Today when we hear the names of NYC neighborhoods like Greenwich Village and Hell’s Kitchen, we associated them with attractions. But have you ever stopped to think about how these neighborhoods ended up with their sometimes odd names? And it’s not just those two. If you look anywhere on a map of New York, you’ll find a neighborhood with a weird name. Let’s explore the amusing stories behind some of these NYC neighborhood names.
A village within a city? That doesn’t seem right, does it? Well, up until the 1800s, Greenwich Village was seen as peaceful settlement outside of the city proper. It frequently served as a safe haven for New Yorkers fleeing the yearly outbreaks of cholera and yellow fever.
The Meatpacking District
While today it’s the center of the city’s nightlife, back in the early 1900s, this area was known for its concentration of slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants. According to Mental Floss, at one point there were 250 of these facilities crammed here! Could you imagine the smell?
The Garment District
Another literal neighborhood name, the garment district got its moniker from being the hub of NYC’s fashion industry. The designing, the manufacturing, the selling: it was all done here. Today only a few remnants of this neighborhood’s past life remains. Now it’s the area you pass through on your way from Penn Station to Times Square.
No, it’s not an actual square. And no, it has nothing to do with the passage of time. The origin of Times Square’s name is not all that deep. Times Square is called a square because it’s an intersection of two roads—Broadway and 7th Avenue. As for the “Times” part of the name, that refers to the New York Times newspaper. The paper was briefly headquartered here in the early 1900s before moving to 8th Avenue.
Although the real estate industry prefers to call the area Clinton after the neighborhood’s largest park, DeWitt Clinton Park, this devilish moniker has been in use since the 1860s. The origin of the name is debated: some sources say newcomers gave it this nickname because they found it similar to an area in London. Others say that a cop, looking around at the neighborhood’s slums and crime, said to his partner, “This is place is hell itself.” The partner quipped back, “Hell’s a mild climate. This is hell’s kitchen.” Either way, the name is here to stay.
This odd name is actually a shorter way of saying “Triangle Below Canal Street.” And if you check a map, the neighborhood really is shaped like a triangle!
It’s neither an insult to the residents or a reference to the flying elephant. Like TriBeCa, DUMBO is another acronym: Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass.
Geographically, this name doesn’t make much sense as this neighborhood is located in northwestern Brooklyn. But if you consider how downtowns are usually the areas with the most political and commercial activity, then this neighborhood’s name is less of a head-scratcher. You know what will always be confusing? Trying to figure out what the neighborhood boundaries really are.
Not only did this seaside merryland used to be an island; it also used to be full of rabbits! Coney is supposedly the English bastardization of the old Dutch word for rabbit, “conyn.”
Obviously Williamsburg was named after some guy named Williams. No brainer, right? But what if I told you that this wasn’t your run-of-the-mill Williams? Williamsburg was named after Jonathan Williams, a US Army Corps engineer and, more importantly, Benjamin Franklin’s grandnephew.
No, this southern Brooklyn community didn’t derive its name because the area is shaped like a sheep’s head. Sheepshead Bay actually refers to a fish that used to be found in the bay’s waters. (For the love of all things good and pure, don’t look up the sheepshead fish. The image will scar you for life.)
Sometimes flattery only gets you 500 bucks. That’s the lesson Stephen and John Halsey learned when they named their land in northwestern Queens after John Jacob Astor, the wealthiest man in the U.S. at the time. The Halsey brothers thought by naming the land after Astor, he would feel compelled to help with its development, like he did with the city of Astoria, Oregon. But in this case, Astor, a man worth billions in today’s money, was flattered only enough to give $500.
This Queens neighborhood must have been quite picturesque back in the 1700s. According to Forgotten NY, the Bragaw family, who had a farm in the area, called the land Sunnyside because it gave them a front-row seat to magnificent sunrises and sunsets. Queens residents, is this still true?
You’d think that whoever named this NYC neighborhood was trying to bring a piece of the Caribbean to New York. Actually, the namers had a certain bucktooth animal in mind, or rather the Native American tribe with the same name. The name Jamaica comes from the Algonquin word “jameco,” which means beaver. The Native Americans who lived in the area were also referred to as the Jameco.
It doesn’t get more literal than this. This plot of land on the border between Brooklyn and Queens lies 30 feet below the surrounding area. This feature, coupled with its lack of sewer service, means that the area is frequently flooded. What else would you find in the Hole? Perhaps, a dead body. Rumor has it that this place used to be a Mafia dumping ground.
The Bronx Neighborhoods
Try saying this NYC neighborhood name three times fast. Named after a creek separating Manhattan and the Bronx, Spuyten Duyvil has disputed meanings and disputed origin stories. According to Washington Irving, the man who gave us the word ‘Knickerbocker,’ a Dutch trumpeter said he would swim across the creek during a 17th century British attack on New Amsterdam “in spite of the devil.” (Spoiler: he didn’t make it.) Other sources say that the name refers to a fountain that spits water into the creek, which settlers called “spouting devil” or “spitting devil.” Whatever the origin, the name is fun to say.
Leave it to Robert Moses to bestow such a matter-of-fact name on a place. Co-op City, or Cooperative City, is the largest co-operative apartment complex ever built, with an astonishing 15,000 apartments. Check out this Curbed article on this unique NYC neighborhood.
Staten Island Neighborhoods
Put your swords away. St. George has nothing to do with the dragon-slaying Christian saint. The northern Staten Island neighborhood is named for a less holier George, George Law. Law was a property owner who refused to sell his land to the developers of the Staten Island ferry terminal unless they agreed to name the terminal after him. They caved to his demand, with not only the terminal but also the surrounding neighborhood being named after the not-quite-saintly George.
Which NYC neighborhood name origin story was your favorite? Share it in the comment section. Also, if you want to get to know NYC even better with Shiloh in the City, don’t forget to sign up for my email list and follow me on social media. Thanks for reading!