The history of NYC landmarks revealed in new book

In the city so nice that they named it twice, place names hold a lot of meaning. 

In 1609, Dutch settlers named the territory we now call New York “Nieuw Amsterdam.” It got its current moniker after British invaders charged by the Duke of York successfully commandeered the terrain in 1664.

As for the iconic borough of Manhattan, it got its name from the Lenape Native Americans, who referred to a small section of the land as “Manahatta” — which means “place where we gather wood for bows and arrows.”

The elaborate name-histories of New York City’s most celebrated centers, streets and sites are woven together from the cultures and customs detailed in the new book “Names of New York: Discovering the City’s Past, Present, and Future Through Its Place-Names,” by NYU Liberal Studies professor Joshua Jelly-Schapiro. 

“Place names, the labels we attach to maps and the areas that we inhabit, are powerful signifiers of the history we emerged from and the ways that we navigate our present,” Jelly-Schapiro, 41, told The Post.

New book “Names of New York,” by geographer Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, reveals how the city and all of its wonderful landmarks earned their iconic names.Library of Congress

But the geographer doesn’t overlook the nature in which the city was obtained.

“To engage the roots of any place’s names is to chart a history of power — to peel back layers of history to uncover those who’ve arrogated to themselves the right to affix new labels on maps,” Jelly-Schapiro writes.

“What’s key about these indigenous names is that they were placed on maps by thesame colonists who pushed the region’s first people from their land.”

His book explains everything from how Gramercy Park — derived from the Dutch term “Krom Moerasje,” which means small crooked marsh — to Coney Island — grounds the Dutch named for its high population of “conyne” or rabbits — got their monikers.

Ever wonder how the iconic Bowery earned its title or why the city’s most famous Financial District strip is known as Wall Street? Well, wonder no more. 


In New York, if you hear someone say, “Let’s get the show on the road,” the road they’re referring to is Broadway. The city’s twinkling heart of culture and theater, Broadway was originally named the Wickquasgeck Trail by the native Lenape. In the early 1600s, the Dutch created a road on that trail and called it de Heere Straat or “Gentlemen’s Street.”

However, they often referred to it as a “breede weg,” or a “wide road,” which the British heard as “broad way.” Once the invaders from England took possession of the city, they retained the 13-mile-long street’s sobriquet and labeled it “Broadway.”

Liberty Island

The 14-acre cay that sits in the Upper Bay, Liberty Island was called “Minnissai” (translation: the “Lesser Island”) by the Native Americans. It – along with Ellis Island, named for Manhattan merchant Samuel Ellis in 1774, and Black Tom Island, a rocky islet that was originally named after a dark skinned fisherman but is now part of Jersey City’s Liberty State Park – was one of several referred to as “Oyster Island” by the Dutch for its bountiful oyster beds.

Under Dutch rule the island became the property of merchant Isaac Bedloe. It was known as “Love Island” in deference to colonial governor Francis Lovelace for a short period in the late 1600s. But it was renamed for Bedloe after his death in 1673.

It wasn’t until 1886, when France gifted the Statue of Liberty to the US as a symbol of freedom, that the cay was dubbed Liberty Island.

Wall Street 

Now the eight-block-long epicenter of American capitalism, Wall Street was once a literal wall. It’s the site where Dutch colonizers forced African slaves to erect a wooden palisade at the northern edge of New Amsterdam in the mid 1600s to protect settlers from Native Americans and British raiders. The wall stood until 1699.

Wall Street was once the home of a large wall erected by African slaves to protect Dutch settlers from Native Americans and British invaders. New York Public Library Digital Collection

The lengthy thoroughfare then became known as “de Waalstraat,” and served as Manhattan’s most notorious slave-auction post. “The center of American finance is Wall Street,” Jelly-Schapiro told The Post. “But ironically, it was the location of a major slave auction block. That says a lot about the country’s economic history.” 


While it’s more modernly revered as the city’s central hub of rich African American pride and culture, owing to the Harlem Renaissance of the early 1900s, the word “Harlem” comes from the Dutch. Although the Wickquasgeck Native Americans originally inhabited the land, Dutch governor Peter Stuyvesant and the men of the Dutch East India Company dubbed the neighborhood in upper Manhattan “Nieuw Haarlem” in the mid 1600s.

Although Harlem is best known for its rich African-American culture and history, the Dutch named the neighborhood after a village in Holland because it reminded them of their home in the Netherlands. NYPL

The colonizers named the town after a village in Holland because the landscape reminded them of their home in the Netherlands. When British usurpers took over during the latter half of the 17th century, they converted the Dutch honorific to the English spelling and pronunciation of “Harlem” that we use today. 

The Tappan Zee Bridge 

Before being rebuilt and christened the Mario M. Cuomo Bridge in 2017, in honor of the late former governor of New York, this historic Hudson River overpass was known as the Tappan Zee. Arching over the widest part of the Hudson River, its original name derived from a fusion of Native American and Dutch languages. “Tappan” was the name of the Lenape tribe who inhabited the land near the waterway. “Zee” is the Dutch word for “sea.”

The Dutch described that sweeping section of the Hudson as the “sea of the Tappan” — hence “Tappan Zee.” 

The Bowery

Hailed the “great highway of humanity” by Theodore Roosevelt, the Bowery was known to the Dutch as “de Bouwerij” which means “farm road.”

The oldest roadway in Manhattan, the mile-long stretch earned its name because it was a path settlers and animals used to travel to the farm of Dutch governor Stuyvesant — which spanned from the present-day East Village to Stuyvesant Town. 

Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge 

Although the 4,260-foot-long crossway spanning the New York Harbor from Brooklyn to Staten Island wasn’t completed until 1964, its name derives from an Italian navigator of the early 1500s.

Giovanni da Verrazzano is known as the first European navigator to see New York in 1524 — nearly a century before Henry Hudson.

Upon its opening, the Italian Historical Society of America successfully campaigned to anoint the bridge “The Verrazzano” in honor of the pioneering sailor who likely would have otherwise been a historical footnote. 

The Buttermilk Channel

The Buttermilk Channel was granted its name by Dutch farmers who joked the choppy waterway would churn their milk into buttermilk.Heritage Art/Heritage Images via

Colonial villagers sailed across the narrow tidal strait between Governors Island and Red Hook while transporting milk from their farms in Brooklyn to be sold at the markets in Manhattan.

The mouth-puckering moniker was inspired by the choppy currents in the mile-long waterway. “They’d joke that the turbulent water was so rough, it would churn their milk into buttermilk,” Jelly-Schapiro told The Post.