole place “Hot As Hell,” now spelled “Hotazel.” The climate is actually pretty reasonable, with summer temperatures sometimes reaching the 90s (in Fahrenheit) and winter temperatures sometimes dipping into the 30s.

11. Disappointment Islands, French Polynesia

In 1765, Lord Byron’s grandfather John Byron was sailing around the tip of South America when he chanced upon a tiny island in the distance. To him and his scurvy-ridden crew, it looked like paradise, but he soon realized the high surf and coral reefs prevented safe anchorage. That, in addition to the spear-wielding natives stationed along the shore, dashed their hopes so severely that Byron named the island (and its nearby sister landmass) the Islands of Disappointment. This may have shielded the islands from centuries of follow-up explorers, but it also literally gives them a bad name. In reality, says BBC Travel’s Andrew Evans, they’re "timeless."

6 Weird Things Embedded in City Streets

A Toynbee tile near the White House in 1995
A Toynbee tile near the White House in 1995
Elvert Barnes, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Most of us spend our days walking around with our eyes pointed straight ahead or looking around, seeing the rest of the world mostly at eye-level. But there are advantages to looking down, and not just because it helps you avoid stepping on other people’s feet. Strange, wondrous, and occasionally terrible things have been found stuck to the surface of city streets—just take a look at the examples below.

1. Toynbee Tiles

If you have a revolutionary idea to share with the masses, you could write an op-ed in a major paper, talk to a local member of congress, start an activist organization, or pay for a PR campaign. Or, you could carve the message into a square of gummy linoleum and stick it in the street. Whatever floats your boat!

The linoleum method is the one employed by the mysterious creator of the Toynbee Tiles—lettered rectangular plaques that have appeared in dozens of major U.S. cities since the 1980s, as well as in several South American locations. Most of the tiles contain some version of the following message:

TOYNBEE IDEA
IN KUBRICK'S 2001
RESURRECT DEAD
ON PLANET JUPITER

Tile-followers, and there are a few, generally interpret Toynbee as a reference to 20th century British historian Arnold J. Toynbee, although some think it could refer to the Ray Bradbury short story "The Toynbee Convector." The 2001 is, of course, a reference to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which depicts a voyage to Jupiter.

No one knows who's behind the tiles, and it may not be a single individual. For years, many tile enthusiasts believed they were the work of James Morasco, a Philadelphia carpenter who communicated with the Philadelphia Inquirer in the early 1980s about the idea of resurrecting the dead on the planet Jupiter. But the tiles have continued to appear long after Morasco's death in 2003, and his widow claims he never had anything to do with them.

The story gets much, much weirder. David Mamet claims the idea for the tiles came from one of his plays; many of the tiles contain screeds against the mafia, media, and the Jews; Larry King is somehow involved. For those who are intrigued, the excellent 2011 documentary Resurrect Dead delves deeper into the mystery.

2. The Paris Central Guillotine

It’s been called “the most awful spot in Paris.” These five rectangular indents near the Pére-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris look ordinary enough, but they have a grisly tale to tell. They’re actually slabs that once formed the foundation for the Paris guillotine, which sliced off 69 heads—in public—between 1851 and 1899. (France continued sending people to the guillotine until 1977, but not here.) The guillotine stood at the entrance to the now-demolished Prison de la Roquette, and shut down when the prison itself ended its dark days.

3. The Hess Triangle

The Hess Triangle in NYC
The Hess Triangle in NYC
Nan Palmero, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

It may be the ultimate New York-style "screw you, buddy," at least as far as the city's streets are concerned. Where 7th Avenue and Christopher Street cross in Manhattan's West Village, there's a mosaic triangle that takes up about 500 square inches. Its black letters spell out an oddly aggressive message: "Property of the Hess Estate which has never been dedicated for public purposes."

The message, and the triangle, are a remnant of a very minor early 20th century property battle, in which New York City used eminent domain to seize a nearby apartment building when expanding the IRT subway in the late 1910s. The apartment building was owned by Philadelphia landlord David Hess, whose family later noticed that the city’s seizing had left them this one tiny triangle. City authorities asked the family to donate the triangle, but they refused, installing this defiant mosaic instead, in 1922. It’s a little outdated, however: in 1938, the family finally gave up and sold the plot to the owners of Village Cigars for $1000, or $2 per square inch.

4. Jewish Tombstones

During World War II and for decades afterwards, Jewish tombstones in Poland were treated as construction material, plundered from cemeteries to pave streets, courtyards, and passageways, and used to repair walls and curbs. In 2014, the city of Warsaw agreed to return 1000 Jewish tombstones, known as matzevot, that had been used to build a pergola and stairs inside a city park.

Polish photographer Łukasz Baksik spent several years documenting the tombstones’ appropriation as paving material and masonry, with the results published in a book called Matzevot for Everyday Use. Meanwhile, a nonprofit called From the Depths runs the Matzeva Project, which aims to find and restore some of the millions of gravestones still hidden in Poland, as well as the often-forgotten Jewish cemeteries from which the stones were stolen.

5. Potholes Crying out for Help

Potholes are the mosquito of urban infrastructure problems: minor but persistently irritating. Over the past few years, several people have been trying new approaches to getting them repaired. In Panama City, the TV show Telemetro Reporta launched a project in 2015 installing motion-sensitive detectors in the city’s potholes. When a car ran over the sensor, the device automatically sent a tweet to the Ministry of Public Works. In Chicago, artist Jim Bachor took a more delicious approach, creating mosaics of popsicles and other items inside potholes both in Chicago and Jyväskylä, Finland. The crudest—but potentially most effective—technique comes from Manchester, where a man who identified himself to the BBC only as “Wanksy” drew penis shapes around potholes. “They [potholes] don't get filled. They'll be there for months,” Wanksy said. “Suddenly you draw something amusing around it, everyone sees it and it either gets reported or fixed." The local city council spokesperson called the drawings “incredibly insulting.”

6. Tourist-friendly QR codes

It’s not as weird as the other entries on the list, but possibly more useful. Rio is known for its stunning beaches, spectacular Carnival, and the black-and-white sidewalk mosaics around the city known as Portuguese pavement. In 2013, the city began installing QR codes using the same black-and-white stone used to create decorative images of fish, waves, and vegetation. The city installed about 30 of the codes at beaches, scenic hotspots and historic sites, and tourists can use the codes alongside a smartphone app to get background information in Portuguese, Spanish, and English.

This list first appeared in 2016 and was republished in 2019.

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