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How Boston's Neighborhoods Got Their Names

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Boston is a city known for many things —America’s best fast-food coffee joints (writer’s opinion), superior chowder (accepted fact) and actors incapable of capturing the local dialect. Another important facet is Boston’s connection to history as one of America’s earliest settlements, and how that is reflected in its neighborhood and town names.

What follows is an extensive, albeit not 100% exhaustive list. Unlike some other American cities, Boston is comprised less of neighborhoods than it is made up of towns, most of which take their earliest roots from the arrival of a group of explorers around 1630. If you’re upset about an omission, we ask that you respond as any proud Bostonian would — with a measured, reasonable reply in the comments section, sans insult or foul language.

Allston

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A railroad depot constructed in 1867 — now the Regina Pizzeria near the intersection of Harvard Ave and Cambridge Street — split Allston and Brighton into two sections. Prior to the split, the area was known just as Brighton. After the split, the post office began referring to the area east of the station as Allston, named for Cambridgeport’s Washington Allston, a painter known especially for his work, “Fields West of Boston.” Brighton-Allston historian William Marchione claims Allston’s is the only artist name given to a community in the United States. The area continues to be a popular spot for artists and those who just enjoy a good PBR — mostly the latter, in this author’s experience.

Arlington

Bill Damon

Arlington was originally settled in 1635 and went by the name Menotomy, an Algonquin term for “swift, running water”  (although it’s worth noting some would argue the claim). The name was changed to Arlington in 1867 after Arlington National Cemetery.

Braintree

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The Braintree area was originally named Mount Wollaston after Captain Richard Wollaston, who first colonized the area in 1625. In 1640, the area was incorporated as the town of Braintree, named after the English town of the same name.

Belmont

John Phelan

Belmont was founded in 1859 by former citizens of Watertown, Waltham, and Arlington, and was named after the “Bellmont” estate of John Perkins Cushing, who was a leading advocate and financial backer of Belmont’s bid for foundation.

Brighton

BCreservoir2

When Boston first began blossoming as a city in the mid-to-late 1600s, Allston and Brighton were grouped into what was known as “Little Cambridge.” The area was mainly a prosperous farming community prior to the Revolutionary War, but during the war it housed a cattle market that was key to the Continental Army. After the war, Cambridge politicians boiled Little Cambridge’s revolutionary fever by governing from all the way across the Charles River, and so Little Cambridge seceded and became its own town, initially known as Brighton. The name itself was lifted from the town by the same name in England, which was initially called Beorhthelmes Tun, or Beorhthelm’s Farmstead.

Back Bay

Jeffrey Zeldman

When Boston was first discovered by colonists and established, the area now known as Back Bay was, literally, a bay. In 1814, Massachusetts’ legislature approved construction of a mill dam to connect Boston to Watertown. In 1857, a massive filling project began to make use of Back Bay, but the undertaking wasn’t completed until 1900. Even after being converted from bay to land, the area retained the Back Bay moniker.

Bay Village

Daderot

Bay Village was once an area of mudflats created by Back Bay tides, but that changed in 1825 after the city authorized the construction of a dam. Once the area was properly drained, the land became suitable for the construction of houses. Now one of Boston’s smallest neighborhoods, Bay Village has had a number of different names, including Church Street District, South Cove and Kerry Village, but Bay Village has stuck as an ode to the area’s proximity to Back Bay.

Beacon Hill

Ryan Harvey

One of Boston’s most historic neighborhoods, this area originally went by Tri-mount or Tremont because of the three hills than ran through it. A beacon was erected on one of those hills to warn its residents of approaching enemies, and so those in the area began referring to it as Beacon Hill.

Brookline

Payton Chung

What is now the Town of Brookline was once a part of Boston, but it broke away in 1705. It was at that point the town was renamed Brookline, supposedly after a farm once owned by Judge Samuel Sewall, most famous for being a key player in the Salem Witch Trials. The farm earned the name because Smelt Brook ran through it, according to Dean Dudley’s Brookline, Jamaica Plain and West Roxbury Directory for 1871.

Cambridge

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Now home to Harvard, Cambridge was originally founded in 1630 under the decidedly unoriginal name of Newtowne. It held that title until 1638, when the name was changed to Cambridge because most of the men on the town’s General Court had attended Cambridge University in England. The hope was to provide a good omen for Harvard, which had been founded in 1636.

Charlestown

Ingfbruno

The area that now houses Charlestown was one of the first established European communities in the U.S. Originally known as Mishawum, Charlestown was “Full of stately timber and hospitable Indians” when first discovered. John Smith was among the men who first explored the area, and when he returned to England with a map, Prince Charles (later King Charles I) renamed the river after himself. The town adopted His Highness's name because of its proximity to the river.

Chelsea

Bill Damon

The Massachusett tribe referred to this area as Winnisimmeti, or “Good spring nearby.” It was renamed Chelsea in the early 1700s after a neighborhood in London.

Chestnut Hill

David Wilson

Frederick Law Olmstead — famous for helping co-design Central Park and Prospect Park in New York City — was the chief architect behind the area surrounding the Chestnut Hill Reservoir. The area received its name from a “stand of chestnut trees stretched from Dunster Street to Reservoir Lane.”

Chinatown

Soe Lin

Established on top of a landfill, Boston’s Chinatown was initially populated by Syrian, Jewish, Irish, and Italian immigrants. The first Chinese in the area were laborers brought in to end a strike against the Sampson Shoe Factory, and throughout the 1880s and 1890s, more Chinese laborers came to the city to aid construction.

Dorchester

Marcbela

Dorchester was one of the first areas settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, taking its name from the English town with the same name.

Everett

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Edward Everett was a Harvard-educated Dorchester native who is perhaps best remembered as the man who delivered the two-hour main address at the dedication of the cemetery in Gettysburg. The town of Everett was named in his honor.

Fenway-Kenmore

Rich Bowen

The Fenway portion of the name comes from the road that ran along the Back Bay Fens, a park established in 1879 at the urging of Frederick Law Olmsted. Olmsted named it the Fens after the British term for a low, marshy area. The Kenmore portion comes from Kenmore Square, which was named for the Kenmore Station subway stop (at the intersection of Kenmore Street and Commonwealth Ave.).

Hyde Park

James L Woodward

Local minister Henry Lyman suggested the name Hyde Park after the section of London.

Jamaica Plain

Sarah Nichols

The Jamaica Plain Historical Society puts forward a few possible explanations for the name. One theory suggests Jamaica Plain comes from the Caribbean island discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1494, and they adopted the name either because early habitants made their money off rum or because the area originally housed Native Americans who were fond of rum once it was introduced. Another theory has the area adopting the name from a Native American woman named Jamaco.

Lexington

Daderot

There’s some disagreement over the namesake of this town, which was the site of the first battle of the Revolutionary War. Some put forward that Lexington was named after the English town of Laxton, which may have derived from the Anglo-Saxon Leaxingtūn, or “farmstead or estate of the people of a man called Leaxa.” Others believe the town was named for Lord Lexington.

Malden

John Phelan

Malden was originally part of Charlestown but it was incorporated fairly early, in 1649. Malden’s namesake is something of a mystery, but the most logical ties are to a small parish in Surrey, England, known as "Maiden."

Mattapan

Adam E. Moreira 

In 1617, an epidemic killed a number Native Americans in the area, and so the survivors dubbed it Mattapanock, or “evil spread about the place.” The name was shortened to Mattapan and eventually chosen as an English name for the location, likely without knowledge of its significance.

Medford

John Phelan

While other towns like Cambridge and Watertown were established early on, Medford was originally the property of Matthew Cradock, who lived in London but owned the land and turned a profit from farming, fishing, and shipbuilding in the area. His workers lived in a great house in what is now Medford Square, and this house was referred to as the Meadford House for its location near a ford at which the Mystic River could be crossed. After Cradock died, his heirs slowly lost interest in managing the property from abroad, and the land purchased in the area adopted the Meadford — or Medford — moniker.

Melrose

Grk1011

Melrose went by a few different names, including Ponde Field, Mystic Side, and North Malden. Up until the mid 1800s, Melrose was a sparse farming area considered a part of Malden. In 1845, B&M built three train stops (Wyoming, Cedar Park, and Melrose Highlands) in the area, and Boston workers began moving there and commuting to work. The population boomed, and Melrose became its own town in 1850, taking its name from its topographical resemblance to Melrose, Scotland.

Milton

Marcbela

Milton was originally part of the Dorchester settlement, and the area was referred to as “Unquety,” a Neponset term for “Lower Falls.” Milton split from Dorchester in 1662, taking its name in honor of Milton Abbas, a small village in Dorset, England.

Mission Hill

Snutter

Mission Hill is located on Parker Hill, “A rocky drumlin left behind by a prehistoric glacier.” The Mission half of the name was adopted after the construction of the Mission Church complex near the end of the 19th century.

Newton

clry2

This one’s pretty easy. The area — one of the first settled around Boston — originally went by Newtown because, well, it was all quite new. Newton was originally considered part of Cambridge but split in 1691 and was officially bestowed the Newton name.

North End

Ingfbruno

When the Boston area was first settled, the North End went by the word-ier “Island of North Boston.” The area included a few estates and a large, wooden windmill, but not much else. In the 1700s, cobblestone streets were laid and more people began moving there, and the name was shortened to the more manageable “North End.”

Quincy

The Quincy area was first settled in 1625 but was originally considered a part of neighboring Braintree. That changed in 1792, when Quincy split to become its own town named after Col. John Quincy, grandfather of Abigail Adams.

Revere

Magic Piano

One would suspect Revere got its name from noted night rider Paul Revere. One would be correct.

Roslindale

Andrew Watson

Originally a part of Roxbury, Roslindale split into its own town in 1870. Many had ideas about what to name the area, but it adopted the Roslindale moniker at the behest of resident John Pierce. Pierce stood at a town meeting and spoke of how the West Roxbury area reminded him of historic Roslyn, Scotland, and added that -dale would make a nice addition because of West Roxbury’s surrounding hills.

Roxbury

City of Boston Archives

A small community of settlers decided to forego Boston as a home and trekked north over the Boston Neck to settle in the Roxbury area in 1630. The area they chose was littered with rocks, and the settlers originally dubbed it “Rocksbury.”

Salem

Rusty Clark

On its official town website, Salem refers to itself as the “City of Peace,” named most likely for the biblical town of Shalem, now Jerusalem. Salem has occasionally lived up to its name sans notable, lung-crushing exceptions.

Saugus

Anthony

The town of Saugus was first settled in 1629 and boasts a long Native American history. The name was adopted from the term “Saugus,” used by local tribes as a word for “great” or “extended.”

Somerville

Jamie Okeefe

Somerville split from Charlestown in 1842. In “Haskell’s Historical Guide Book of Somerville, Massachusetts,” Albert L. Haskell writes that the town originally was going to go by the name Walford after its first settler, Thomas Walford. However, a committee put together to choose a name vetoed this, and instead adopted the “Somerville” moniker suggested by committee member Chris Miller, a “purely fanciful name.”

South Boston

Luciof

When the Boston area was first settled in 1630, what is now South Boston was a slim peninsula — so slim, in fact, that at high tide, it became an island. The area was dubbed “Dorchester Neck” by the settlers and referred to as Mattapannock by the natives. It was sparsely populated until 1803, when a group of Bostonians bought up a significant portion of the land. A year later, Boston annexed the area and went to work improving accessibility and drawing up the street grids we know today. As for the name? That's entirely self-evident, what with its location south of Boston’s downtown area.

South End

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The South End was at one point made up of a narrow strip of land, the “Boston Neck,” and was surrounded by tidal marshes. Before the 1840s, the area included a few mansions, but was mostly unpopulated. That changed in the ‘40s, though, when overcrowding around Beacon Hill and downtown led to the filling of those marshes with land pulled from Needham. The area was planned by Charles Bulfinch and in the decades that followed, it became a “fashionable place for well-to-do families to build their homes.”

By the 1870s, though, those families began moving out. The exodus, paired with a string of bank repossessions on less elegant homes built around Columbus Avenue, dropped market values sharply. The South End quickly became a melting pot neighborhood of varying minorities — the influence of which can been seen in its diversity to this day. The name, like South Boston's, is pretty self-explanatory.

Waltham

Twp

Waltham was originally part of the Watertown settlement, established in 1627. The area was referred to as Watertown’s “Middle Precinct,” but became the “West Precinct” in 1712-13. In 1730, the West Precinct voted to become its own town after a dispute with the East Precinct over the location of a school, but the motion failed. Another vote was set and passed in 1738, at which point Waltham was established. The name is a Saxon word meaning “forest home.”

Watertown

IFCAR

Watertown is one of Boston’s oldest settlements. The Native Americans in the area referred to it as "Pigsgusset," but settlers renamed it Watertown because of its proximity to a fresh water river.

Weston

Daderot

Remember when I said Waltham was once “Middle Precinct” but then it became “West Precinct”? Well, that’s because Weston was at one point Watertown’s “West Precinct,” but it was incorporated into its own town in 1712-13.

West End

RawheaD Rex

The West End, like the South End, served as a melting pot neighborhood in the late 1800s, although chiefly for Irish, Jewish, and Italian immigrants. Also like the South End, the West End has a boring name rooted in its geography.

Winthrop

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John Winthrop was one of the most influential characters in Boston’s early history. He led the first wave of settlers into the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 and served as its governor for 12 years between 1629 and 1649, when he died. The town of Winthrop, obviously, is named in his honor.

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How 8 Washington, D.C. Neighborhoods Got Their Names 
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Most people know that Washington, D.C. is packed with historic buildings, but its neighborhood names reflect a more intimate history that sometimes dates back all the way to the city's origins on the banks of the Potomac. Here are the stories behind a few of the District’s neighborhood names, plus a bonus story of one distinctively named neighborhood that is no longer.

1. ANACOSTIA

Anacostia gets its musical name from an Anglicization. In 1608, Captain John Smith made his first Chesapeake Bay voyage, sailing up the bay and exploring its many inlets and rivers. One of them led him to a village of Nactochtank people—one of many tribes that inhabited the region and used its rivers and plains for food and trading. As European traders kept coming to the region, someone Anglicized anaquash(e)tan(i)k, the Nacotchtank word for village or trading center, as Anacostia. The name stuck among white settlers, and despite being briefly named Uniontown, Anacostia is known by that name to this day.

2. KALORAMA

Another one of Washington’s most sonorous place names comes from Greek. In 1807, a poet named Joel Barlow moved into a house with some seriously sweet views of the newly built White House and Capitol. He nicknamed it Kalorama—“beautiful view” in Greek.

3. PLEASANT PLAINS

Awesome views apparently abounded in old Washington. In the 1700s, a farmer named James Holmead bought a huge tract of undeveloped land in what was then Maryland. The family named part of their estate “Pleasant Plains,” and it stuck. The Holmead family loved dramatic estate names—other properties included James’s Park and the fancifully named “Widow’s Mite.” Pleasant Plains was eventually divvied up, and part of the estate was turned into a luxury suburb called Mt. Pleasant. James’s son, Anthony, also opened a burial ground that has since gone defunct.

4. FOGGY BOTTOM

A photograph of the Washington, DC Foggy Bottom Metro station
The Foggy Bottom Metro station.

Not all views in early Washington were pleasant, however. Take the area near where the Potomac and Rock Creek meet, now one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city. It was settled early in the city’s history and initially known as Hamburgh, a German settlement that became part of Washington when the federal district was created. The area later became an industrial center, home to two breweries and a gas works. Foggy Bottom was never terribly inviting: The damp marsh was prone to mists and overrun by frogs. But the smoke and smog emitted by its industrial residents is thought to be responsible for its catchy nickname. Today, the neighborhood shares that handle with the U.S. Department of State, which is headquartered in the neighborhood.

5. FORT TOTTEN

The Fort Totten neighborhood shares a name with a one-time military base turned park in Queens, New York. The D.C. version was also once a real fort, built starting in 1861 to protect Abraham Lincoln’s summer home, and later became part of a park. The fort can still be seen—just one of the District’s many Civil War fortifications—and today, a tiny neighborhood is named after the fort and the park.

6. TRINIDAD

Spoiler alert: There are multiple Trinidads, too. The one not in the Caribbean is squarely in northeastern D.C. It’s named after the tropical country thanks to James Barry, a land speculator who once lived in the original Trinidad and who named his farm after the country, then sold it to another mogul, William Wilson Corcoran. Corcoran enjoyed life on Trinidad Farm until he decided to give it away, donating it in 1872 to what is now George Washington University. The college sold it to a brickworks, who sold part of it to a group of developers, who sold the land to residents of the new neighborhood of Trinidad.

7. CHEVY CHASE

A photo of sunset on Western Avenue in the Chevy Chase neighborhood, with the Maryland side on the right.
Sunset on Western Avenue in the Chevy Chase neighborhood.

The D.C. area has two Chevy Chases: A neighborhood in the city itself, and an adjoining town in suburban Maryland. Both derive their name from a land company that still exists today.

As Washington, D.C. expanded, real estate investors began to vie for unoccupied land, including farmland in the northwestern part of the city. The Chevy Chase Land Company, which was founded by future Nevada representative and senator and noted white supremacist Francis G. Newlands, began snapping up that land in the 1890s. Newlands milked both his mining fortune and his government connections to create what he saw as the ideal suburb. Today, that neighborhood is known for its large collection of Sears kit houses—bungalows that land owners bought directly from the Sears catalogue and assembled themselves.

8. CARVER LANGSTON

Carver Langston doesn’t just have two names: It’s two neighborhoods that are too small to be referred to as individual neighborhoods. The first, Carver, was named after George Washington Carver, the African American inventor and botanist. The second, Langston, was named after John Mercer Langston, who became one of the first African-Americans to hold elected office in the United States (township clerk in Brownhelm, Ohio in 1855) before going on to establish Howard University’s Law Department and becoming Virginia’s first black Representative.

BONUS: SWAMPOODLE

Alas, the Washington neighborhood with the weirdest name is no more. In the 19th century, a shantytown on the banks of the Tiber Creek earned the name “swampoodle”—an apparent reference to the area’s swampy puddles. With a reputation for being wild and crime-ridden, it was known as “the ideal place to turn a dishonest dollar.” But the neighborhood didn’t make it out of the 19th century and was eventually displaced when Union Station was built. Oddly enough, Philadelphia had its own Swampoodle—a section of North Philly whose name disappeared at some point during the 20th century (although some residents are currently trying to bring it back as "Swampoodle Heights").

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How 9 Louisville Neighborhoods Got Their Names
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Historic Louisville, Kentucky, has got to be a contender for having the most neighborhoods in any American city. Its districts can be small, sometimes comprising only a few blocks, but they number in the hundreds, and each has a distinct personality—and more often than not, an interesting tale to tell. Here are a few of their backstories.

1. LIMERICK

Named after County Limerick by the Irish immigrants who established the area, this neighborhood was a Catholic stronghold in a Protestant city. The area had its own annual St. Patrick’s Day parade for 46 years, and roads are named after Catholic saints, such as St. Catherine Street and Bertrand Street (for St. Louis Bertrand, who is also the namesake of the neighborhood’s striking Edwardian English Gothic style church). Although some “lace curtain Irish” immigrants built lavish mansions in Limerick, it’s historically been home to working-class people, and today supports a mix of Irish-American and black Louisvillians, among other demographics. It’s also known for its well-preserved 19th-century architecture.

2. CAMP TAYLOR

Camp Taylor started out not as a neighborhood but a military base. Named after the United States’ 12th president, Camp Zachary Taylor was one of the largest military training camps in the U.S. when it was constructed in 1917, housing over 47,000 recruits. It was also, at the time, the single largest building project in Louisville’s history.

After World War I ended in 1918, most of the government buildings were torn down and the area was redeveloped to become a residential neighborhood of mostly bungalows—many of which were bought by soldiers returning from war—but the old name stuck around. Author F. Scott Fitzgerald was stationed at Camp Zachary Taylor for one month in 1918 and later name-checked it in The Great Gatsby: The mysterious Jay Gatsby is said to have met Daisy while stationed there.

3. CHEROKEE GARDENS/CHEROKEE TRIANGLE

A photo of autumn leaves in Cherokee Park, Louisville, Kentucky.
Autumn in Cherokee Park.
LuAnn Snawder Photography, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Both neighborhoods are named after nearby Cherokee Park, a massive 409-acre city park designed by the father of landscape design, Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed Central Park in New York City. Cherokee Park itself is so named thanks to a 19th-century trend of romanticizing Native American imagery—e.g., Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha. Olmsted actually went on a tear and named three parks after native peoples: Cherokee, Iroquois, and Shawnee. Later, his sons and their firm would help develop more parks, some maintaining that naming tradition.

4. PLEASURE RIDGE PARK

This somewhat salaciously named neighborhood stems from a resort that was built there in the 1870s. The Paine Resort was adjacent to shady Muldraugh Ridge, a popular spot for dancing and picnicking. It was colloquially renamed “Pleasure Ridge,” and the new name later spread to the whole area. (An earlier name for the neighborhood, dating to before L. M. Paine built the resort but still owned most of the surrounding land, was pretty much diametrically opposed its present-day one: Painesville.)

5. OKOLONA

Settled by farmers in the late 1700s, Okolona would eventually get the name Lone Oak, after a huge tree that stood in its center. But when the town tried to register its post office, it learned that there was already a Lone Oak, Kentucky. So the residents roughly rearranged the letters and called it Okolona instead. (For what it’s worth, there’s also a town called Okolona in Mississippi, but its chamber of commerce claims it was named after a Chickasaw warrior and has nothing to do with oak trees.) The community of Okolona has since been incorporated into Louisville proper, which happened when all of Jefferson County merged with the city in 2003. The lone oak itself was around until the 1970s, when it was hit by lightning and subsequently chopped down.

6. KOSMOSDALE

Located in the southwestern part of Louisville, this area was christened after the Kosmos Cement Company, which began developing the area around 1905. (The company’s name itself has been claimed to have come from a type of stone used in the manufacture of cement, or the idea that the product would be sold “around the cosmos,” with a spelling change to tie it in to Kentucky.) The company built a row of 12 duplexes on Dixie Highway for its employees to live in, as well as a school, a medical clinic, and a company store, fostering a small community that still stands today. Kosmos Cement Company is now affiliated with Cemex, but the plant still operates out of Kosmosdale.

7. SCHNITZELBURG

In 1866, when developer D.H. Meriwether first planned out this area of Louisville, along with a triangle of land just to the west that bears his name today, it was originally named Meriwether's Enlargement. However, when it turned out that the neighborhood’s residents were largely German immigrants, they and other Louisvillians began calling it “Schnitzelburg,” probably referring to the popular German/Austrian dish.

8. BUTCHERTOWN

A photo of the interior of Butchertown Grocery in Louisville, Kentucky
The interior of Butchertown Grocery.
Jessica Dillree, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This one is kind of a no-brainer: Butchertown was once full of butchers and stockyards, starting in the 1820s. It was attractive to these business owners because animal remains could be handily dumped into Beargrass Creek, which wasn’t allowed next door in the downtown area for hygiene reasons. In 1937, the Ohio River flooded, and 70% of Louisville was underwater. With Butchertown sitting right on the river’s edge, the already-seedy neighborhood was sent into even sharper decline, with many homes destroyed—or just left to rot. In the 1990s, though, a major overhaul was launched, old buildings were rebuilt and refurbished, and today’s Butchertown is a trendy hotspot known for sleek restaurants, antique boutiques, and art galleries.

9. SMOKETOWN

Smoketown was where Louisville’s brickyards were; according to an 1871 directory, 9 out of the city’s 20 were located in this area. This was thanks to a giant deposit of clay in the ground (possibly evidenced by the name of South Clay Street, which runs through the neighborhood). The kilns used in brickyards produce smoke as well as bricks, and so the neighborhood’s name wrote itself. Folks also called it Frogtown, a name that originated after the brickyards were abandoned in the 1880s, once the clay had been depleted: They left behind empty clay pits that filled with water—and frogs.

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