Most Detroiters know the city got its name from the French word “détroit” or the narrow body of water connecting Lake Erie and Lake Huron (aka the Detroit River). But how about Detroit’s neighborhoods?
Some neighborhood names, like Mexicantown or Greektown, may be obvious. But others have unexpected or entertaining origin stories, involving bygone historical figures, towns in other states or countries, and strange inventions by developers meant to attract residents.
Here are the stories behind the names of 12 well-known Detroit neighborhoods. And be sure to check out our piece on the origins of some unique neighborhood names.
Note: Aaron Mondry wrote entries for Woodbridge and Brush Park. Mickey Lyons wrote the rest.
The oldest surviving intact neighborhood in Detroit, Corktown is named for the Irish county, Cork, that many of its first settlers once inhabited.
Although Detroit had settlers from Ireland as early as the 1710s, the bulk of the city’s Irish immigrants arrived between 1840 and 1870 as a result of the famine that killed a million people and led to the mass exodus of another million. Many of these immigrants first moved to what were then the far northwestern outskirts of town. There they settled in Victorian-style boarding houses and cottages.
By the late 1950s and early 1960s, the adult theaters along Cass, Second, and Third avenues near Wayne State’s campus were infamous for an equal mix of burlesque, art galleries, and movie theaters. Long before that, the plots sold for the Cass neighborhood designation were held by the descendants of Lewis Cass, a prominent slaveholder and politician in early-19th-century Michigan Territory.
In 1976, local stakeholders got together and formed Midtown Detroit Inc. to rebrand the area and attract retail and investment money (note: Cass Corridor is part of Midtown, but Midtown is more than the Cass Corridor). Though it took many years, it worked—Midtown property values are sky-high today. But the debate has raged over whether rapid gentrification has damaged or helped the area.
German immigrant Edward Voigt was one of the founders of Detroit’s Edison Illuminating Company. Voigt bought property as early as 1884 along the farthest north reaches of Woodward Avenue. With the Joy and Newberry families, he financed the first of the area’s stately mansions in 1905. The district, bounded by Woodward Avenue, Hamilton Avenue, Edison Street, and Boston Boulevard, is home to more than 900 magnificent homes.
Boston Boulevard was briefly named Schiller Esplanade after Voigt’s fellow German, poet and playwright Johann Schiller, but the name was changed to Boston Boulevard quickly—likely to capitalize on the reputation of the city of Boston for its grand residential boulevards.
Thomas W. Palmer was an important figure in late-19th-century Detroit. The son of a prominent merchant and grandson of a territorial judge, Palmer was a U.S. senator and advocated for women’s suffrage. In 1887, he and his wife, Lizzie Merrill Palmer, built a log “cabin” on the farthest northern outskirts of Detroit. In the late 1800s, they endowed a park on land inherited from Palmer’s grandfather, Judge James Witherell. The park included old-growth forest untouched by human hands, which stands to this day.
After Palmer’s death, most of the land around the cabin was sold by Palmer’s son to Charles W. Burton. The real-estate developer hired famed landscape architect Ossian Cole Simonds to design the Palmer Park subdivision. The winding, tree-lined streets—eventually filled with magnificent homes—has won several architectural competitions.
Just after the automotive manufacturing bonanza brought industry to the North End, Detroit’s New Center area was designed to be a core of commerce, retail, and office space. Clustered around the Fisher Building and General Motors Building (now known as Cadillac Place), this district was planned as a bold, spacious hub of innovation and development in the boomtown years of the 1920s.
Shortly after the erection of the magnificent Fisher, however, the Great Depression stalled progress in the area, and it never became Detroit’s second downtown as envisioned.
With the boom in Detroit’s auto industry, a wave of job seekers rushed to the city. On its farthest northwest side, a slick ad man was determined to build an entire settlement as fast as he could.
Burt Eddy Taylor slapped up cheap houses, but poured plenty of advertising dollars into attracting the kind of settlers he wanted: rural whites from the South in search of auto factory jobs. “Bright Moor” had the perfect combination of syllables and advertising jargon. Thanks to Taylor’s ads, Brightmoor’s population increased from around 15 people to more than 2,000 by 1922.
When Detroit was a sleepy New French trading town, two main streets composed the territory: one along the river and one that headed north toward the even smaller trading villages. After the massive fire of 1805 destroyed the entire town, territorial judge Augustus Woodward took the opportunity to redesign the city’s streets according to his grand plans. He named one avenue, previously known as River Road, after his idol and friend, President Thomas Jefferson.
A hundred years later, Hugh Chalmers, a young auto entrepreneur, established a factory on Jefferson Avenue. The neighborhood that grew up along Jefferson in the 1910s and 1920s is enjoying a renewed interest as one of the city’s most intact collections of quintessential pre-Depression middle-class bungalows.
Highland Park was originally named for what was at that time the highest spot of ground on Woodward between the Detroit River and the farming communities of the north on the Pontiac Plank Road, one of the city’s original exurbs. In the mid-19th century, the area was known as Whitewood.
When the Village of Highland Park was incorporated in 1889, it was still a small town. Ford’s Highland Park Plant was built in 1910, when the city’s population was just 4,210. In 1920, the population had ballooned to 46,399.
Highland Park community leaders thought long and hard about whether to allow the city to be absorbed by the greater Detroit expansion. In the end, they decided to remain independent and become an enclave city.
In 1814, William Woodbridge was reluctantly convinced by his close friend, Michigan Territorial Gov. Lewis Cass, to take a political appointment in Detroit. He would serve in a variety of capacities in local politics, eventually becoming the state of Michigan’s second governor in 1840.
This near west side Detroit area is named after Woodbridge—he owned a large farm on land that would later become the neighborhood. He was also married to Juliana Trumbull, daughter of poet John Trumbull, for whom the area’s main corridor is named.
John J. Bagley was a wealthy tobacco merchant and later a successful politician—he was a founding member of the Republican Party and served as governor of Michigan from 1873 to 1877. In his will, Bagley left funds for the city of Detroit’s first public water fountain to be installed. It served both ambient temperature and cold water, a rarity at the time it was built in 1887. The fountain still stands, minus its pipes, downtown in Cadillac Square.
The neighborhood that bears his name, however, is in northwest Detroit.
From the start, Brush Park was reserved for the city’s elite. In the early 1800s, much of the land in this near downtown area was purchased by prominent lawyer, and later Detroit’s second mayor, Elijah Brush. His son, Edmund Askin Brush, began developing the family property in the 1850s, subdividing plots and enacting restrictions so that only large properties could be built. He even named the streets—Adelaide, Edmund, Alfred, Eliot—after members of the Brush family.
What grew in the neighborhood were opulent Second Empire, Romanesque Revival, and Italianate mansions for the city’s high society. Residents of Brush Park included retailer J.L. Hudsons, lumber baron David Whitney Jr., businessman Dexter M. Ferry, and many more industry moguls.
But many of those magnificent homes, which caused people to name Brush Park “the Little Paris of the Midwest,” were demolished over the decades; first by the widening of Woodward Avenue and later from vacancy. Today, only a handful of the original homes remain, but the neighborhood is seeing renewed investment, with dozens of developments underway.