How Baltimore's Neighborhoods Got Their Names
Baltimore gets a bad rap. Yes, like most major cities, it has its problems with crime, but it’s also got a dazzling waterfront, a thriving arts and music scene, almost three centuries of history, and literally hundreds of different neighborhoods. Some of the earliest National Register Historic Districts are found in Baltimore, and close to a third of the city’s buildings are designated as historic in the register—at 65,000, they’ve got more than any other American city. With so much history to go around in Charm City, there are, naturally, some interesting stories behind the names of these districts. Here are a few.
The area of Baltimore now called Pigtown was originally part of a 2368-acre plantation called Mount Clare. Interestingly, one of Maryland’s first iron foundries was built in this area in the mid-18th century. It housed the largest furnace used for pig iron (a crude iron product used to produce steel or wrought iron) in the colonies before the American Revolution, but that’s just a coincidence. The area is actually called Pigtown because pigs were offloaded here and herded to nearby slaughterhouses, so pigs roaming the streets were a common sight. That said, in the late 1970s and early ’80s, there was an effort to restyle the neighborhood as Washington Village, but it wasn’t really successful; today, the name Pigtown is a source of pride.
This tony residential area, known for its charming Georgian revival architecture and its status on the National Register of Historic Places, was originally planned as a “streetcar suburb” when it was built between 1916 and 1925, and was touted for its ease of access to downtown Baltimore via the St. Paul Streetcar. The area is named after shipping magnate James Wilson’s home, the 350-acre Okenshawe Estate, built in the early 19th century. Even after the estate was torn down, the area where it stood was generally known as “Oakenshaw” until about 1910, when cartographers started adding an extra e on city maps. The spelling discrepancy is preserved today in the name of Oakenshaw Place, a street within the neighborhood, whose spelling lie somewhere in the middle of the community and the historical estate—with two as but still missing the final e.
3. OLD GOUCHER
After many years of stagnation, Old Goucher is currently known for its spate of new development, with many Victorian-era buildings restored and several parks and green spaces reclaimed in the last several years. But it was originally known for Goucher College, which was established in this neighborhood in 1885, before moving to suburban Towson, Maryland, in the 1950s. The neighborhood still bears the school’s name—perhaps with the word “Old” attached to denote the fact that Goucher isn’t here anymore. Goucher College itself was named after co-founder John Goucher, a Methodist pastor, and his wife Mary, who sought to create a Methodist-sponsored college for female students; the name was changed in 1910 from Women’s College of Baltimore City.
4. THE MIDDLE EAST
In the late ’70s, the residents of this decaying section of East Baltimore were seeking federal grant funds to repair its deteriorating buildings, and a group was created to oversee the $800,000 they received. The neighborhood didn’t really have a name, however, and so they weren’t sure what to name the organization either. Fortunately, Lucille Gorham, the group’s director, came up with a solution at the 1978 grant hearing: “We have the Northeast Community Organization on one side and the Southeast on the other. So, tell them you're from the Middle East Community Organization, because you're right in the middle of everything.” Times have changed, however, and because real estate companies find it’s difficult to sell houses in an area named after a geographical region strongly associated with military conflict, there’s been a push to rebrand the region as “Eager Park,” after a public space that opened in May 2017. (It’s not really catching on so far.) Also, because a good portion of the HBO series The Wire was filmed here, it’s also sometimes referred to as “Wire Park.”
5. WAVERLY (AND BETTER WAVERLY)
Both the neighborhood of Waverly and adjacent Better Waverly (better meaning larger , i.e., “greater Waverly”) are christened after Sir Walter Scott’s novel, Waverley [sic]. Waverly began in the 1840s as an independent village of wealthy merchants that was called Huntingdon, but when it became clear that there were other local Huntingdons, literature fans in the town opted to change the name in order to get themselves a post office. Despite the book being set in the Jacobite, not Victorian, era, the borders of Better Waverly are roughly the same as the original Victorian-era village from the mid-1800s. Although brick row houses—which are frequently seen around Baltimore—were later added, a large part of Waverly still comprises quaint wooden Victorian-era homes.
Found on the westernmost edge of Baltimore, Dickeyville was first known as Franklin, for the Franklin paper mill built there in 1808. About 20 years later, three brothers named Wethered were running a wool mill in the area, and they later built a lumber mill, school, and church. The town’s name then changed to Wetheredville, until the town was sold to Irish emigrant William J. Dickey. After William J. Dickey died, his son, William A. Dickey, became the president of the company, and the town was renamed Dickeyville—intending to honor his father, but since their names were almost identical, he basically named the town after himself, too.
Hidden in the northeast corner of the city limits, Overlea was established in the late 1800s as Lange’s Farm, named after a farm in the area. As in many other communities, the streets were named after trees—Cedar, Hickory, Spruce, Willow, and so on—and the community borders ended up being the tree-themed streets. The area was known for its views, as it's situated above rolling meadows, and as such, the neighborhood’s name was changed to Overlea sometime around the turn of the century—with Overlea meaning “over the meadow.” The community was partially annexed by the City of Baltimore in 1919.
8. RIDGELY’S DELIGHT
Located just outside Baltimore’s downtown, adjacent to Camden Yards, this rowhouse-heavy neighborhood has been a diverse melting pot for centuries. Part of the land, originally known as Howard's Timber Neck because it was owned by Captain John Howard, was transferred to Colonel Charles “the Merchant” Ridgely upon his marriage to Howard’s daughter, Rachel. It was then combined with another of Ridgely’s properties, called Brotherly Love, then resurveyed and called Ridgely's Delight, in reference to another of its owner’s flamboyantly named properties: a plantation named Ridgely’s Whim. (He also owned two estates called Claret and White Wine.) A former thoroughfare belonging to the Susquehannock tribe and later the main highway between Washington and Philadelphia in the late 1700s and early 1800s passes through the neighborhood—it’s now known as Washington Boulevard.