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What Once Was

Naming Names: Washington’s Neighborhoods

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 By Matthew B. Gilmore*

 There’s a kind of sport in identifying the neighborhood name for any particular spot in Washington — a sport played by realtors, developers, and planning geeks. Sadly (or happily), it’s all for naught; there are no official neighborhoods in the District of Columbia. There are many things that serve as proxies, but DC has no officially-defined neighborhoods. [1] There is a list of neighborhoods published by the District’s Office of Planning, but there are no officially recognized boundaries.

Though everyone knows what neighborhood they live in, its boundaries — even name — they use may not accord with that of their neighbors; but neighborhood is a key part of how people think about their lives.  The answer to “where do you live” is often conditional based on who’s asking. If it’s a non-local asking, someone will usually use nearness to a recognizable landmark, while the answer to someone familiar to DC will be narrower and specific.

Land Grants

But no matter what the exact boundaries of the area one calls their neighborhood, the name has an origin in the long past or recent history. Some names on the land can be traced back to the early development of Maryland — to the original land patents granted when the District was part of Maryland. Priscilla McNeill created three maps illustrating the patents and their gradual transformations and combinations and re-divisions. Below is the first covering 1696 to 1748.

Maryland land grants within the District of Columbia as of December 10, 1748 (Prince George's County) and their Date of Survey. Complied by Priscilla McNeill.

Maryland land grants within the District of Columbia as of December 10, 1748 (Prince George’s County) and their Date of Survey. Complied by Priscilla McNeill.

Due to the difficulties of the challenging terrain, land grants were often defined based on their river frontage. The length of shoreline was calculated and then the boundary ran the depth inland (and uphill). With each grant being perpendicular to its individual section of shoreline this did present challenges when surveyors’ boundaries did not quite match.

It is from the original land patents that we have the shape of the grounds of St. Elizabeths Hospital, as well as the origin of the name, derived from the 1662 Saint Elizabeth patent. Other familiar names derived from Maryland land patents include Blue Plains (patented as Bew Playne in 1662) [2] and Turkey Thicket (1686). Patentees of that era had a sense of humor rather alien to us today and tracts often received sarcastic or snarky names; in what became the District these included Good Luck, Poor Tom’s Last Shift, the Widow’s Mite, Chance, Conjurer’s Disappointment, and the infamous Cuckold’s Delight. Other names recalled lands far distant — Jamaica, Barbados, Dumbarton, and Fife.

Today’s neighborhood reminders of Maryland land grants include Chevy Chase, Barnaby Woods, Pleasant Hill, and Pleasant Plains.

City of Washington

Neighborhoods within the city of Washington itself did not retain any of the land patent names. There was the new name, City of Washington (in the territory of Columbia), so proclaimed on September 9, 1791 (some name had to go on the map about to be published). But Washington City was a rather big place, and if someone asked where you lived and you replied Washington City, the next question would be, “Where in Washington?”

In 1802 Washington City was first divided into wards, first three, then ultimately seven. As the boundaries shifted one remained quite constant — the First Ward, west of 15th Street. “First Ward” was commonly used as a kind of neighborhood name.

Map of City of Washington Wards 1820-1846. Drawn by author (https://tinyurl.com/yco9e529

Map of City of Washington Wards 1820-1846. Drawn by author (https://tinyurl.com/yco9e529

But since these wards shifted boundaries and really were larger than what one would consider a neighborhood they weren’t so useful in identifying one’s community. In the mid-1800s the newspapers began to refer to areas of the city by slang, nickname terms. These were generally uncomplimentary or even derogatory. Two are the most famous –- Swampoodle, the Irish neighborhood on North Capitol Street, and Foggy Bottom, the area generally west of 17thh Street, NW and south of Pennsylvania Avenue. The origin of these names is frustratingly opaque leading to the creation of various mythologies.

The name Swampoodle was in use by 1855 in Washington, probably imported from Philadelphia along with “Northern Liberties” for the area north of Swampoodle. [3] Similarly, and appropriately, the origins of the name “Foggy Bottom” are lost in the mists of time. Near Swampoodle, in the vicinity of judiciary Square, was English Hill; north of it was the Northern Liberties.

Samuel Clagett Busey, in his Pictures of the City of Washington in the Past (indexed under “noted localities”) mentions almost 50 different curious and quaint names: Murder Bay, location of the Mellon Auditorium on Constitution Avenue today); Cowtown, just north of Florida Avenue; Pipetown, 12th and K Streets, SE; The Island, part of southwest Washington was cut off from downtown by the Washington City and James Creek canals.

Of today’s neighborhood names, only Foggy Bottom survives (and perhaps Buzzard Point) from these nicknames.

Subdivisions

Nicknames and political subdivisions were the first neighborhood names in the City of Washington. Beyond Florida Avenue (originally Boundary Street), reflects an entirely different development story. Until the 1880s, outside of the city there was no regulation on how land could be subdivided, as far as location, pattern, or width of streets and no naming conventions. It was left to the developers to develop (and name) their lands as fhey saw fit.

Union Town was the first suburban subdivision in 1854. It was across the Eastern Branch and is the core of what is now historic Anacostia. “Anacostia” is derived from the Nacotchtank Indians.

By 1887 the pace of development outside the L’Enfant city was picking up. On June 13 of that year the Washington Post reported on the new Cliffbourne subdivision, the potential Petworth, Woodley Park, and additions to Burleith. Also noted was that the market was strong for property on Capitol Hill, particularly Lincoln Park. This proliferation of uncoordinated development led to public and government concern. Between 1854 and 1902 over 176 residential subdivisions were laid out in the District. [4]

The solution was to lay out the approved street pattern for the entire District beyond Florida Avenue and hold developers to that design; it was called the Permanent System of Highways (highway being a common term for thoroughfare). With the implementation of the Permanent System, developers lost much of their discretionary power over the layout of the properties they developed — all now needed to be in conformity with the street pattern (or lobby for amendments to the plan).

Subdivision plats were recorded with neighborhood names less and less frequently. Whether this was at the direction of the Office of the Surveyor or not is unclear. Naming subdivisions had been common practice, even when subdividing property within the original L’Enfant city. Names were used, of course, for advertising purposes, even when the name was not entered with the Surveyor. Not many large tracts to be developed remained as the 20th century drew to a close, but a recent one is Hillandale (1980s and 1990s) west of Burleith.

Good Hope Hills, which submitted its designation on December 31, 1924, seems to have been the last subdivision recorded with a name. Bradbury Heights (1912), Chevy Chase Grove (1915), Hampton Heights (1914) preceded it, while a few other named subdivisions were filed which were extensions of earlier ones, such as Washington Highlands (1916).

A large proportion of today’s neighborhood names derived from these late 19th and early 20th century subdivisions recorded by name with the Surveyor:

American University Park, Anacostia, Barry Farm, Bloomingdale, Brightwood Park, Brookland, Burleith, Burrville, Cathedral Heights (originally Cathedral Highlands), Chevy Chase, Cleveland Park, Columbia Heights, Congress Heights, Eckington, Edgewood, Garfield Heights, Grant Park, Ivy City (originally New City), Kalorama Heights, Kenilworth, Langdon (originally Langdon Park), Lanier Heights, LeDroit Park, Lincoln Heights (originally Town of Lincoln), Manor Park, Marshall Heights (originally Marshall), Massachusetts Avenue Heights, Mount Pleasant, North Cleveland Park, Petworth, Randle Highlands, Takoma Park, Trinidad, Twining (originally Twining City), University Heights, Washington Highlands, Wesley Heights, Woodley Park [5], Woodridge, and 16th Street Heights. [6]

Glover Park and Spring Valley were later subdivisions, not recorded by name with the DC Surveyor. Of course, the name of the subdivision has its own derivation. Some, like Bloomingdale and Eckington, are the names of the houses and estates that were subdivided. Some come from developers’ family or relatives’ names like Lanier and Randle. Twining was the highly-respected first Engineer Commissioner of the District, responsible for planning the reclamation of West Potomac Park (the Tidal Basin was originally named Twining Lake). Marshall had been one of the Maryland land patents.

in the District of Columbia: half a mile from Washington" (ca. 1873). Recorded in vol. 2 of Record of County Surveys, p. 76. Note: this is the copy from the Library of Congress; the official copy with the Surveyor of the District of Columbia has been updated to show the name change to Ivy City.

in the District of Columbia: half a mile from Washington” (ca. 1873). Recorded in vol. 2 of Record of County Surveys, p. 76. Note: this is the copy from the Library of Congress; the official copy with the Surveyor of the District of Columbia has been updated to show the name change to Ivy City.

 

In 1919 Charles O. Storm compiled an index to all the named subdivisions in Washington. This is a descendant of the subdivision index published in the Hopkins Real Estate Atlas beginning in 1892.

in the District of Columbia: half a mile from Washington" (ca. 1873). Recorded in vol. 2 of Record of County Surveys, p. 76. Note: this is the copy from the Library of Congress; the official copy with the Surveyor of the District of Columbia has been updated to show the name change to Ivy City.

in the District of Columbia: half a mile from Washington” (ca. 1873). Recorded in vol. 2 of Record of County Surveys, p. 76. Note: this is the copy from the Library of Congress; the official copy with the Surveyor of the District of Columbia has been updated to show the name change to Ivy City.

These subdivisions, as well as being the origin of many neighborhood names, were also part of the legal record on property deeds. Subdivisions had been renumbered into the DC property square system, but this was not written into existing deeds; fortunately, Storm created a vital translation tool. At some point the Sanborn Company acquired Storm’s index and included it in its fire insurance maps for the District of Columbia.

Neighborhood Citizens and Civic Associations

Citizens organized neighborhood associations in Washington as early as 1870 to express common neighborhood concerns. Distribution of civic improvements was always a struggle between various sections of the city, even before the creation of the territorial government and its comprehensive plan. These organizations proliferated and by 1913 the list of citizens associations filled a page and a half in the city directory — 59 in all. Many still exist today.

Each was self-defined with specific boundaries and membership. The names used reflected a choice often amongst several — for example, Cleveland Park encompassed several other subdivisions, including Cleveland Heights, Oak View, Richmond Park, and Connecticut Avenue Highlands. However, citizens’ associations were segregated, leading to the creation of a parallel organizations in some neighborhoods.

In those black membership associations place names might be similar but obviously would need to be distinct. This led to different names for the same neighborhood, used by different communities. The establishment of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions under DC Home Rule charter diminished the need for and role of the neighborhood associations; even so, about 45 associations still exist.

Assessment Neighborhoods

The only “official” neighborhoods named and given a boundary by the District of Columbia are the 71 assessment neighborhoods, as opposed to 131 Office of Planning neighborhoods. Several are non-residential. Assessment neighborhoods were created simply for the purpose of analysis required for doing property tax assessments.

Many of the assessment neighborhoods do correspond to Office of Planning neighborhood names. Some less frequently heard ones show up — Kent, Berkley, Chillum, Old City I and II, Riggs Park; also in redeveloping areas like RLA NE (more often NoMa) and RLA SW. These derive from various sources. An assessment neighborhood name currently used which is derived from a patent name is Chillum, the original patent in 1762 having been Chillum Castle Manor. In 1891 the land was subdivided for residential development, also shown as Chillum Castle Manor.

Perhaps to avoid confusion the assessment neighborhood data being distributed by DC government no longer includes neighborhood names, instead the Real Property Tax database still does.

Historic Districts and other sources

Washington has over 40 residential historic districts which reflect or supply neighborhood names or likely alternatives. Georgetown is its own story, being Washington’s first historic district.

Those named after landmarks include Dupont and Logan Circles. A new coinage was  Striver’s Section. Foggy Bottom, LeDroit Park, Woodley Park, Cleveland Park, Mt. Pleasant, and Takoma Park reflect the common neighborhood names. Washington Heights brings back a name long dormant and replaced by Adams Morgan. Capitol Hill and Greater U Street are given boundaries which may more closely reflect common understandings.

Recently the District implemented special taxing areas called Business Improvement Districts (BIDs); this has spawned at least one new neighborhood name — Golden Triangle.

Newspaper attempts

In the May 30, 1937 issue of the Washington Post C. Harold Gray wrote about Washington’s neighborhoods, “Washington, the Planned City, Is Really a Collection of Old Villages.” The accompanying map showed nearly 100 neighborhoods outside the L’Enfant city. Many of the names are familiar and used today. Some have been discarded or replaced over the past 80 years. Gaps exist in what he mapped — blank spaces, perhaps overlooked.

The following year, on November 13th, the Evening Star produced something similar, but surprising — rather inferior. It too listed about 100 outside the the original city’s boundaries. The similarities are striking, so obviously some debt is owned; but there’s some very poor mapping of the far southeast neighborhoods. The Star dispensed with mapping out boundaries, only labeling locations (much like the Office of Planning today).

Key to map published in the November 13, 1938 Evening Star indicating neighborhoods familiar to Star editors and readers.

"Distinct Communities: Place Names" map from the proposed comprehensive plan for the National Capital / National Capital Planning Commission (GPO, 1967). v.1, p.30

“Distinct Communities: Place Names” map from the proposed comprehensive plan for the National Capital / National Capital Planning Commission (GPO, 1967). v.1, p.30

Neighborhood Action

Even if DC doesn’t define neighborhood boundaries, it has its list of 131 names maintained by the Office of Planning. Where did these originate? Just as in the very beginning of Washington’s history the creation of a map required names to fill it.

In 2000 the DC government launched the Neighborhood Action initiative, a program to engage citizens in the government planning efforts. In doing this, planners defined 39 neighborhood clusters in an effort to disengage from ward and advisory neighborhood commission politics. These clusters were made up of 129 neighborhoods. In that era, before widespread digitization of maps, a generalized thick line offered the appropriate amount of ambiguity when it came to drawing boundaries. The maps themselves imposed a kind of granularity limit — all things being equal, mostly medium-sized neighborhoods, none too big, none too little. (In 1967 the National Capital Planning Commission included a similar map in its comprehensive plan.)

The 131 names (see appendix) reflect 400 years of naming places in Washington. The outer residential neighborhoods are represented by many of the names commonly found; not every neighborhood could be included so choices were made. The most recent additions to the DC government list are these being Penn Quarter, Chinatown, Stronghold, South Central, Langston, Lincoln Park, 16th Street Heights, [7] Downtown East, Skyland, Hill East, and Golden Triangle

The addition of Penn Quarter, Chinatown, and Downtown East comes from the repopulation of these areas beginning in the 1990s. The construction of the Navy Memorial and Market Square building in 1990 on Pennsylvania Avenue opposite the National Archives spurred the defining of a new “Penn Quarter”; Chinatown and the Chinese community had shifted from Pennsylvania Avenue to several blocks of H Street, NW in the 1930s.

As the District moves to populate or repopulate areas of Washington it may take some time to incorporate new names on the map. The District maps do not show NoMa, Union Market, Walter Reed, or the Wharf (yet).

Postscript

This story would not be complete without taking a glance at the neighborhoods on Google Maps. At the moment, 120 neighborhoods are mapped out on Google maps for the District of Columbia. It seems that there has been some data vandalism, however — Glover Park, Golden Triangle, and Chinatown have disappeared entirely, while Lincoln Park, Wakefield, and Anacostia are represented only by labels; neither are any boundaries . Other typical intricacies of neighborhoods are present; some, like Barney Circle and Hill East overlap. Besides Google maps, the one that shows in a Google search for DC neighborhoods is one by Peter Fitzgerald, created in 2008 and revised in 2011. Again another version of DC’s neighborhoods.

Peter Fitzgerald, "Neighborhoods in Washington, D.C." (2008, revised September 2, 2011). Published in Wikimedia Commons.

Peter Fitzgerald, “Neighborhoods in Washington, D.C.” (2008, revised September 2, 2011). Published in Wikimedia Commons.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Don Alexander Hawkins.

Footnotes

[1] The District has 71 defined assessment neighborhoods used for tax purposes, several of which do not cover residential areas. The data being distributed by DC government now has had the neighborhood names suppressed, but the tax database still includes the names.

[2] “Bew Playne” could either be a misspelling of Blew Playne or an unfamiliar form of Beau Playne—beau meaning beautiful.

[3] Matthew B. Gilmore. Making Washington’s “Swampoodle”: Irish Neighborhood in the Tiber Valley. The Intowner February 4, 2018.

[4] Matthew B. Gilmore and Michael R. Harrison, “A Catalog of Suburban Subdivisions of the District of Columbia, 1854-1902.” Washington History, vol. 14, no. 2, Commemorating the Centennial of the McMillan Plan, Part II (Fall/Winter, 2002-‘03), p. 39.

[5] Originally “Thomas E. Waggaman and John Ridout, trustees’, Addition to the City of Washington, formerly called Woodley Park,” recorded June 15, 1888 [Co. 6/133]. Gilmore and Harrison, [170], p.56.

[6] Matthew B. Gilmore and Michael R. Harrison. “A Catalog of Suburban Subdivisions of the District of Columbia, 1854-1902.” Washington History, vol. 14, no. 2, Commemorating the Centennial of the McMillan Plan, Part II (Fall/Winter, 2002/2003).

[7] The 16th Street Heights subdivision is in the area now called Shepherd Park. 16th Street Heights name has been applied to what was 16th Street Highlands, 14th Street Heights, and 14th Street Terrace.

References and Resources

See resource list published on author’s Washington DC History blog.

<https://matthewbgilmore.wordpress.com/what-once-was-naming-washington-neighborhoods>

Matthew B. Gilmore is the editor of the H-DC discussion list and blogs on Washington history and related subjects at matthewbgilmore.wordpress.com. Previously, he was a reference librarian at the Washingtoniana Division of the DC Public Library for a number of years and chaired the Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies for four years.

© 2018 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Matthew B. Gilmore. All rights reserved.