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The Stories Behind 19 Brooklyn Neighborhood Names

(Photo: Flickr.com)

Depending on how you break it up, there are around 75 neighborhoods in Brooklyn. This includes subsets of larger neighborhoods and historical places that only exist in the archives of a rarely-visited historical society website. How these neighborhoods were named is a combination of historical happenstance, real-estate chicanery and geographic location. Here’s the story behind the names of 15 Brooklyn neighborhoods.

Oh, and while we’re on the subject, Brooklyn is named after the Dutch province of Breuckelen. I hope you like attempting to pronounce Dutch words, because Breuckelen is not the last of them. 


Bedford-Stuyvesant
Bed-Stuy’s name is a coupling of the old village of Bedford and Stuyvesant Heights. Stuyvesant, of course, comes from Peter Stuyvesant, the last governor of the colony of New Netherland. But poor Bedford. History seems to have lost the derivation of this name, which seems strange since it’s the namesake for both the neighborhood and the longest road in Brooklyn, Bedford Avenue. The surname Bedford does originate from Bedfordshire, one of the historic counties of England. Many residents of Bedfordshire migrated to the Americas in the 17th and 18th centuries, but according to a source online, they landed primarily in Virginia. 

Bensonhurst
This south Brooklyn village is named in honor of the founder and former president of the Brooklyn Gas Light Company, Arthur Benson. In the middle decades of the 1800’s, Benson bought thousands of acres of Brooklyn farmland and divvied it into lots, selling them one by one. Benson was a titan of the early Brooklyn business scene; he was one of the nine original investors in the Brooklyn Bridge, and early planning meetings for the bridge were held in his building. In 1879, Benson grew restless with his modest Brooklyn spread. He bought 100,000 acres of land in Montauk with the hopes of turning the remote point into a playground for the rich.

Boerum Hill
Boerum Hill is named after the colonial farm of the Boerum family, which covered most of the land in the present-day neighborhood. The name is only notable because it’s oxymoronic; perhaps you’ve noticed the area is pretty flat. The neighborhood used to be known as North Gowanus, until nefarious real-estate developers got their hands on it and decided the word hill was more posh. This logic also explains why Red Hook will probably be called Meadow Creek in twenty years.

Carroll Gardens
Named after Charles Carroll, a Revolutionary War veteran and the only Roman Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence.

Coney Island
Coney Island may invoke images of beaches and hotdogs and rollercoasters, but the most accurate visage would be that of a rabbit. Checking in at #425 on the list of things-I-suspect-everyone-knew-but-me, barrier beaches along the southern shores of Long Island were at one time rife with rabbits. Before it became the epicenter of freak shows and food-eating competitions, Coney Island was the go-to destination for rabbit hunting. Resort development destroyed the rabbit’s habitat and the neighborhood’s name is the only lingering artifact of their reign. Coney is the Anglicized version of the Dutch word conyne, which means rabbit.

Crown Heights
Crown Heights used to go by the much more deliciously-named moniker Crow Hill, but was changed to Crown Heights after Crown Street was built in 1916. Who knows why.

DUMBO
Only nascent Brooklynites don’t know that DUMBO stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. But DUMBO has had at least five other names throughout its history. (The acronym arose in 1978 as yet another attempt to improve the neighborhood by giving it a quirkier name.) It began as Fulton Ferry, after the boat that provided the easiest commute to Manhattan before the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge, and has subsequently been called Rapailie, Olympia, Gairville and Walentasville. Usually I detest the practice of neighborhood renaming, but I’ll admit; DUMBO is easily the best of that lot.

The Dutch Names
Every day, Brooklynites speak Dutch much more often than they realize. Or, more accurately, they say the Dutch word for “woods” all the time. In addition to the ones already mentioned, here’s an incomplete list of the Brooklyn neighborhoods with Dutch derivation:

  • Bushwick: Boswijck or “little town in the woods."
  • Dyker Heights: Named for an orginal Dutch family from New Utrect, the Van Dykes, although no one knows if the neighborhood is named after Van Dykes themselves or for the dykes that the Van Dykes built on Dyker Beach. I didn’t have the energy to investigate this mystery.
  • Flatbush: Vlacke bos or “flat woodland.”
  • Midwood: Midwout or “middle woods.”
  • New Utrecht: Named after the city of Utrecht, Netherlands.
  • Red Hook: Red for the distinctive red soil that marks the shore, and Hook from the Dutch word hoek, meaning “point” or “corner.”

Fort Greene
Named after legendary Revolutionary War soldier Nathanael Greene due to his actions in the Battle of Long Island. This one is no big mystery, but just so you learn something… Greene eventually went broke and died of sunstroke. There ya go.

Gravesend
I wish I could write that the name Gravesend paid homage to a passed-down ghost story about apparitions that sent wayward Dutch settlers to an early grave if they were caught on Lenape land, but alas — no one really knows. The best guess is that it’s named after an English seaport in Kent. Let’s just agree to start spreading the ghost-story version.

Kensington
Look! A Brooklyn neighborhood name without Dutch origin!  Kensington, Brooklyn is named after the famous neighborhood in West London. Congratulations, Kensington. If your name was Dutch for “sloping woods,” you would not have made this article.

Sheepshead Bay
A sheepshead, I have discovered, is not a sheep, or any mammal for that matter. It’s actually a small fish that was once rampant in the waters of Brooklyn until — you guessed it — we fished it to oblivion. The sheepshead now mainly reside in southern waters.

Vinegar Hill
I’m including this North Brooklyn neighborhood just so we’re aware it actually exists. And it’s not named after some famous vinegar factor where they invented salt-and-vinegar chips, unfortunately. It’s named for the Battle of Vinegar Hill, an engagement in the Irish Rebellion of 1798.

Williamsburg
I’d tell you who Williamsburg was named after, but you’ve probably never heard of him. The namesake for Brooklyn’s trend-settiest nabe comes courtesy of Jonathan Williams, a Harvard-educated engineer, businessman, congressman, soldier and writer who lived in a time when everyone had five careers like that. Williams, a nephew of Benjamin Franklin, was hired by a Brooklyn investor to survey land adjacent to the Dutch settlement of Boswijck, and the land was eventually christened Williamsburgh in his honor. Neighborhoods weren’t Williams' only claim to fame, however; he built the prominent, red-sandstone castle on Governor’s Island and named it Williams Castle. In case you’re starting to feel like this guy had it all, a quick check of his Wikipedia page reveals him to be jowly and unattractive. See, no one’s perfect.

 

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August 4, 2014

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