If names like Cabbagetown, Goose Hollow, and Normal Heights sound bizarre, just wait until you read about how they got those monikers in the first place.
Most neighborhoods—especially the historically “nice” or wealthy ones—have boring names. Riverside. Park West. Smithville. Their appellations describe geographic features or flatter the ego of some long-dead aristocrat. But in the less well-to-do quarters, things got a little more interesting. There, residents had neighborhood names, often derogatory ones, thrust upon them by outsiders, like the police. For anyone who’s traveled through well-known American cities, encountered such places, and wondered, “What’s the story there?”, we’ve gathered a list of neighborhoods with eyebrow-raising names and hunted down the legends behind them—some of which might even be true.
Locals affectionately refer to this quirky uptown San Diego ’hood as “Abnormal Heights,” thanks to the armies of emo teens that meet up for marathon Dungeons & Dragons sessions at its 24-hour coffee shop, Lestat’s. But its real name is a reference to the early 20th-century teachers’ college that was located nearby. Back then, such institutions were called “normal schools” because they trained instructors on educational standards, or norms. The college evolved into what is now San Diego State University, but the neighborhood’s name remains.
The Tenderloin, San Francisco
A lot of American cities in the late 1800s had a vice-ridden “tenderloin” district. According to historian Herbert Asbury, the original was in New York City and got its name from a corrupt police inspector who’d been assigned to the brothel-filled precinct where bribes flowed freely. “I’ve had nothing but chuck steak for a long time,” the cop purportedly said. “And now I’m going to get a little of the tenderloin.” In San Francisco, part of the Tenderloin neighborhood abuts upscale Nob Hill, which has given rise to the best portmanteau in real estate: the TenderNob.
Hell’s Kitchen, New York City
On Manhattan’s West Side, between 34th and 59th streets, you’d be lucky to find a condo for less than a million dollars in the neighborhood realtors are trying to rename “Clinton.” Before gentrification, though, the area was rough and tumble. The exact origin of the name is hard to pin down—apocryphal legends have involved everyone from Davy Crockett, who said the residents were so savage they weren’t even fit to mop hell’s kitchen, to a cop named Dutch Fred—but they were all attempts to describe a place so dangerous it made hell look mild by comparison.
This downtown Dallas neighborhood was originally a “freedmen’s town” settled by former slaves. The main drag was Elm Street, but early inhabitants had a habit of adding an extra syllable to the word “elm.” Nestled up against the railroad tracks, the area’s industrial warehouses have since been transformed into nightclubs, lofts, and breweries.
According to a highly questionable yarn, a produce truck (or a Model T or a train car) overturned while navigating the narrow streets of this patch of Atlanta’s east side, spilling its cruciferous cargo. Residents—poor mill workers—allegedly purloined the plants and cooked them all on the same evening, perfuming the air with the smell of cabbage. An unlikely story, but it stuck.
In the late 1800s, Baltimore got its pork by importing live pigs from the Midwest, and the easiest way to get the animals from the rail yards to the slaughterhouses was by herding them through the streets of the neighborhood that would later be dubbed Pigtown. Today it’s one of Baltimore’s most diverse districts and home to an annual pig race called “The SQUEAKness.”
NOLA’s second-oldest neighborhood dates back nearly 300 years, but the origin of the name is cloudy. Did it remind a soldier of the action he’d seen during the Spanish invasion of Algiers in 1775? Was it a reference to enslaved Africans who were kept there before being shipped across the river to be sold (a history that inspired artist Kara Walker’s latest sculpture, “Katastwóf Karavan”)? The jury’s out.
Bitter Lake, Seattle
This skinny rectangle of real estate in northwest Seattle takes its name from the oblong lake at its center. Before the neat grid of streets popped up, the lake was surrounded by forests; early 20th-century loggers felled the trees and sent them to a lakeside sawmill for processing. According to History Link Online, an encyclopedia of Washington State history, the mill dumped tannic acid from the logs into the lake, making the water so bitter that not even horses would drink it.
The Marmalade District, Salt Lake City
If you find yourself on the corner of Quince Street and Apricot Avenue, you’ve made it to one of Salt Lake City’s most charming neighborhoods. Named for the fruit trees planted by early settlers—and the preserves that helped get them through those long Utah winters—the historic Marmalade District on the western slope of Capitol Hill has long been an LGBTQ+ oasis in the conservative city, thanks to gay bars like the now-defunct Club Jam.
Goose Hollow, Portland
In the 1870s, roving bands of geese owned by some local women sparked a small war in this area just west of downtown Portland, Oregon. Afflicted neighbors complained to the cops about the noise and the damage the geese did to their vegetable gardens. The officer who came to investigate the situation was accosted by a half-dozen women wielding sticks and stones, each claiming to own some of the wandering fowl, according to an 1875 report in the Daily Oregonian. The paper started referring to the area as Goose Hollow a few years later. The geese are long gone, but their memory lives on in the little blue-and-white goose banners that fly in the neighborhood.