If you’re from Pittsburgh and you’re on Facebook, you probably saw the much-shared “fantasy map” of the city patterned after those of Middle Earth included in J.R.R. Tolkien books. Last year, I talked to Stentor Danielson, the cartographer and professor of geography who created it. He said that one could determine much about a place simply by looking at a map. I asked: What could an alien, with no knowledge of Pittsburgh but a deep understanding of maps, determine about this city of steel and pierogies just by glancing at the street layout?
“We talk about Pittsburgh as a city of neighborhoods, and that’s really obvious as we see how each neighborhood flows—how the streets all connect to each other and [how] they are aligned,” he said. “That says a lot about how Pittsburgh was built, over rivers and gorges. And you could also infer how Pittsburghers are attached to their neighborhoods.”
If the neighborhoods are distinct, it might be because most existed as homesteads and independent boroughs long before they were parts of Pittsburgh. From the 1860s to the 1930s, the city went on an annexation binge, assimilating nearby communities and old estates like some kind of ruthless Pitts-borg. The Rust Belt metropolis expanded, from the triangle-shaped city limits extending a few miles from the point at which the three rivers meet to a great splotch that encompasses a span of hills and valleys.
This is how 65 of Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods got their names. The designations of some small neighborhoods seem lost to history (probably concocted by a real estate developer or inherited from a forgotten early landowner). Particularly helpful were Pittsburgh: A New Portrait by Franklin Toker, The Names of Pittsburgh by Bob Regan, and Pittsburgh and You, a 1982 guide to neighborhoods and local amenities and attractions created by the city and still available in its original format—typewritten pages in a three-ring binder—at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.
1. Allegheny (East, West and Central)
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Much of what is now the North Side cluster of Pittsburgh neighborhoods was once Allegheny City, an independent municipality named so for its place on the banks of the Allegheny River and gobbled up through a controversial annexation in 1907 that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Three neighborhoods—East Allegheny, West Allegheny, and Allegheny Central—retain the Allegheny name.
Joseph Allen, an English butcher, purchased 124 acres of land here in 1827.
In its earliest days (the 1770s), the settlement was known as "The Experiment"—the experiment being allowing a bunch of Scots-Irish immigrants, who were viewed as industrious but not valuable to the society, to farm and mine an area that was often attacked by natives. In the late 1700s, then-owner David Carnahan split the land between his three sons. One of the sons, Alexander Carnahan (who laid out the area after the Civil War), named the town Banksville after his wife, Eliza Banks.
Beechview, home of the steepest street in the U.S., is named so for its beech trees.
The land was once farmed by one Melchior Beltzhoover, a German immigrant.
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This East End locale was once covered with fields of blooming flowers. George Washington, who visited the Pittsburgh area seven times, wrote of walking through “the high ground through a field of many blooms.”
The home of Duquesne University and a bunch of law offices, this area has gone through a few names, including Uptown (for its proximity to downtown), Soho (named after a suburb of Birmingham, England) and Boyd’s Hill (for a guy who hanged himself here—seriously). Its current designation on city maps, Bluff, likely refers to the geological formation of the same name, a ridge that runs parallel to a shoreline. The neighborhood has a bluff-like area parallel to the Monongahela River.
8. Bon Air
In 1898, two businessmen bought a tract of land to resell and dubbed their enterprise the Bon Air Land Company, bonair being an old term meaning gentle and courteous. They picked well; today, Bon Air is one of Pittsburgh’s quietest and most suburban-seeming neighborhoods.
9. Brighton Heights
One of the main streets here is Brighton Road, named so because it leads to the borough of New Brighton (named for Brighton, England).
Two corporations that bought and sold land here, the Freehold Real Estate Company and West Liberty Improvement Company, named it after the Boston suburb for an unknown reason.
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A physician, Dr. John H. O'Brien, badgered the Postal Service to install a post office here. When the agency did in 1853, it let him name it along with the area it served. He chose Carrick, after his hometown of Carrick-on-Suir, Ireland.
12. Central Northside
This area was once known as the Buena Vista Tract because it was dotted by streets named after Mexican-American War generals (Taylor, Sherman, Pilson) and battles (Monterey, Palo Alto, Buena Vista). James Robinson, Jr., the mayor of Allegheny City who christened the streets, had been a general in the war. Though the Mexican War streets remain a defining part of the neighborhood, the moniker Central Northside took hold when the area was marketed to new homebuyers in the mid-20th century.
A few decades before the founding of Pittsburgh, Pierre Chartiers, a French-Indian trapper, ran a trading post here.
After Route 65 cut the North Side neighborhood of Manchester in half in the 1960s, the two parts were distinct enough that the city declared the half bordering the Ohio River its own neighborhood, dubbed Chateau for Chateau Street, which was presumably named for all of the grand houses along it.
15. Crafton Heights
This is another place named after an early landowner, though sources differ on who. Most cite attorney James Craft, though one says it was Charles J. Craft, a real estate developer.
16. Duquesne Heights
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From across the Monongahela, this hillside neighborhood faces what was once Fort Duquesne, the French settlement built at the convergence of the rivers in 1754 and named in honor of Michel-Ange Du Quesne de Menneville, Marquis Du Quesne, governor of the French colonies in North America.
17. East Carnegie
The area outside this neighborhood was incorporated as the borough of Carnegie in 1894. The residents named it after Andrew Carnegie. (The steel baron donated a library, music hall, and high school in return.) Though still part of Pittsburgh, the small residential community east of it soon took on the name East Carnegie.
18. East Hills
This hilly neighborhood is on Pittsburgh’s easternmost edge.
19. East Liberty
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Jacob Negley, son of an early settler of East Liberty Valley, laid out and named the town of East Liberty after his wife’s farm, East Liberty Valley. It was east of the other settlements in Pittsburgh, and “liberty” was farming lexicon for an area open for grazing. Old-school Pittsburghers refer to the town as "Sliberty."
In 1785, mill owner and ferryboat operator Daniel Elliot was granted two tracts of land here and named them Elliot’s Design and Elliot’s Delight. No one but him, apparently, was willing to call them that, so they eventually became simply Elliott.
This tiny neighborhood, a sliver on the banks of the Ohio River, has the wicked cool distinction of being built on dirt that landed there after a railroad crew used explosives to blast apart a hill that was in their way. The railroad workers who later lived here named it after Henry Esplen, an admired administrator of the nearby Thaddeus Stevens School.
This one was coined by the Pennsylvania Railroad, who built this community as a residence for workers sometime around 1900.
In 1828, Flemish nuns built a school for girls here, called Mt. Alverino, and Pittsburghers began calling it Nunnery Hill, even after the school closed and the nuns vacated. Later, James Andrews, a bridge designer and associate of Andrew Carnegie, built a home here. At his urging, the City Council renamed the neighborhood Fineview for its view of downtown.
This neighborhood was once home to Friendship Farm, owned by a member of the Society of Friends, a.k.a. the Quakers.
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The granddaughter of John Winebiddle, who owned much land in what is now the East End, sold the area that is now this neighborhood to the city in 1867. Pittsburgh divided it into lots for sale, the first of which was purchased on the day James Garfield was buried. The first lot-buyer named it in honor of the recently assassinated president.
26. Glen Hazel
It was named for the wooded glens of hazelnut trees.
Upon the installation of streets in this area in 1878, City Councilman William Barker, Jr., dubbed it Greenfield for its lush greenery.
Industrialist James H. Hays opened the Hays and Haberman Mines here in 1828.
Hazelwood, east of Glen Hazel, was named after John Wood’s estate Hazel Hill. Over time the name, taken from the hazelnut trees in the area, became Hazelwood.
30. Highland Park
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You might assume this one was named for its elevation. However, the neighborhood—as well as its eponymous public park and Highland Avenue—were named after Robert Hiland, a county surveyor who subdivided the land into plots for purchase after the Negley family sold it to the city. Perhaps someone in the Department of Public Works also thought it was named for its place atop the East End and “corrected” the spelling.
William Wilkins, a judge and U.S. senator (amongst other positions), built his estate here and named it Homewood.
Rev. Jeremiah Knox was one of the first farmers here.
William Larimer was one of the most prominent land speculators of the westward expansion (and the founder of Denver, Colorado). Before that, he was a general in the colonial-era Pennsylvania Militia and owner of a homestead here.
A popular misconception holds that this newly hip neighborhood—dubbed the Williamsburg of Pittsburgh by Gawker —was named after David L. Lawrence, city mayor and governor of Pennsylvania. Actually, Army Col. William Foster (father of Americana songwriter Stephen Foster) named it in honor of Captain James Lawrence, commander of the U.S.S. Chesapeake, whose dying command of “Don’t give up the ship!” was one of the rallying cries of the War of 1812. It was appropriate for a neighborhood that housed a munitions factory that helped arm the military until it was destroyed in an explosion in 1862.
Several Pittsburgh neighborhoods have had more than one name. Usually, when City Hall orders a new map, one moniker is preserved and another one or two are sent to the death row of the local lexicon, sustained for only another few years by older residents. But the city generously allowed this East End area three names. Lincoln and Lemington are streets that run through it, and Belmar comes from the long-gone Belmar Racetrack.
36. Lincoln Place
This area was named by Edward Haslett, a real estate developer who bought and sold land here.
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English immigrants settled here and in 1832 named it after the British city of the same name.
There have been quite a few names for this neighborhood, or parts of it, but the most recent city map has narrowed it down to two. I couldn’t find the origin of Shadeland, though it likely refers to the once forest-like character of this spot. Marshall comes from Archibald M. Marshall, grocer, dry goods merchant, and landscaper who practiced several of those trades in the area.
There seems to be no record of its origin, but the name Morningside Valley, for this area’s defining geological feature, predates the neighborhood.
40. Mount Oliver
This hilltop neighborhood was named for Dr. Oliver Ormsby, son of John Ormsby, an English soldier granted almost everything that is now Pittsburgh south of the Monongahela for his role in the French and Indian War. Oliver Ormsby established a residency here that included a private racetrack.
41. Mount Washington
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If you’ve ever seen a photo of Pittsburgh’s skyline, it was probably taken from the overlook on the 600-foot, tree-covered Mount Washington. The area was originally known as Coal Hill, which was not nearly majestic enough. Sometime in the 1880s, it was redubbed Mount Washington in honor of the first president who, during the French and Indian War, stood atop it and surmised that whoever controlled the area where the rivers met controlled the whole valley.
42. New Homestead
This one was named for the neighboring borough of Homestead.
43. North Shore
Home of PNC Park and Heinz Field, the North Shore sits on the Allegheny and Ohio Rivers, north of the point at which the rivers merge.
44. Northview Heights
Northview Heights took after a low-income public housing complex of the same name, completed in 1962.
The home to Carlow University, the University of Pittsburgh, and a student population incapable of getting their trash into a trash bin on trash day, Oakland was named for its abundance of oak trees. It was little more than a forest until the Great Fire of 1845 caused several prominent families to look eastward for a place to rebuild their estates.
This area is also named for its oak trees.
This neighborhood was once part of Baldwin Township. Citing crummy streets and few streetlights, citizens petitioned for independence in 1919. After they broke away, they chose Overbrook as the name of the new borough, probably after the stream that runs through it. In 1930, they voted to join the city.
48. Perry North/Perry South
The Venango Path, a Native American trail leading up to Lake Erie, ran through this area. Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry made use of the passageway as a supply line during the War of 1812. As a result, parts of this area went through several Perry-related names, including Perrysville and Perry Hill Top, before the city settled on Perry North and Perry South.
49. Point Breeze
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A tavern/hotel called Point Breeze, built around 1800, sat where Penn and Fifth Avenues now cross.
50. Polish Hill
In late 1800s, an influx of Polish immigrants settled here, and it was an easy walk to jobs at steel mills on the Allegheny. The neighborhood’s welcome sign still reads “Witamy Do Polish Hill.”
51. Regent Square
A tiny, idyllic neighborhood on the easternmost edge of the East End, Regent Square is the prefab creation of William E. Harmon of Harmon Realty, who coined the name. In 1919, he acquired the land here, hoping to sell to Westinghouse Electric managers and executives.
52. Saint Clair
Once, a pair of villages named after Revolutionary War General Arthur St. Clair sat side by side in Allegheny County. While Upper Saint Clair remains, Lower Saint Clair was annexed by Pittsburgh in 1920 and became the neighborhood of Saint Clair.
David Aiken (the namesake of Aiken Avenue) donated the land for the first Pennsylvania Railroad station in Pittsburgh’s East End. As a thanks, the railroad allowed him to name the station. His wife, Caroline, suggested Shadyside, apparently after a book title. The name extended to the surrounding area.
William Sheraden owned a 122-acre farm here.
This ghost of neighborhood—with 19 residents, a junkyard, a dock, and a few warehouses—is a thin strip on the banks of the Monongahela, directly south of the merging of the three rivers.
56. South Side Flats/South Side Slopes
Once a slew of communities stood across the Monongahela from Pittsburgh. The largest were East and West Birmingham, named for founding landowner John Ormsby’s birthplace of Birmingham, England. When the city annexed the area in 1872, it brushed them aside and stamped the label South Side Flats on the region along the river (which now has more diners and dive bars than a Jim Jarmusch movie) and the South Side Slopes on the hillside above.
57. Spring Garden
There were once many natural springs here.
58. Spring Hill–City View
This North Side neighborhood has two official names, Spring Hill and City View, and they are both pretty literal: It’s a hill that has springs, and you can get an eyeful of the city skyline from it.
59. Squirrel Hill
Long before the founding of Pittsburgh, Native Americans hunted grey squirrels here. Now, the only hunters are Jerry’s Records customers pursuing the stacks for some old Sam Cooke.
60. Stanton Heights
The name was concocted by the Steelwood Corporation, which in 1947 purchased the land here (once a country club) and built 400 units of housing for workers.
61. Strip District
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There were once several communities along the Allegheny River here, including Bayardstown and Croghansville, but their identities faded away once it became a hub for industry, then shipping and receiving and later electric retail. (Think a discount shoe store, a popcorn shop and an outlet for dried flowers in close proximity, because why not?) No one seems to know how the exact origin of the Strip District name, but it’s likely due to long strip of business that exists along the concurrent Penn and Liberty avenues.
62. Swisshelm Park
Swisshelm Park was named for John Swisshelm, who owned a home and gristmill here.
63. Troy Hill
One of the first inhabitants of this settlement atop a plateau overlooking the Allegheny was Elizabeth Seymore, who dubbed it The Village of New Troy, after her hometown of Troy, New York. It was shortened to Troy Hill in subsequent decades.
64. West End
This area was once called Temperanceville because founding landowner Isaac Warden didn’t allow the sale or consumption of booze. When the city annexed it in 1873, it was redubbed the West End (although that term colloquially refers to all of the hilly neighborhoods on the western fringes).
Its developers, the Wood-Harmon Company, gave the neighborhood this preplanned subdivision-sounding name in the early 1900s.