POPonymy - An Interpretive Typology of Dallas Neighborhood Names

by Thomas Simpson

American toponymist George R. Stewart clarified in his 1975 book Names on the Globe that “to be named, a place must first be conceived as an entity, that is, as being separable and identifiable from other places.” It seems clear that neighborhoods are entities — they have unique people, parts, and pasts — and yet, in Dallas, we have not done a very good job of recording where and how they are separable and identifiable from other places. They’ve been inadequately mapped. This realization compelled us at buildingcommunityWORKSHOP to initiate the POP neighborhood map, a living document that records and maps the city’s neighborhoods as dictated by its citizens.

As part of [bc]’s grassroots city planning initiative People Organizing Place [POP], over the last three years the POP Neighborhood Map project has positioned residents as community experts to assist in identifying boundaries for all definable neighborhoods within the city, creating a framework for a network of neighborhoods with a more accurate perception of culture, identity, and unified values within neighborhoods. Strong neighborhood identities foster community and organize residents to advocate for their neighborhood's future.

The POP neighborhood map has two major components: boundaries and names. In the past, [bc] has stressed the importance of the edges and borders and territory of the neighborhood map, but we don’t want to do so at the expense of our local toponymy (from Greek, meaning “place name”). As important as it is to demarcate the entity by drawing neighborhood boundaries is to give it a name. 

Dallas neighborhood names speak volumes about the city’s complexion. Just as our words offer insight into our character, the way the city describes itself and names its parts- its toponymy- offer insight into its anatomy, its aspirations, its values, and its history. Rather than a study of the origin of individual place names, this is a typology of toponymy, revealing the city’s values through categories of place names. Neighborhoods are the building blocks of cities; what information can we elicit about the city collectively from the kind of names it gives it components?

Exposition Park is named for the adjacent Fair Park, in particular, 1936's Texas Centennial Exposition

Exposition Park is named for the adjacent Fair Park, in particular, 1936's Texas Centennial Exposition

Dallas has a complex relationship with history and memory. We’re conflicted about how to remember a legacy of violence and hate; insecure about our humble beginnings absent revolution or war. But we’re inspired by our youth and a twentieth century motive of progress through production, growth, and, frequently, reinvention. Still, Dallas history is embedded in the names of its oldest neighborhoods in one way or another. In some cases, history is encoded in both the name and the built environment. Colonel Jefferson Peak’s family has two neighborhoods of turn-of-the-century structures that remind us of their role in developing East Dallas: Peak’s Suburban Addition and Junius Heights, named for one of the Colonel’s sons. Other times, physical history has been destroyed while a name and legacy remain. The Mill City neighborhood marks the spot of a historically black neighborhood intertwined with a black-owned and operated twine mill. Dallas’ voracious growth also swallows history, leaving a vestigial name. A number of neighborhoods recall farming villages that were annexed into the quickly sprawling city: Vickery Meadow (for the town Vickery), Fruitdale, Lisbon, Rylie, Kleberg.

The city gets definition from its natural environment (yes, even Dallas) and our relationship to natural features is inscribed in neighborhood names. The major natural (although much altered) feature in Dallas is the Trinity River, and the river, its fingers, and their reservoirs have deeply influenced the city’s toponymic language. Despite this city’s (and most others, besides Venice) proclivity to entomb our water, Dallas has managed to retain some hydrological identification. Of the 375 neighborhoods [bc] has counted, twelve have “Creek” in their name and sixteen include the word “Lake.” Two even include the word “Spring.” How might a relationship to water less reliant on culverts and ditches and levees alter our naming conventions?

One of the most pervasive refrains about Dallas, written by historian Herbert Gambrell, declares that Dallas is a city “that man has made, with a little help from nature and practically none from Providence.” At its core, Dallas has always been a city about business, and man-made enterprise that has shaped Dallas has also imprinted itself in our vocabulary: Love Field, Southwestern Medical District, Design District, Dallas Arts District. The image of a steel and concrete Dallas emerging from an idle plain is surely reflected in the neighborhoods named for physical works and infrastructure: Tenth Street Historic District, Kings Highway, or the M Streets and L Streets. People are capable of creating more than physical things, though; another Dallas historian, A.C. Greene, told us that Dallas was an “imaginary city.” Many Dallas neighborhood names use words for physical places as part of an act of projection, association, and image construction such as the Disney Streets, or one of the 20 neighborhoods with “Park” in their name and no park in their territory. 

Design District evolved from warehouses, to design and antique showrooms, to a multi-use neighborhood that retains design at its heart

Topography is key to toponymy, and the shape of the land shapes our place names. Whether a result of its relatively limited topographic variation or because that variation is so important in a floodplain, Dallas is full of “Hills,” “Heights,” and “Highlands.” Do these neighborhoods really reflect topography, or are they real estate sleights of hand? Let’s assume that Highlands refer to places of a consistently raised elevation, Hills are places with greater variety of elevation, and that Heights are peaks. Digging into the data, the average “Highlands” neighborhood is perched 80 feet higher than the city as a whole. Elevation in the “Hills” neighborhoods varies an average of 45 feet while the average for all neighborhoods is 37 feet. “Heights” neighborhoods, perhaps, are more deceiving, on average reaching a maximum elevation of 541 feet, versus 562 for all neighborhoods. Perhaps they are “Heights” relative to their surroundings. So, if you are looking to find interruptions to the prairie, feel free to rely on the neighborhood name...some of the time. 

More important than whether neighborhood names about topography are accurate are what they convey to us. How does topography segregate the city by race and income? Heights and Highlands would indicate less of a flood risk. Unsurprisingly, two enduring place names, the historically black The Bottom in Oak Cliff and immigrant Hispanic La Bajada (“the descent”) in West Dallas, have this pernicious legacy of segregation and environmental injustice baked into their identity. Highland Park’s status is reinforced by our association with the high ground, the defensible position, as superior.

Words that appear most frequently in Dallas neighborhood names

Status finds its way into toponymy beyond topography. Frequently wealthy, successful, or desirable neighborhoods lend their names to — or have them appropriated by — surrounding geographies. There are four Kessler neighborhoods, four Lakewood neighborhoods, and five Prestonwoods. Neighborhoods also distinguish their status descriptively: there are Estates, Acres, Clubs, a Manor. For the most part these names reflect reality. Even though of the 35 neighborhoods with Estates in their name, ten have a smaller average home size than other identified neighborhoods, the overall average home is 2,600 square feet in Estate neighborhoods versus 2,100 square feet on average citywide. The emphasis on home size and, by proxy, status, is characteristically Dallas. In New York, two percent of neighborhoods have “Estate,” “Acre,” “Manor,” or “Club” in their names, the same as Austin. In Chicago, it’s zero. In Atlanta, six percent. In Big D, 12 percent of neighborhood names include one of those four words.

Names might be given to try to exude not just socio-economic status, but other qualities of a community’s inner-life or relationship with the outside world, such as isolation and solitude: The Cloisters; or a nostalgic togetherness: Greenleaf Village, White Rock Village, Stevens Park Village, The Village; or separateness: Enclave at Grove Hill, Enclave at Ash Creek, Enclave at White Rock. 


How Large are Homes in "Estates" Neighborhoods?

Comparing the average square footage of homes in "estates" neighborhoods

The Cloisters is a neighborhood of mansions on the northwest shores of White Rock Lake

The Cloisters is a neighborhood of mansions on the northwest shores of White Rock Lake

Many neighborhood names betray how aspirational (and frequently emulative) we are as a city. We borrow Winnetka Heights from Chicago and Hollywood/Santa Monica and Beverly Hills from Los Angeles. Dallas’s aspirational quality reveals itself elsewhere, too, seeking perfection (Ideal), joy (Jubilee Park), and togetherness (Unity Estates).

Unfortunately, Dallas is often decried as placeless, an accusation reinforced by its many neighborhood names that pop up on maps all over the country: Lakewood, Ridgewood Park, Hillside, Lake Forest. Are their name-fellows in California, or Illinois, or New Jersey placeless, too? Perhaps these names reflect a desire for homogeneity, or, like brands, generate a comfortably consistent image, a common American ideal, not unlike the aforementioned aspirational neighborhood names, in this case: suburbia. 

Jubilee Park, in East Dallas near Fair Park, is announced by this metal and brick archway.

Notably, Spanish language names are scarcely represented in Dallas neighborhoods- certainly, as in other facets and institutions of the city, not at the rate that Hispanic life exists in the city. Depending on how lenient you are about what constitutes the Spanish language (does Cedar Vista count?) Spanish language neighborhood names account for roughly 5% of the total in a city with over 40% Hispanic residents as of 2010. How should these changing demographics alter the vocabulary of our social landscape?

In a city as young as Dallas we are constantly trying on new names and looks for our places, only sometimes finding something that endures. Little Mexico becomes Victory Park. Bishop Arts and Trinity Groves come to command our civic tongue. Gastonwood and Coronado Hills act as a dual name, then the C Streets is tried on, and eventually an East Dallas neighborhood settles on Lakewood Hills. As we continue to rename, we, as a public, should ensure that our names fit us and fit what we want our city to be, whether that’s a city full of nature, of highs and lows, of consistency, of industries, of mansions or a reflection of our past and of our dreams. What does your neighborhood name mean to you, or to your city?

Names, like all words, are signs. They have history, lineage, and agreed upon relational meanings, but they mean something different to the people who use them to describe themselves or loved ones or loved places. We owe it to our neighbors to know the names of their places. Why refer to the mechanical and anonymous “Southern Sector” when we can invoke the proud and beautiful Wheatley Place, Ravinia Heights, or Pemberton Hill?

If you don’t know what your neighborhood is, want to learn more about Dallas neighborhoods, or are a neighborhood whiz that wants to share your expertise, buildingcommunityWorkshop has developed tools for you. Know Your Neighborhood is a digital directory of Dallas neighborhoods that shares information on neighborhood groups, development history, demographic and land use information, and personal stories from residents and neighbors. Draw Your Neighborhood is an interactive tool that asks participants to share neighborhood names and boundaries as they recognize them through an interactive web-map. In addition, Draw Your Neighborhood solicits “super neighborhood” boundaries, to crowd-source an understanding of how Dallasites aggregate neighborhoods into larger contiguous geographies, such as Old East Dallas or North Oak Cliff.  Go use these tools today at www.PeopleOrganizingPlace.com

And for fun, some favorite Dallas neighborhood names:

  • Deep Ellum
  • Moss Farm
  • Elderwood
  • La L’aceate
  • Club Manor
  • Cedars
  • La Bajada and Los Altos/The Bottom and the Heights
  • Queen City
  • Bonton
  • Cadillac Heights
  • Cigarette Hill
  • Dolphin Heights
  • Disney Streets
  • Elm Thicket [North Park]
  • Jan Mar
  • Lobello
  • Love Field
  • Peak’s Suburban Addition
  • Turtle Creek
  • Urbandale
  • Woods-Sugarberry
  • Wisdom Terrace