The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Public Spaces

Giving Upper Northwest a bad (neighborhood) name

I've never really cared for the name of the neighborhood in which grew up, "North Cleveland Park." Possibly because I didn't grow up in North Cleveland Park. No, apparently I grew up in "Wakefield."

Have you seen this neighborhood?

Unfortunately, I did not know that until I was 23. And understandably: the name is forgettable. It lacks the hanger-on cachet of "North Cleveland Park" or the actual uniqueness of "Tenleytown." It's a white-bread name reminiscent of too many other suburban developments. And, in fact, most of the area West of Connecticut Ave, North of Albemarle St., and East of Nebraska was built shortly before World War II and is one of the last areas to be developed as a tract in DC.

Because this name and others in the area came with the developments, neighborhood names tend to be bounded by major roads. Yet the centers of community and busy commercial areas. So, residents have ended up with indistinct locations bearing forgotten names and very popular ones with no names but provisional monikers, like "Comet Corner" and "Van Ness." Or, according to City Paper, the area consists of Upper Caucasia, Connecticut, and Subarubia.

People have been attempting to name the area between Chevy Chase and Cleveland Park for over a century. Tenleytown may have grown up around John Tennally's Tavern, but family names like Nourse and Dryer have disappeared from maps. In the late 1900s, the first developers came along and tried to add Armsleigh Park, Colorado Heights, Mount Airy, and Gizor. What seems to make a difference in whether the names stuck or not is whether the neighborhood has a clear social and commercial center. Tenleytown and Georgetown have such places. Forest Hills and AU Park do not.

A few historical neighborhood names. Red text indicates a natural name while blue indicates a development.

Now, the names of the neighborhoods today are not any better than the ones lost to time. Just for example, here's how Wikipedia divides the area, based on real estate convention:

Neighborhoods according to Wikipedia.

Here, neighborhood divisions pass right through the centers of activity, such as on Wisconsin Ave. By this map, the vast majority of what people regard as Tenleytown is not in Tenleytown, such as the Janney School, Cityline at Tenley, and the Tenley-Friendship Library hole. It is as though the places where most neighborhood activity occurs have no bearing on the official geography. With that in mind, I asked some friends where neighborhoods begin and end. Here's what I came up with:

Neighborhoods designated by residents.

In my opinion, this map reflects the general image of neighborhoods better, especially in the way it characterizes Tenleytown, but it's still somewhat imperfect. For example, the Comet Corner node at Connecticut and Nebraska is still stuck between Chevy Chase, Forest Hills, and Tobago. Or, take the Van Ness hub, which is technically split between Forest Hills and North Cleveland Park. And, good lord, parts of AU park are a mile from American's main campus.

Now, crumby names may not actually harm the businesses at these locations, but I have found it strangely hard to explain to outsiders how to get to Politics & Prose. It just does not exist on the mental maps of most inhabitants of the region. The lack of landmarks or a transportation node might be one reason it's unremarkable, but the fact that people have spontaneously named the area suggests that area is not so much lacking as the naming system is itself insufficient.

Although a line is drawn down the middle of Wisconsin Avenue, a person will not feel that the neighborhood changed when he or she crosses the street. Both sides of the street sit in the same space and one perceives them as the same place. So, from an urbanist standpoint, it makes more sense to approach neighborhood names through the experience of space and human activity.

In the next post, I explore an alternative.

Neil Flanagan grew up in Ward 3 before graduating from the Yale School of Architecture. He is pursuing an architecture license. He really likes walking around and looking at stuff.  


Add a comment »

Neighborhoods are an interesting phenomenon. It is basically impossible to draw a set line and say "this house is definitively in THIS neighborhood, not THAT one," because of their nebulous nature. Personally I see neighborhoods as an area extending from a point of influence - be it a commercial strip, a university campus, etc. People seem to identify with one neighborhood or another based on where they go for life's necessities - where they shop for groceries, where their local ATM is, etc. Some neighborhoods are more easily defined because they are constrained by geography (Mt. Pleasant comes to mind), others like the ones in your post are less definable because they depend on an area of influence around a commercial corridor (Tenleytown, Friendship Heights, Cleveland Park).

Trying to set hard limits on where nebulous neighborhoods begin and end is kind of a fruitless endeavor, because, as we see here, everyone has a different opinion. And there really isn't a point to drawing a straight line across a street to define these places, unless you're an elite trying to shut people out of your neighborhood, or a real estate agent trying to make a property seem like it is in a more elite neighborhood.

An interesting exercise we did in one of our college geography classes was to take a map of the United States (no state boundaries) and draw the regions of the US on it. There was no list of names to pick from. 30 people in the class - 30 different answers.

by MLD on Feb 25, 2010 12:40 pm • linkreport

Maybe that's the one slightly positive thing suburbia has given us. Developments with limited access points and defined HOA allegiances. Too bad they may have unique names but they still all look alike.

by kidincredible on Feb 25, 2010 12:49 pm • linkreport

I don't know. Sure Tobago is a "funny" made up neighborhood name. But it does lack any historical meaning. And frankly doesn't fit the neighborhood. "Tobago" conjures up thoughts of a funky, diverse, artsy, neighborhood. Where as Wakefeild is historically accurate and conjures up more accurate thoughts of a sleepy, generic, yuppie neighborhood. If the residents want a neighborhood name to stick they should just get some street banners and start embracing the name Wakefield. Not make up a random, "fun" name that pays homage to nothing. Whats next? Renaming Burlieth "Port Au Prince"?

by John on Feb 25, 2010 1:01 pm • linkreport

When I used to live up there, I was never quite sure what to tell people other than I lived in Upper Upper Northwest, or at "Connecticut and Nebraska near Politics and Prose." Where I lived is Chevy Chase, DC, but often friends would tell others I lived in Van Ness or Friendship Heights.

Having moved to Chevy Chase from out of the region, I did try to define neighborhoods as a way to get my bearings. This is what I came up with, at least along Connecticut Ave:

- Cleveland Park ended at Tilden.
- Van Ness went from Tilden to Chesapeake/Davenport (solely based on the fact that a lot of people always got off at the Davenport bus stop)
- Unnamed Area from Chesapeake/Davenport to Nebraska
- Chevy Chase went from Nebraska to District Edge.

I know that doesn't solve anything, but I thought I would give an outsiders perspective. I have since moved to the Hill (which is another discussion because the Hill is way too large to be one neighborhood... often I say I live in Eastern Market).

by David Uhl on Feb 25, 2010 1:48 pm • linkreport

I would see this difficulty as a good thing, because it is a result of the neighborhoods being so well connected. As kidincredible points out, suburban island neighborhoods are easy to delineate because they lack cohesion into the larger area. That's not good for many reasons (traffic being just one).

by Matthias on Feb 25, 2010 1:59 pm • linkreport

I belive you're referring to "Upper Caucasia" and or "Connecticut" if you go by my favorite DC map:

by sassymolassy on Feb 25, 2010 2:49 pm • linkreport

i used to live squarely in forest hills, and then moved to an apartment up a few buildings up from the conn/nebraska intersection, on conn.

we always called the neighborhood "menopause manor" - a moniker that came into existence at least twenty years ago, according to a colleague who grew up there.

by AJ on Feb 25, 2010 2:53 pm • linkreport



by Reid on Feb 25, 2010 3:12 pm • linkreport

I am also of the opinion that Gizor is an awesome name. I can't figure out where it came from though.

by Neil Flanagan on Feb 25, 2010 3:16 pm • linkreport

South Chevy Chase, East Tenlytown... If you go by your logic on Tenley Town, which I agree with, then shouldn't it be Forrest Hills?

by Thayer-D on Feb 25, 2010 3:23 pm • linkreport

A large proportion of Gizor's in the neighborhood?

by Bianchi on Feb 25, 2010 3:26 pm • linkreport

As best as I can tell, Gizor is an Icelandic first name. Therefore, awesome.

by Tom Veil on Feb 25, 2010 3:29 pm • linkreport

I would consider the area from Chesapeake to Nebraska as "Forest Hills".

by Andrew on Feb 25, 2010 4:14 pm • linkreport

Thayer, I'm not sure I follow. I've seen the Nebraska-Wisconsin corner and all of Tobago called Forest Hills in books, but that's the only place I've seen it. When most people I know think of Forest Hills they don't think of the retail strip.

As a few people have pointed out, the lines could be drawn in a number of places, but most people picked the big streets to be the borders.

by Neil Flanagan on Feb 25, 2010 4:15 pm • linkreport

Why the designation of places that are obviously around Tenley Circle being put into McClean Gardens, which is so far down Wisconsin Avenue? I would think a better line between the neighborhoods would be Van Ness St. Otherwise, you're saying that the firehouse, Tenley Mini-Mart, Chipotle, etc. are part of McClean Gardens (if I'm reading the map correctly, that is).

by SDee on Feb 25, 2010 4:27 pm • linkreport

If we're going for historical, "Broad Branch" might be a decent name. After all, Broad Branch Road has been there since at least the 1880s, and I think much of the historical Broad Branch flows under the neighborhood nowadays.

by neff on Feb 25, 2010 4:51 pm • linkreport

I grew up at yuma and reno and always said I lived in Tenleytown. I see no reason to change now. I certainly don't want my childhood neighborhood to become EaWi (east of wisconsin), WeConn or SoNeb and Tobago may be wacky fun but it's not a serious name.

by kenyonstreet on Feb 25, 2010 4:53 pm • linkreport

Unfortunately, I have to disagree with these maps to some extent. Before congress planted AU in our backyard, there was Tenallytown which went from Reno road to Westmoreland Circle. There are still homes On Alton Pl that are older than the city itself []. Also, if you look at the Tenleytown Historical Society [] you can see that Tenally's Tavern was at what is now River Road and Wisconsin Avenue, across the street from what DC classifies as "Tenleytown."

How about renaming "Wakefield" [I've never heard of it in my lifetime living here] to "Reno City," which is the historical name for the area east of including Ft. Reno, home to D.C.'s first community of freed slaves.

by arm on Feb 25, 2010 5:12 pm • linkreport

@andrew -

forest hills: bounded by conn ave on the west, tilden to the south, the park to the east, and 36th/broadbranch to the north.

by AJ on Feb 25, 2010 5:29 pm • linkreport

To those who are objecting to "Tobago" on the grounds that it's not serious, please elaborate on why mirth is out of place in urban design.

by Neil Flanagan on Feb 25, 2010 8:03 pm • linkreport

Yeah, I mean if we've got a "Trinidad" neighborhood, then why not a "Tobago" neighborhood too?

by Michael on Feb 25, 2010 8:51 pm • linkreport

Wakefield is a Rec Center and a road in Annandale; a high school in Arlington.

And that's all it ever shall be.

by MPC on Feb 25, 2010 9:02 pm • linkreport

Re: To those who are objecting to "Tobago" on the grounds that it's not serious, please elaborate on why mirth is out of place in urban design.

An odd, funny name for an urban neighborhood is generally unacceptable because, simply, most of the people who reside there won't like it. It's as basic as that. Oh, to be sure, a funky area in a city might acquire an interesting nickname, but to be labeled officially as such will not likely pass muster with residents and authorities alike. To often names get twisted about and become fodder for puns and double entendres. All the more so for "mirth"-ful names.

Why of all possible appellations did you select the name "Tobago"? Really now. In what way does the name Tobago apply to this area? Is there any historical connection, or any connection at all?

"Wakefield" is an pleasant, innocuous appellation. But, again, how does it apply to the area?

by Anonymous on Feb 25, 2010 9:41 pm • linkreport

So why don't people like having a slight irony attached to the neighborhood's name? How does it harm them? I am genuinely perplexed at the outrage.

And what's wrong with double entendres? Madam's Organ is a treasure.

by Neil Flanagan on Feb 26, 2010 12:29 am • linkreport

In considering place names, you have to take into account "neighborhood creep", often aided and abetted by real estate types. Anything north of Cleveland Park, esp. N Of Van Ness is vulnerable to being called "Chevy Chase". Wakefield exists on real estate maps. Forest Hills has an interesting history (no restrictive covenant against Jews, Armenians, etc).

The same thing occurs elsewhere. people near Kalorama Triangle like to claim they're in Kalorama rather than Adams-Morgan. the historic district(s) that have or may develop in Adams Morgan are likely to revive Washington Heights and Lanier Heights as Place names, which sound a little classier than A-M. I've also noticed that people claim Logan Circle when people barely live in the Eastern end of Shaw. Then, there's the question of where Georgetown turns to Glover Park, along Wisconsin Avenue.

by Rich on Feb 26, 2010 12:53 am • linkreport

Neil - The reason that part of town not on mental maps is not that it lacks a good name. It lacks a good name because it's not on mental maps. It's not on mental maps because it's lacking in notable places. It will lack notable places as long as the neighborhood is represented by people who don't want to see ANY changes there (see

I enjoyed the post and appreciate the effort, but it's not particularly useful to choose goofy neighborhood names hoping they'll stick.

by hnc on Feb 26, 2010 11:08 am • linkreport

How is the name Tobago goofy? The justification is slightly droll, maybe, but it's a real place.

Meanwhile, thanks for the link. I had no idea Frank Winstead had a youtube account, but I hadn't moved back to DC during that bullroar.

by Neil Flanagan on Feb 26, 2010 11:31 am • linkreport

Someone else stepped up to defeat Mr. Winstead in the last ANC elections. Over time, hopefully more conscientious citizens will choose to donate their time in the name of rational governance for the benefit of the community and city.

by Andrew on Feb 26, 2010 11:58 am • linkreport

By 'goofy' I just mean the basis for the name is a joke. I just don't think something like that will stick.

One other issue with your map - I've never heard someone say 'North Cleveland Park' in my life. I think 'Van Ness' is a much more natural name for the area, and it's often used.

by hnc on Feb 26, 2010 1:29 pm • linkreport

Bring back Gizor!

by tom a. on Feb 26, 2010 5:42 pm • linkreport

For what it's worth I've always thought that the western boundary of Chevy Chase was "just east of Wisconsin Avenue". This puts the main thoroughfare within the urban islands of Bethesda, Friendship Heights, or whatever, and the Suburban Ocean of Chevy Chase is offshore, to the east.

by MattF on Feb 27, 2010 10:39 am • linkreport

hnc: perhaps we just move in different social circles, but i've heard north cleveland park quite often.

and rich: there isn't a question of where georgetown becomes glover park, because there is another neighborhood in between (burleith).

by IMGoph on Feb 28, 2010 11:51 pm • linkreport

When I lived here in the 90s, realtors referred to anything above Van Ness as Chevy Chase, and Forest Hills was never mentioned. A lot of Glover Park was labelled as georgetown and Dupont extended to 15th Street. Rising property prices has made it more possible to label specific neighborhoods, including small ones.

by Rich on Jul 15, 2013 5:26 pm • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

You can use some HTML, like <blockquote>quoting another comment</blockquote>, <i>italics</i>, and <a href="http://url_here">hyperlinks</a>. More here.

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.


Support Us