Washington DC History Resources

Matthew B. Gilmore

Naming Names: Washington’s Neighborhoods

Naming Names: Washington’s Neighborhoods

By Matthew B. Gilmore*

FULL COLUMN HERE: http://intowner.com/2018/09/17/naming-names-washingtons-neighborhoods/

 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.


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.

FULL COLUMN HERE: http://intowner.com/2018/09/17/naming-names-washingtons-neighborhoods/

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