Over the years, the area we now know as Detroit has gone by several different names. So it shouldn’t come as any great surprise that the delineations of its individual neighborhoods is often a topic of debate.
Native American groups had their own names for the area; the Decolonial Atlas lists the Ojibwe name for the settlement as Waawiyaataanong (At the Curved Shores). French setters named the same curve between two lakes Détroit—“The Straits.”
The explosive population growth in the first decades of the 20th century brought on by the automotive industry redrew city’s map once again. Detroit, slowly at first and then with increasing speed, gobbled up chunks of neighboring townships. As this happened, housing developers looking to distinguish their subdivisions worked with the burgeoning advertising industry to sell fancifully named tracts.
Some of these new housing groups retained the names of the original European property owners or the families who sold the land to developers. Some, like Boston-Edison, were descriptively named to incorporate their geographical locations.
Tracking how each got its name also exposes fault lines in just who gets to name a neighborhood. And who does (or doesn’t) accept that name can be a controversial subject.
Nonetheless, we’ll do our best with these seven unique examples.
Nearly a thousand years ago, the woodland culture of Native American tribes built massive burial mounds near their settlements. After that, Ojibwe, Potawatomi, Wyandotte, and other groups used the area—valued for its many clear springs—as a meeting place and settlement. European settlers later built wells, from which the area drew its name.
European and Native American settlers clashed frequently over property rights in the area, from the French and Indian War through the War of 1812, where many area tribes allied themselves with the British in opposition to American land theft.
Lewis Cass’s 1818 map was a direct result of the 1815 Treaty of Spring Wells (or Springwells). In the treaty, Wyandotte, Delaware, Seneca, Shawnee, Miami, Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi leaders ceded property rights to much of what would become Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan.
The area remained a sprawling but vibrant community of small villages, including Dearborn and Buckland. Gradually over the course of the 19th century, the land was divided into smaller units, just as the rest of the county was subdivided. In 1919, the Village of Springwells incorporated; by 1924, it was a city.
Parts of the area were incorporated into Dearborn and Detroit in 1928, and the last eastern portion annexed by Detroit became the Springwells neighborhood.
Many residents imagine that the name for this neighborhood on the near northeast side of the city is a straightforward geographical distinction. Its origin is, in part, a far more interesting tale of frontier expansion and entrepreneurship.
Colonel Philetus Norris, originally from New York state, settled briefly in Detroit before joining the Army during the Civil War. He was twice imprisoned by the Confederates as a suspected Union spy, but eventually returned to the wilds of Michigan.
In 1873, Norris built a stagecoach inn on the eastbound Davison plank road to Mount Clemens, eventually adding a saloon, general store, and temporary jail. When the railroad expanded to the area within a few years, both the stagecoach stop and railroad depot were labeled simply “Norris,” and the name stuck.
In 1891, the Village of Norris was renamed “North Detroit.” So, in a way, both groups arguing about the origin of the neighborhood’s name are correct.
Although the name “Piety Hill” might seem to have cropped up out of nowhere in recent marketing materials, it is in fact one of the city’s oldest surviving names still in use. The swath of Woodward Avenue just south of Boston-Edison received its designation from snarky newspapermen in the late 19th century.
The Piety Hill area boasts a high concentration of churches, temples, and worship houses. That, combined with the residents’ reputation for ostentatious shows of charity and moral high-handedness, led critics to point out the disparities between the wealthy inhabitants’ words and their actions.
Many of the neighborhood’s lavish homes were built in the late 1800s for upwardly-mobile business titans, doctors, and lawyers. An 1885 account describes a “slumming party” comprised of young Piety Hill couples touring Detroit’s seediest sections, including several police precinct lockups, and the notorious slums and dives of the riverfront. And the President of the Detroit Library Commission in 1903 complained that, “Three times as many serious books are taken out in the neighborhood of Chene Street saloons as are taken out on Piety Hill among the churches.”
Yes, we know Hamtramck isn’t a neighborhood in Detroit. But the fact that it exists, as an independent city, tucked entirely within the city limits of Detroit, earns its own explanation. The “World in 2 Square Miles” once encompassed a much vaster area of land.
Jean Francois Hamtramck was born Quebec in 1757 and emigrated south as a young man. He joined the U.S. Army and changed his name to John Francis Hamtramck in 1775.
Hamtramck fought with George Washington during the American Revolution, and later with Anthony Wayne at the 1794 Battle of Fallen Timbers. He later transferred to Fort Lernault—known at other times as Fort Shelby and Fort Detroit—in 1796, and built his original house on the Detroit River near the current Belle Isle bridge. As a reward for his military service, Hamtramck was granted a massive tract of land that stretched from the river all the way to Baseline (8 Mile) Road.
In 1798, the Township of Hamtramck was established and settled by Quebec immigrants invited by Hamtramck and his colleagues. Like Springwells, the township was whittled away by other neighborhood expansions. In 1901, Hamtramck incorporated as a village, consisting mostly of German farmers.
Then the cars came and changed everything. After the Dodge auto plant opened in 1910, Hamtramck drew immigrants from Eastern Europe, especially Poland, as well as black workers traveling from the South in search of better work. In 1910, the population of Hamtramck was 3,559 people. By 1920, it topped 48,000—a staggering increase of 1,266 percent, the highest in the country.
Hamtramck incorporated as a city in 1922 in order to avoid the higher tax rates associated with Detroit city proper and has remained a beacon for immigrants since its founding.
The Hubbard family acquired this land in Southwest Detroit in 1835, in what was at the time still Springwells Township. Family scion Bela Hubbard worked as one of the new state’s surveyors, defining county and township boundaries. In addition to helping survey the Upper Peninsula, Hubbard also redrew some of Detroit’s most recognizable map lines.
Beginning in 1876, he and other prominent Detroiters lobbied for the creation of a tree-lined boulevard around three sides of what was then the city’s outermost boundaries, the fourth border being defined by the river. This “Grand Boulevard” would encompass the entirety of Detroit’s then-current neighborhoods about three miles from the downtown area.
With meticulous landscaping and a park-like setting, the boulevard’s construction soon brought investors willing to build grand mansions along the route. Most of the homes in the Hubbard Farms neighborhood date from the late 1880s to the First World War.
The area south of West Grand Boulevard and east of 14th street, known as Northwest Goldberg, is one of Detroit’s early 20th century integrated neighborhoods. For decades, redlining laws prevented minorities from becoming homeowners in many areas of the city. As the city expanded with the spread of the auto industry, Detroit’s Jewish community moved increasingly into new developments on the north side of town. Several historic synagogues in the area point to the neighborhood’s Jewish cultural roots.
Louis Goldberg, one of the area’s earliest residents, moved with his brothers to Detroit from London when he was 22 years old. He became the first Jewish inspector for Detroit’s schools until his death in 1903, after which the city named the neighborhood’s newest school after him.
The neighborhood remained largely Jewish until shortly after World War II, when many Jewish Detroiters began a general shift to the northern suburbs. Jewish homeowners were willing to sell their homes to Black families at a time when very few others would. Now the area goes by a host of different names: some prefer the oldest term named after the school, while other longterm residents refer to it as Zone 8, a police term used to describe the zip code.
Noted inventor Elijah McCoy’s parents escaped slavery in Kentucky by moving to Canada via the Underground Railroad in the mid-1830s. They were successful farmers and made enough money to send Elijah to Edinburgh, Scotland to study mechanical engineering. On returning from Scotland, degree in hand, McCoy moved to Ypsilanti. No one there would hire him as an engineer, however, so he settled for a job as a stoker for steam engines while he concentrated on new designs.
In 1872 McCoy patented a self regulating lubricator for steam engines. This proved so efficient and other knockoffs so subpar that engineers started asking for “the real McCoy.”
McCoy earned 57 patents over his lifetime, including one for the folding ironing board we still use commonly today. McCoy and his second wife moved to a neighborhood home in Northwest Goldberg. The Elijah McCoy neighborhood name is one of the most recent additions to Detroit’s topographic distinctions. It does not appear on the 2003 Cityscape map, nor is it on Google Maps as of 2019. Instead, it was carved from the Northwest Goldberg neighborhood, sometime recently it appears, to honor McCoy’s achievements and home site.