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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

Wikimedia Commons

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

Wikimedia Commons

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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Neighborhoods
How Baltimore's Neighborhoods Got Their Names
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Baltimore gets a bad rap. Yes, like most major cities, it has its problems with crime, but it’s also got a dazzling waterfront, a thriving arts and music scene, almost three centuries of history, and literally hundreds of different neighborhoods. Some of the earliest National Register Historic Districts are found in Baltimore, and close to a third of the city’s buildings are designated as historic in the register—at 65,000, they’ve got more than any other American city. With so much history to go around in Charm City, there are, naturally, some interesting stories behind the names of these districts. Here are a few.

1. PIGTOWN

The area of Baltimore now called Pigtown was originally part of a 2368-acre plantation called Mount Clare. Interestingly, one of Maryland’s first iron foundries was built in this area in the mid-18th century. It housed the largest furnace used for pig iron (a crude iron product used to produce steel or wrought iron) in the colonies before the American Revolution, but that’s just a coincidence. The area is actually called Pigtown because pigs were offloaded here and herded to nearby slaughterhouses, so pigs roaming the streets were a common sight. That said, in the late 1970s and early ’80s, there was an effort to restyle the neighborhood as Washington Village, but it wasn’t really successful; today, the name Pigtown is a source of pride.

2. OAKENSHAWE

This tony residential area, known for its charming Georgian revival architecture and its status on the National Register of Historic Places, was originally planned as a “streetcar suburb” when it was built between 1916 and 1925, and was touted for its ease of access to downtown Baltimore via the St. Paul Streetcar. The area is named after shipping magnate James Wilson’s home, the 350-acre Okenshawe Estate, built in the early 19th century. Even after the estate was torn down, the area where it stood was generally known as “Oakenshaw” until about 1910, when cartographers started adding an extra e on city maps. The spelling discrepancy is preserved today in the name of Oakenshaw Place, a street within the neighborhood, whose spelling lie somewhere in the middle of the community and the historical estate—with two as but still missing the final e.

3. OLD GOUCHER

After many years of stagnation, Old Goucher is currently known for its spate of new development, with many Victorian-era buildings restored and several parks and green spaces reclaimed in the last several years. But it was originally known for Goucher College, which was established in this neighborhood in 1885, before moving to suburban Towson, Maryland, in the 1950s. The neighborhood still bears the school’s name—perhaps with the word “Old” attached to denote the fact that Goucher isn’t here anymore. Goucher College itself was named after co-founder John Goucher, a Methodist pastor, and his wife Mary, who sought to create a Methodist-sponsored college for female students; the name was changed in 1910 from Women’s College of Baltimore City.

4. THE MIDDLE EAST

In the late ’70s, the residents of this decaying section of East Baltimore were seeking federal grant funds to repair its deteriorating buildings, and a group was created to oversee the $800,000 they received. The neighborhood didn’t really have a name, however, and so they weren’t sure what to name the organization either. Fortunately, Lucille Gorham, the group’s director, came up with a solution at the 1978 grant hearing: “We have the Northeast Community Organization on one side and the Southeast on the other. So, tell them you're from the Middle East Community Organization, because you're right in the middle of everything.” Times have changed, however, and because real estate companies find it’s difficult to sell houses in an area named after a geographical region strongly associated with military conflict, there’s been a push to rebrand the region as “Eager Park,” after a public space that opened in May 2017. (It’s not really catching on so far.) Also, because a good portion of the HBO series The Wire was filmed here, it’s also sometimes referred to as “Wire Park.”

5. WAVERLY (AND BETTER WAVERLY)

Both the neighborhood of Waverly and adjacent Better Waverly (better meaning larger , i.e., “greater Waverly”) are christened after Sir Walter Scott’s novel, Waverley [sic]. Waverly began in the 1840s as an independent village of wealthy merchants that was called Huntingdon, but when it became clear that there were other local Huntingdons, literature fans in the town opted to change the name in order to get themselves a post office. Despite the book being set in the Jacobite, not Victorian, era, the borders of Better Waverly are roughly the same as the original Victorian-era village from the mid-1800s. Although brick row houses—which are frequently seen around Baltimore—were later added, a large part of Waverly still comprises quaint wooden Victorian-era homes.

6. DICKEYVILLE

Found on the westernmost edge of Baltimore, Dickeyville was first known as Franklin, for the Franklin paper mill built there in 1808. About 20 years later, three brothers named Wethered were running a wool mill in the area, and they later built a lumber mill, school, and church. The town’s name then changed to Wetheredville, until the town was sold to Irish emigrant William J. Dickey. After William J. Dickey died, his son, William A. Dickey, became the president of the company, and the town was renamed Dickeyville—intending to honor his father, but since their names were almost identical, he basically named the town after himself, too.

7. OVERLEA

Hidden in the northeast corner of the city limits, Overlea was established in the late 1800s as Lange’s Farm, named after a farm in the area. As in many other communities, the streets were named after trees—Cedar, Hickory, Spruce, Willow, and so on—and the community borders ended up being the tree-themed streets. The area was known for its views, as it's situated above rolling meadows, and as such, the neighborhood’s name was changed to Overlea sometime around the turn of the century—with Overlea meaning “over the meadow.” The community was partially annexed by the City of Baltimore in 1919.

8. RIDGELY’S DELIGHT

Located just outside Baltimore’s downtown, adjacent to Camden Yards, this rowhouse-heavy neighborhood has been a diverse melting pot for centuries. Part of the land, originally known as Howard's Timber Neck because it was owned by Captain John Howard, was transferred to Colonel Charles “the Merchant” Ridgely upon his marriage to Howard’s daughter, Rachel. It was then combined with another of Ridgely’s properties, called Brotherly Love, then resurveyed and called Ridgely's Delight, in reference to another of its owner’s flamboyantly named properties: a plantation named Ridgely’s Whim. (He also owned two estates called Claret and White Wine.) A former thoroughfare belonging to the Susquehannock tribe and later the main highway between Washington and Philadelphia in the late 1700s and early 1800s passes through the neighborhood—it’s now known as Washington Boulevard.

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How Austin's Neighborhoods Got Their Names
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When Austin was chosen as the capital of Texas, it wasn’t called Austin at all—it was a small village called Waterloo until its name was changed to honor Stephen F. Austin, the colonist known as the “Father of Texas,” in 1839. Many of its neighborhoods also have colorful histories. Here’s how seven of them got their names.

1. ZILKER

You can thank Andrew Jackson Zilker, a bootstrapping Texas politician and philanthropist, for the name of this south central Austin neighborhood. Zilker was the ice king of Austin, making his fortune with the chilly stuff before beginning to buy up land around the area. In 1917, he sold a 350-acre tract of land to the city of Austin and gave the proceeds to the Austin public schools. Now the park—and the neighborhood that adjoins it—is named in his honor.

2. JUDGES HILL

A photograph of The Mansion at Judge's Hill
The Mansion at Judge's Hill in 2013

Now a residential neighborhood in the heart of Austin, Judges Hill has been associated with the judiciary since before the city had its current name—and before Texas was part of the United States. One early resident was Thomas Jefferson Chambers, an American speculator and attorney who bought much of his land in shady deals, then became a naturalized Mexican citizen with the intention of practicing law—the only foreigner to be granted a law license. He was later named chief justice of the newly formed Texas Supreme Court, but never presided over a case. Nevertheless, for his service he was given land in the Austin area. After the annexation of Texas, Elijah Sterling Clark Robertson—also a judge—bought property there, and other judges and attorneys followed. Voila: Judges Hill.

3. BREMOND BLOCK

Speaking of Victorian-era luxury, the Bremond Block Historic District provides a rare glimpse of what Austin looked like back in the day. The neighborhood was named after the Bremond family, merchants and bankers who constructed or modified fancy houses there beginning in the 1870s. Today, the Bremonds are known mainly for the block they created—a magnet for wealthy Austinites and family members that’s now on the National Register of Historic Places.

4. CLARKSVILLE

An arial photo of the Clarksville neighborhood in Austin, Texas and beyond
Matthew Rutledge, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Unlike the Bremond Block, Clarksville was not known for its wealth. The land was granted and sold to the former slaves of Texas's own governor, Elisha M. Pease, in 1865. Charles Clark, a freed slave, also bought some of the land that's now Clarksville from another former Confederate officer, Nathan G. Shelley, and it became one of the four freedmen’s towns in Austin. Most of the neighborhood’s small, wood-framed houses are now gone, and as Kristie Cantou of Hatch + Ulland Owen Architects writes, “most African-American residents have been driven out of the neighborhood by decades of land speculation, gentrification, construction of Mopac [the Missouri Pacific Railroad] and rising property taxes.”

5. JOLLYVILLE

You might think things are pretty jovial in Jollyville, but stop right there: The north Austin neighborhood got its name from a person, not a state of mind. Jollyville was named after John G. Jolly, a blacksmith who lived in the once-tiny town that is now a neighborhood in north Austin.

6. MOORE’S CROSSING

A photo of the Old Moore's Crossing Bridge in Austin, Texas
The Old Moore's Crossing Bridge
Dave Wilson, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Like many Austin neighborhoods, this historic district owes its name to one of the area’s many creeks. The airport area got its name from a man named John B. Moore’s store that, you guessed it, was near a creek crossing. In this case the creek was Onion Creek, which also lent its name to a ritzy country club neighborhood south of downtown. Onion Creek, it’s safe to assume, got its name from onions, though it’s impossible to track the name’s origin.

7. SWEDE HILL

When it comes to obvious names, Swede or Swedish Hill may have Onion Creek beat. It was settled by Swedish people in the 1870s. At the time, there were more Swedish people in Texas than in any other Southern state, perhaps because Swedish immigrants weren't intimidated by the harsh, arid climate. Many Texas Swedes hailed from the exact same county in Sweden, and in Austin the community flocked to a place they called Svenska Kullen, or Swedish Hill. There are other reminders of Sweden in Austin, like the Govalle neighborhood, which is named after a ranch that immigrant Swen Magnus Swenson named “Ga Valla,” or “good pastures.”

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