Neighborhood Names.

The NY Times has a splendidly detailed map of NYC neighborhoods (archived) that’s accompanied by Larry Buchanan’s explanatory article (archived), which is required reading for anyone interested in the topic and from which I extract this bit, which resonates strongly with me:

Neighborhoods are not forever. Some stay, some change and some disappear. The borders you see on Google are not “official,” and neither are the ones used by real estate companies like StreetEasy. Even the city itself purposefully does not have an official city map of neighborhood borders.

“It’s not our place to define them,” said Casey Berkovitz, a spokesman for the city’s Planning Department. “We leave that up to New Yorkers themselves.”

That’s the spirit! (Compare my 2007 rant about the horrors of official nomenclature.) And this too resonated:

Other readers told us something else: They said, very forcefully, that East Williamsburg doesn’t exist. (To many New Yorkers, new neighborhoods are to be met with skepticism and, at times, contempt.)

Here’s a partial list of other neighborhoods that readers said were “made up” or “don’t exist”: NoMad, NoLIta, NoHo, BoCoCa, Hamilton Heights, Greenwood Heights, Hudson Heights, Hudson Square, Lincoln Square, Two Bridges, Carnegie Hill, Manhattan Valley, SpaHa.

How many times have I myself made similar grumbling remarks! BoCoCa indeed [Тоже мне БоКоКа]. (Thanks, Bonnie!)


  1. Perhaps this is the case everywhere, but here in London at least it’s notable how much neighbourhood names have been fixed and sometimes created by the tube map. For example, the area south of the old town of Southwark was once Newington, until a station was built and named after a local pub, and so an ever broader swathe of neighbourhoods are called Elephant & Castle now. I guess bridges the gap between official and colloquial rather perfectly, in that it’s written down everywhere but use beyond the tube network is just based on popular whim.

    (Now remembering the disgusting period about a decade ago when some business group or other tried to rebrand the Holborn, Bloomsbury, and St Giles districts as “Midtown”, to a really quite impressive failure.)

  2. neither are the ones [neighbourhood names] used by real estate companies

    Yeah. I was involved with implementing a Council rates business system. The database had a field ‘vanity suburb’ that in effect held Realtor’s bollix and was otherwise ignored. Another field ‘postcode suburb’ was what drove the rating calculation.

  3. There’s a sort of tradition of American suburban developers giving the neighborhoods they build names—often with a big sign at the main entrance to the development. (Gladiator-At-Law was parodying the neighborhood branding shtick back in 1955.) However, those names generally don’t stick around more than a decade or two or three; the signs are weathered and removed; and most suburban neighborhoods end up basically nameless.

  4. there are a few developer-given monikers that have lasted in nyc, though! my favorite is Rego Park, built in the 1920s by the Real Good Construction Company.

    (and i wonder whether Crown Heights is actually another of them, from when systematic gridded development brought in white residents to surround Weeksville, Crow Hill, and the other largely black settlements in the space between the Bedford and Flatbush towns)

  5. Richard Hershberger says

    I work in Columbia, Maryland. This was an early and geographically sprawling planned community. The idea was to have various distinct neighborhoods, each centered around a small shopping center, and a business district in the middle, including a large shopping mall. The results were mixed. But the signs for the various neighborhoods are still there, memorializing the era this was built. Many of the name are remarkably twee, like the neighborhood of “Hobbit’s Glen” with street names including (and I am not making this up) “Willow Bottom Drive,” “Wood Elves Way,” and to get to the heart of the matter, “Rivendell Lane.” These are extreme examples, but it is generally true that a street address often is instantly recognizable as being in Columbia based on the street name.

  6. In 2006, Dublin City Council announced a plan to redevelop the Liberties, an inner city area with an evocative and authentic medieval name, and rebrand it SoHo, standing for “South Of HeustOn Station” (or possibly “South Of Heuston StatiOn”). Fortunately, a global economic collapse came along and put paid to the scheme.

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    One of the issues here is levels of generality, or neighborhoods of different scope “nesting” within each other. So, e.g., Carnegie Hill (where I lived some years ago) is a subset of the Upper East Side. It would be wrong to say that someone who lives in CH does *not* live on the UES. But it seems a conceptual mistake to say that CH therefore *doesn’t exist* rather than existing at a more fine-grained level of generality. Manhattan Valley (where I go to church) is in a somewhat similar relationship to the UWS, with the notable exception that MV has historically been notably less affluent so that people interested in the UWS brand conveniently excluding poorer people would like to be able to say that living there means you don’t live on the UWS.

    FWIW, when and where I grew up in, the developer-assigned names were in common vernacular use and AFAIK they still are, although you might also use a slightly-higher-level of generality name if one were available which is often not the case. Many of those subdivisions have their own wiki articles, although it looks like someone may have pruned out some of the stubs. So e.g. IIRC,_Delaware was where, as of 1980-81, the first girl I had a semi-serious romance with lived, and (to switch from the sublime to the ridiculous),,_Delaware (which was/is less than ten blocks worth of suburban houses) was where Joe Biden lived from 1955 until he went off to college in ’61 (and I guess maybe when college wasn’t in session until he got married).

  8. FWIW, when and where I grew up in

    You failed to share this vital information: “Brandywine Hundred, also known as Grubb’s Landing…”

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    I’ve never heard anyone refer to it as Grubb’s Landing. Maybe some hipsters have recently revived the Colonial-era toponym, or maybe the piece was badly edited.

    I did go to high school with this swift-footed young lady, although I don’t know one way or another if she was a descendant of the Grubb family that loomed large in the area’s early history or if her particular ancestral line had arrived much more recently.

  10. So there are both designed and organic hobbitish neighborhood names.

  11. J.W. Brewer says

    By contrast, Chicago has “official” neighborhoods, a/k/a “community areas,” which were devised back before WW2 to facilitate data gathering and analysis by social scientists at the University of Chicago, who managed to convince some city officials that they would also benefit from having a standardized set of such areas for their own data gathering and analysis purposes. Some of the “official” areas still match up fairly closely in both name and boundaries to the more “informal” names used in common parlance; others don’t.

  12. J.W. Brewer says

    I was curious about how old versus recent “Carnegie Hill” as a Manhattan toponym is, and a quick trawl through the google books corpus uncovered a circa 1903 story in “The Plumbers’ Trade Journal, Steam and Hot Water Fitters’ Review” describing the state-of-the-art piping etc. at the recently-opened “Carnegie Hill Hotel,” located at 92nd & Madison very much in the heart of what would now be called the CH neighborhood. That may be the same structure subsequently known as the Hotel Wales and recently converted into condos, but I’m not entirely sure about that.

    Wikipedia claims that construction of Andrew Carnegie’s nearby NYC mansion (now the Cooper-Hewitt Museum) was completed in 1902, and it seems unlikely to me that the toponym would be older than that mansion.

  13. J.W. Brewer says

    In terms of “official” subdivisions more fine-grained that the five boroughs, NYC is divided into 51 city council districts (no longer called “wards” either officially or, in my experience, colloquially), 59 “community boards,” and 77 police precincts. The city council districts need to be of approximately equal population and to have their boundaries retweaked after each census in pursuit of that goal, which makes it hard to match them up with functional and popularly-recognized neighborhoods. The CB and police boundaries are supposedly intended to match up at least roughly with recognized neighborhoods or aggregations thereof, although I don’t know how successful they are in that endeavor and of course de facto neighborhood boundaries can shift over time when “official” government-drawn boundaries stay fixed.

    ETA: also 32 “districts” for public school purposes even though there’s a single unified city-wide system. Since I moved just outside the city limits when my firstborn was 3 to avoid learning about the Byzantine complexities of the city school system I don’t know much about how those district boundaries do and do not track popularly-recognized neighborhood boundaries.

  14. like the neighborhood of “Hobbit’s Glen” with street names including (and I am not making this up) “Willow Bottom Drive,” “Wood Elves Way,” and to get to the heart of the matter, “Rivendell Lane.”

    Honestly surprised Middle-earth Enterprises hasn’t sued for copyright infringement. They’ve sued pubs in the UK for being named “The Hobbit”, and aren’t known for being particularly generous.

  15. I have heard NoLiTa used in the wild. Whatever autochthonous New Yorkers think, that one may have legs.

  16. Surprisingly, the Tolkien estate does sometimes allow use of names (or at least did in the 1980s):

    With approval from the Tolkien Estate and a guarantee to uphold all qualities of “Hobbit hospitality,” Bilbo Baggins Restaurant became a landmark in Alexandria for four decades.

  17. J.W. Brewer says

    Another thing that can happen is that old large-scale neighborhood names become obsolete, but the first batch of replacements don’t cover the entire territory, leaving a gap that eventually needs to be filled. So when it comes to Manhattan the old “Lower West Side” (where “lower” = “south of Greenwich Village”) fell out of common use some considerable decades ago. For a while, there was not much felt need for a specific name for the south-of-the-Village area that was west of Soho but north of Tribeca because not much was going on there and most Manhattanites never went there, but eventually there was such a felt need, which motivated “Hudson Square.” Maybe you don’t think much of the name, but you can’t beat something with nothing.

  18. PlasticPaddy says

    I would say “South of Heuston Station” is misleading for “the Liberties”, as due south would mean James’ hospital, Rialto, Leonard’s Corner, Kilmainham. Maybe the Corpo should try “south a da Four Courts” (SadFoC).

  19. David Eddyshaw says

    While the more sophisticated among my fellow-Brits could probably tell you what parliamentary constituency they live in, I suspect that only political-party members could tell you which electoral ward they live in.

    (It’s actually just changed where I live. My old ward is now no more. Ubi sunt …?)

  20. I think the trend exemplified by NoLiTa started with the relatively innocuous SoHo, and spread noxiously everywhere, as the flag planted by aspiring (and often successful) gentrifiers. In San Francisco it started in the ’90s with SoMa (South of Market), which is now pretty much official, then on to (ugh) NoPa (North of the Panhandle), which is still limited to the sort of people who think it’s cute. There was a bar a few years ago on the section of Mission St. south of Cesar Chavez, which went by the name SoCha, but it’s gone now. I presume the owner was struck by lightning.

  21. J.W. Brewer says

    David E: In my town a lot of experienced voters know which “electoral district” a/k/a precinct or ward they live in, because multiple districts share the same polling place* but each has its own designated counting-machine in its own corner of that polling place into which your particular ballot needs to go. Remembering from last time which line to get into right away rather than first spending time in the line near the door for the informational desk where they will tell you based on your address which other line to get into adds enough efficiency that’s it’s worth remembering.

    *The five districts at my end of town used to be split up two and three between two different polling locations, but in recent years it’s become more common to have all five vote in one place, which presumably saves costs. Although now this adds cognitive burden in terms of figuring out where to go on Election Day rather than just assuming on autopilot it’s wherever you went last time.

  22. Stu Clayton says

    My old ward is now no more. Ubi sunt …?

    Ubi sunt wardia ?

  23. I don’t know if other New York neighborhood names have real currency in Manhattan (my brothers who lived in New York are/were domiciled in Brooklyn), but the only ones that seem to get significant mentions in national* media are Soho and Tribeca. Of those two, the Soho name is at least partially a backronym (after the much older Soho in London; “a dismal quarter of Soho” is where Mr. Hyde killed Sir Danvers Carew).

    * I initially put “non-local” here, but that word is confusing and multivalent enough even in physics contexts. I remember checking out a book on “non-local solitary waves” in grad school and being very disappointed that it was actually about what I would consider “non-localized” solitons (an interesting topic, but not what I was looking for). A friend (the only physics student I went through all of college and graduate school at MIT alongside the entire time) had a similar experience with the monograph title “Hard Core Scattering.”

  24. J.W. Brewer says

    One more thought: it would have been helpful if the NYT had shared underlying more underlying data (if they have it) on what people who denied that a particular neighborhood name was a real thing thought the neighborhood including such-and-such location should be called instead. Not all situations are the same: it sounded like the guy who objected to “Upper Carnegie Hill” probably did so because it was perceived as a gentrification-driven attempt to appropriate a couple blocks that traditionally belonged to “East/Spanish Harlem.” But the objection to “East Williamsburg” sounds more like “it’s all just Williamsburg, period.” Which may get back to my point above about levels of generality: “Williamsburg” as a meaningful whole can co-exist, ontologically speaking, with subneighborhoods designated by one or another cardinal direction, although I feel like I’ve most often heard a division of Williamsburg into South v. North rather than East v. West. Presumbly because “which side of the BQE are you on” is for many purposes less salient than “are lots of the residents Hasidic or virtually none?”

    Perhaps Brett is too young to be of the generational cohort(s) for whom “Greenwich Village” meant or symbolized something, however stereotyped or inaccurate, to millions of Americans who’d never visited NYC. Bohemians!
    Beatniks! Free love! Streets that defy Manhattan’s Cartesian grid! Etc. Of course within my lifetime “Soho” has transitioned from meaning “edgy artist-types living in cool ad hoc spaces that aren’t completely consistent with the zoning rules” to “luxury boutiques selling designer-branded merchandise.”

    Finally, if unrelatedly, I am quite surprised the NYT did not mention anyone peeving about “Clinton” (in Manhattan, as distinct from “Clinton Hill” in Brooklyn), which is the polite synonym used by real-estate salespersons and other such boosterish types for the neighborhood traditionally known as “Hell’s Kitchen.”

  25. John Cowan says

    Another thing that can happen is that old large-scale neighborhood names become obsolete, but the first batch of replacements don’t cover the entire territory, leaving a gap that eventually needs to be filled.

    That hasn’t happened where I live. When I moved to East 3rd St, between 2nd Ave. and 3rd Ave. 40+ years ago, it was and still is part of Cooper Square, named after the Cooper Union, and this was in turn part of the Lower East Side. Then the real-estate interests decided to name everything west of 1st Ave and north of Houston St. (0th St. in effect) the East Village. Gale and I resisted this name for all we were worth, but eventually gave up. Later, everything east of 1st Ave became Alphabet City (after Aves. A, B, C, and D). But everything south of Houston St. continues to be the Lower East Side; it has no name of its own.

  26. The Greenwich Village stereotype is too entrenched to go away, unlike Soho, or even Brooklyn.

  27. J.W. Brewer says

    JC says 40+ years, but the “East Village” rebranding was reputedly already underway by 1960 and the East Village Other (contrasting itself with the less-extreme Village Voice) began publication in either ’65 or ’66. There is the separate curiosity of JC claiming to reside on a non-existent block. No doubt it would suit (or in earlier decades would have suited) the real estate interests to rename the Bowery Third Avenue South, but they never got away with it. And the Bowery at that latitude is running diagonally “off the grid” rather than running parallel to 1st and 2nd Avenues etc., so it’s not even a nomenclature thing – you can see on the map geometrically where Third Avenue branches off from the Bowery a couple blocks north of 3d St. to establish itself on an alignment parallel to the other grid-avenues.

    It is true that for whatever reasons “Lower East Side” has never fallen out of use (although it may have shrunk in perceived territorial extent) although “Lower West Side” has become obsolete. I’m a little unclear on when “Alphabet City” evolved to the point of being taken to describe a neighborhood outside the East Village rather than just the easternmost part of the EV. You can, e.g., fairly easily find references to the once-legendary jazz club Slug’s, which was located on East 3d St. between Ave B and Ave C from ’64 until ’72, as being in the “East Village.”

  28. Yeah, “East Village” was a thing (unquestioned as far as I remember) when I moved to NYC at the start of the ’80s. And I still think of Alphabet City as being part of the East Village.

  29. John Cowan says

    All I can say about the term “East Village” is that the people I dealt with didn’t use the term until much later. I habitually refer to that part of the Bowery as “3rd Ave” although it isn’t called that, because when I say “between Bowery and 2nd Ave.” it is normally heard as “between Broadway and 2nd Ave”, which just confuses people.

  30. David Marjanović says

    Тоже мне БоКоКа

    Google finds two results for this: this page, and the main page. What does it mean?

    (I’m conceptually reminded of “also kena“, but that can’t be it…)

    Chicago has “official” neighborhoods, a/k/a “community areas,”

    Vienna’s Katastralgemeinden are pretty much the original villages, so they line up with informal usage quite well. (See here for the whole phenomenon of “cadastral communities”, in English.)

  31. What does it mean?

    It’s a translation+transliteration of the immediately preceding text: “BoCoCa indeed.” I am very fond of the Russian idiom тоже мне.

  32. Hmm. This Wiktionary description of Тоже мне doesn’t sound quite right to me. ‘Тоже мне X’ implies that what is discussed is not really X, is not up to the standard of X.

  33. “Alphabet City”, in my experience, is mostly what white folks who were afraid to go to there until NYU started buying buildings east of 1st ave call Loisaida. i do think it has had more local currency than that at various times, but it’s very much an anglophone exonym for the (still, though more patchily) mostly spanish-speaking part of the LES.

    and it’s very telling – both about who was asked and about the editorial decision-making – that the Times doesn’t include Loisaida, El Barrio, or Los Sures on its map in any way. the english-named neighborhoods are not the same as the spanish-named ones: East Harlem may have a fuzzy southern border, but El Barrio ends very sharply at 96th street; South Williamsburg may be bounded by broadway and the BQE*, but Los Sures starts at metropolitan ave and extends at least to union ave (and may or may not go south of division street at all).

    which is partly to say that i very much agree with JWB about the importance of knowing who calls neighborhoods by what names. i think the putative “Columbia Street Waterfront District” is probably the best example. that is not a name that has ever been spoken aloud outside of a boardroom; it would be interesting to know the breakdown of real estate brokers vs politicians’ staffers vs PEP loan scammers among the people proposing it (i’m guessing the trust-fund tiktokers on those blocks all say Cobble Hill or Carroll Gardens). what i can tell you, however, is that nobody ever went to the Jalopy Theater (315 columbia st) and thought they were anywhere but red hook.

    it’s even stranger that CoStWaDi** is on the map given that the Times rejected Industry City as a separable part of Sunset Park – which is something that certain blocks do get called in real life. i expect there’s a very simple economic explanation, but i’m not gonna go rooting around in reporters’ and editors’ familial and spousal business interests long enough to work out what it is.


    * while װיליאַמסבורג runs south of broadway all the way to flushing ave, absorbing the whole Broadway Triangle, and has pressed past flushing down to myrtle ave at least as far west as classon ave.

    ** not to be confused with COST REVS.

  34. @vb, yes.
    (1) your guest requests silken sheets*. In his abnsence you say, literally:
    tozhe mne, prince out-found-self”
    Where tozhe is “also” and more literally “that-same” and mne is “to-me”
    (2) someone introduces herself as a specialist and… now you’re correcting her errors. “tozhe mne, ‘specialist’!” (in (2) specialist is quotemarked)

    But I would not be surprised if a native speaker used it as LH did, it is close enough.
    *usually the request is more humble/realistic:)

  35. @drasvi
    ‘But I would not be surprised if a native speaker…’ — i would.
    On the other hand БоКоКа, тоже мне! is to me perfectly idiomatic. We say that there is some class to which BoCoCa is incorrectly ascribed, without saying what precisely that class is.

  36. ‘Тоже мне X’ implies that what is discussed is not really X, is not up to the standard of X.

    Thanks! It’s always hard for a foreigner to get the subtleties of idiomatic usage.

  37. J.W. Brewer says

    BTW, “BoCoCa” was one of maybe two alleged neighborhood names I didn’t recall ever hearing of, so I googled and … it gets back to my point upthread about levels of generality. It’s supposedly been around in somewhat limited use for approximately 20 years as an “umbrella term” that refers to three adjacent Brooklyn neighborhoods as if they form a single collective unit. I don’t think it’s intended to supersede the traditional names of the three neighborhoods when referring to them individually. So analogous to e.g. Benelux (BeNeLux?) as an umbrella term for the three separate nation-states in the same corner of Europe. I was perfectly familiar with the Bo- neighborhood, the Co- neighborhood, and the Ca- neighborhood and do agree that they have (at present) some common traits, but I guess I’ve never had occasion to really need or want a short-form way of referring to all three of them at once, nor have I (that I recall) heard or read anyone who had such a need.

    There are of course six possible ways to order the monosyllabic clipped forms of the three underlying neighborhoods. I don’t know if someone workshopped all six and then decided BoCoCa was the most euphonious or unambiguous, or if it was a less rigorous coinage process than that.

  38. Trond Engen says

    rozele: trust-fund tiktokers

    Quoted because.

  39. Which gets us back to geographical portmanteaus.

  40. David Marjanović says

    trust-fund tiktokers

    A lot more self-explanatory than bobos (bourgeois bohémiens).

  41. J.W. Brewer says

    @David: well, these things are context dependent – when “bobo” was coined, not all that many years ago, “tiktoker” would have been a confusing-because-meaningless lexeme.

  42. i’d prefer GaHiHi, from the other halves of the portmanteau’d names (and my reaction to the whole thing), myself.

  43. John Cowan says

    Not completely meaningless. It would be understood, at least among the Ozologists, as a reference to someone like or associated with Tik-Tok, a copper wind-up robot. Unlike the Tin Woodman, who has direct ship-of-Theseus continuity back too the fully human Nick Chopper, Tik-Tok is copper and doesn’t rust, but his three engines for thought, movement, and speech need to be manually wound up. He also has a spherical body rather than a cylindrical one.

  44. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Although many cities have been described as collections of villages, in most cases that is a fiction. Here in Marseiiles, however, it is true, and the constituent villages are nearly all readily identifiable and have readily recognizable centres. I live in Sainte-Anne, which no one would confuse with Mazargues, within walking distance, or Saint-Giniez, within walking distance in the opposite direction. One of the few exceptions is the area where the CNRS is located, it doesn’t seem to have a name or a historical identity.

  45. Interesting! Wikipedia has a nice map.

  46. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Thanks! I haven’t seen that (or a similar) map before. The CNRS appears to be in Sainte-Marguerite, but no one thinks of it as being in Sainte-Marguerite. Maybe that’s just me, and everyone else knows,because the Hôpital Sainte-Marguerite is not far away.

    In the same area is a quartier called Menpenti, which for years I found impossible to pronounce in a French-sounding way. One day I asked my daughter (whose French is much better than mine), and she said it with equal stress on the three syllables. Said like that it sounds perfectly French.

  47. Menpenti:

    Le provençal m’en pènti, ou m’enpenti, 1e personne du singulier du verbe provençal s’empenti, ou se penti (se repentir), signifie : « je m’en repens ». Le nom viendrait de la devise inscrite au fronton d’une bastide auparavant célèbre dans cet espace autrefois rural et aujourd’hui disparue : Marchi toujou, e jamai m’en penti (Je marche toujours et jamais je ne m’en repens).

  48. A relatively new term in Vienna, as far as I know, is « Zwidemu » (Zwischen den Museen) instead of Maria-Theresien Platz. That seems to be a genuine youth driven nickname.

  49. PlasticPaddy says

    Is that short i (“Zwiddehmuh”)? Do people still say”zuwider”?

  50. David Marjanović says

    Is that short i (“Zwiddehmuh”)?

    Unlikely; syllabic abbreviations get spelling pronunciations, otherwise they would sound overly hasty (like a Low German loan). I’ve never heard (of) this one, though.

    Do people still say ”zuwider”?

    As in the locus classicus? Dialect, yes. Mesolect, no. Whatever the massive immigration of children has made of the mesolect in the last 20 years, definitely not.

  51. From here:

    I would like to introduce here the Austrian way of being optimistic, which is a very weird thing and is best explained by illustration. Here, then, is the hilarious parody on the Ode of Joy by the Viennese actor and cabaretist Kurt Sowinetz, from 1972. The irreverence and the gloom of Sowinetz parody, curiously enough, makes the nobility of Beethoven’s music shine even clearer:

    Olle Menschen samma z’wida, i mecht’s in de Gosch’n hau’n.
    Mir san olle Menschen z’wida, in de Gosch’n mecht’ i’s hau’n.

    ( All people are repulsive to me, I would like to punch them in the face…)

  52. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Le provençal m’en pènti, ou m’enpenti, …

    Thanks. It hadn’t occurred to be that it was Provençal, but now that you mention it it seems obvious. However, it also means that my feeble efforts to say it were not all that far off the mark. as I don’t think e is nasalized before n in Provençal, and the è suggests penultimate stress.

  53. That’s what I thought too.

  54. David Marjanović says

    the Austrian way of being optimistic

    Never trust Viennese talking about Austria – they’re largely unaware of the rest of the country (“the countryside”).

  55. Is that short i (“Zwiddehmuh”)?

    My son uses a long i.

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