What's in a name? For some Philadelphia neighborhoods, the answer is rich history. For other places, like West Philly's Overbrook, the answer is one of simple geography. There are also real estate agents' dreams. Take University City, for example. And some names are grounded in Native American languages, like Tacony. And, of course, there are the problem children — like Mayfair and Rising Sun in the northeast region of the city.
Philadelphia resident and author Arika Okrent did some digging into these names and found that, among the city's nearly 400 neighborhoods, there are many stories and some tall tales.
People and their big visions
Some neighborhoods were dubbed by people for their fancy ideas — like Mantua. Okrent said the name comes from Judge Richard Peters, who owned the Belmont Mansion that gave the Belmont neighborhood its name. Peters also owned some land west of the Schuylkill that he developed into Mantua, which was named for the Italian city where Virgil was born.
She said Olney, which has a distinct pronunciation if you were born and raised there, was named by a gentleman named Alexander Wilson. Wilson, who greatly admired the poet William Cowper, showed his esteem by naming his estate north of Philadelphia after the poet's home of Olney in Buckinghamshire, England.
There's also the fascinating tale about Bridesburg. Okrent said it was originally called "Point No Point," because on approaching it from the Delaware River, it looked at first like a point ... and then didn't. The name was superseded after the Revolution, when it was named for landholder Joseph Kirkbride. In time, Kirkbridesburg proved just a little too long, so the Northeast Philly neighborhood name was shortened to Bridesburg.
Speaking of powerful men and the neighborhood names they left behind, Okrent said, Nicetown wasn't named for its friendly inhabitants. Rather, it was named for Dutch settlers named Hans and Jan de Neiss.
Some disappear, some live on, and some are just plain made up
In this oldest of old American cities, there are also a few neighborhoods whose namesake is gone, or nearly gone. Okrent said that list includes Chestnut Hill's now nearly extinct chestnut trees, East Falls' disappeared rapids, Germantown's — you guessed it — concentration of German families.
The area's native Lenape people also left a big mark on Philly neighborhoods, Okrent said, with names like Juniata Park (Juniata is thought to come from a Native American word for "standing stone"), Kingsessing ("place where there is a meadow"), Passyunk (Lenape for "in the valley"), Tacony ("wilderness" or possibly "forest creek," or the name of a chief), and Wissinoming ("place where the grapes grow").
Perhaps the most notorious of Philly's Lenape-named lands, is Manayunk, which Okrent said comes from a word meaning "place we go to drink." But she pointed out that the drink in question was a cool sip of water from the Schuylkill River, not a pint of ale from a Manayunk tavern.
And then there's that old adage, "location, location, location." Who wouldn't want to buy a house in a place as welcoming-sounding as University City or Graduate Hospital? Okrent said some old-timers still balk at the names they think sound more like a realtor's invention than a proud neighborhood moniker.
Okrent said that UC got its name as part of a branding campaign by Penn and Drexel supporters who wanted to revitalize the neighborhood. And as many may know, G-Ho's name traces back to the University of Pennsylvania's former Graduate School of Medicine.
Legends and lingering questions
So it's all figured out, the story behind every Philly neighborhood's name? Not quite, said Okrent, who cited the legend of Mayfair, which may have been named by a local civic leader who declared at a 1928 civic meeting that "We 'may fare' well if we get behind this community and push." Or maybe not.
And, finally, also in Northeast Philly, there's a story behind Rising Sun. This neighborhood may — or may not — have been dubbed after Native American Chief Tammany spent hours eating and smoking with German settlers before telling them from the top of a hill that they could have all the land they saw. And with the sun rising, the happy (and possibly inebriated) settlers named the land "Aufgehende Sonne," the Rising Sun.
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