How 8 Washington, D.C. Neighborhoods Got Their Names
Most people know that Washington, D.C. is packed with historic buildings, but its neighborhood names reflect a more intimate history that sometimes dates back all the way to the city's origins on the banks of the Potomac. Here are the stories behind a few of the District’s neighborhood names, plus a bonus story of one distinctively named neighborhood that is no longer.
Anacostia gets its musical name from an Anglicization. In 1608, Captain John Smith made his first Chesapeake Bay voyage, sailing up the bay and exploring its many inlets and rivers. One of them led him to a village of Nactochtank people—one of many tribes that inhabited the region and used its rivers and plains for food and trading. As European traders kept coming to the region, someone Anglicized anaquash(e)tan(i)k, the Nacotchtank word for village or trading center, as Anacostia. The name stuck among white settlers, and despite being briefly named Uniontown, Anacostia is known by that name to this day.
Another one of Washington’s most sonorous place names comes from Greek. In 1807, a poet named Joel Barlow moved into a house with some seriously sweet views of the newly built White House and Capitol. He nicknamed it Kalorama—“beautiful view” in Greek.
3. PLEASANT PLAINS
Awesome views apparently abounded in old Washington. In the 1700s, a farmer named James Holmead bought a huge tract of undeveloped land in what was then Maryland. The family named part of their estate “Pleasant Plains,” and it stuck. The Holmead family loved dramatic estate names—other properties included James’s Park and the fancifully named “Widow’s Mite.” Pleasant Plains was eventually divvied up, and part of the estate was turned into a luxury suburb called Mt. Pleasant. James’s son, Anthony, also opened a burial ground that has since gone defunct.
4. FOGGY BOTTOM
Not all views in early Washington were pleasant, however. Take the area near where the Potomac and Rock Creek meet, now one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city. It was settled early in the city’s history and initially known as Hamburgh, a German settlement that became part of Washington when the federal district was created. The area later became an industrial center, home to two breweries and a gas works. Foggy Bottom was never terribly inviting: The damp marsh was prone to mists and overrun by frogs. But the smoke and smog emitted by its industrial residents is thought to be responsible for its catchy nickname. Today, the neighborhood shares that handle with the U.S. Department of State, which is headquartered in the neighborhood.
5. FORT TOTTEN
The Fort Totten neighborhood shares a name with a one-time military base turned park in Queens, New York. The D.C. version was also once a real fort, built starting in 1861 to protect Abraham Lincoln’s summer home, and later became part of a park. The fort can still be seen—just one of the District’s many Civil War fortifications—and today, a tiny neighborhood is named after the fort and the park.
Spoiler alert: There are multiple Trinidads, too. The one not in the Caribbean is squarely in northeastern D.C. It’s named after the tropical country thanks to James Barry, a land speculator who once lived in the original Trinidad and who named his farm after the country, then sold it to another mogul, William Wilson Corcoran. Corcoran enjoyed life on Trinidad Farm until he decided to give it away, donating it in 1872 to what is now George Washington University. The college sold it to a brickworks, who sold part of it to a group of developers, who sold the land to residents of the new neighborhood of Trinidad.
7. CHEVY CHASE
The D.C. area has two Chevy Chases: A neighborhood in the city itself, and an adjoining town in suburban Maryland. Both derive their name from a land company that still exists today.
As Washington, D.C. expanded, real estate investors began to vie for unoccupied land, including farmland in the northwestern part of the city. The Chevy Chase Land Company, which was founded by future Nevada representative and senator and noted white supremacist Francis G. Newlands, began snapping up that land in the 1890s. Newlands milked both his mining fortune and his government connections to create what he saw as the ideal suburb. Today, that neighborhood is known for its large collection of Sears kit houses—bungalows that land owners bought directly from the Sears catalogue and assembled themselves.
8. CARVER LANGSTON
Carver Langston doesn’t just have two names: It’s two neighborhoods that are too small to be referred to as individual neighborhoods. The first, Carver, was named after George Washington Carver, the African American inventor and botanist. The second, Langston, was named after John Mercer Langston, who became one of the first African-Americans to hold elected office in the United States (township clerk in Brownhelm, Ohio in 1855) before going on to establish Howard University’s Law Department and becoming Virginia’s first black Representative.
Alas, the Washington neighborhood with the weirdest name is no more. In the 19th century, a shantytown on the banks of the Tiber Creek earned the name “swampoodle”—an apparent reference to the area’s swampy puddles. With a reputation for being wild and crime-ridden, it was known as “the ideal place to turn a dishonest dollar.” But the neighborhood didn’t make it out of the 19th century and was eventually displaced when Union Station was built. Oddly enough, Philadelphia had its own Swampoodle—a section of North Philly whose name disappeared at some point during the 20th century (although some residents are currently trying to bring it back as "Swampoodle Heights").
All photos via iStock.