Understanding New York Lingo

By Bruce A. Smith

To better understand the lyrics in Alicia Keyes’ songs and other New York-based musicians, and to know where the action is talking place in about half of the cop shows on TV, ie: Law and Order, Blindspot, etc., we need to dig into New York terminology, geography and culture. We’re talking about my hometown.

NYC is New York City, which has five “boroughs:” Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and The Bronx.

Manhattan is an island, as is Staten Island. But, Brooklyn and Queens are the western-most parts of Long Island, and The Bronx is the only part of NYC on the American mainland. It is characterized facetiously as the southern-most tip of New England, too.

“The BQE” is the Brooklyn Queens Expressway; the “LIE,” is the Long Island Expressway, and the VZ Bridge (Verrazanno Bridge,) connects the BQE with the Staten Island Expressway.

Also, “The George,” aka the George Washington Bridge or GW Bridge – even GWB – and for some shock jocks on AM drive-time radio, the “Martha,” which is the “lower deck” of The George, which has a total of 12 lanes – six upper and six lower, across the Hudson River.

Remember, in New York, “JFK” is the airport, not the former president.

Advanced Info (thanks to my brother-in-law, Mark):

  1. Each borough is also a county, so one might hear references to King County (Brooklyn) or Richmond County (Staten Island).
  2. Brooklyn, where my B-I-L and my sister live, was once a separate city, until 1898. If it were to continue to be a separate entity it would be the fourth-most populated city in the country.
  3. The “RFK” is a bridge, not the former Attorney General and brother to JFK. The RFK used to be known as the Triborough Bridge, as it connects Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx.
  4. Similarly, the “FDR” is a road, not the former president, who incidentally was born in NYC and lived “upstate” in Hyde Park, NY. The NYC FDR is the highway on the east side of Manhattan and runs along the East River.
  5. Likewise, the 59th Street Bridge made popular by Simon and Garfunkel is now known as the Ed Koch Bridge, named after one of the most iconic mayors of NYC.
  6. Lastly, the “Hutch” is the Hutchinson River Parkway and runs north through the Bronx and into the suburban environs of Westchester, where plenty of Law and Order segments are filmed.

A little more:

“The City” is Manhattan. I’m going into the city today, means traveling into Manhattan, even if one is already in NYC technically, such as Brooklyn or Queens. Conversely, when someone in the city is going to Long Island the simply say, “The Island.”

However, if the need arises to use the full name of my land of my birth, please call Long Island, “Lon-GUY-land.” This way, Native New Yorkers will know what and where you’re talking about. In addition, going “Out East” means going out to the Hamptons or any of the general areas of the eastern parts of LI.

Trains vs. Subways. When one takes a “train” in NY it is above ground, such as the LIRR (Long Island Rail Road) or the Metro-North. When one takes a “subway,” it is a train that runs under ground, mostly, as subways elevate themselves for short periods of time. All subways have simple letter or numerical designations. As a result, Duke Ellington’s famous tune, “Take the A-Train,” is about a subway.

For old-timers, the subways are often called by their original names, such as the BMT (Brooklyn – Manhattan Transit) or the IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit) and their signage is still ubiquitous.

Food and Slang:

A “regular coffee” in a deli is a 12-ounce cup of drip with two spoonfuls of sugar and a splash of half-and-half.

A “slice” is a slice of pizza pie. New York is a haven for pizza, and one can walk into most pizza places and get a slice immediately without any waiting, unlike most other parts of the country. “Rosie’s” in Penn Station has so many pizza customers that they have a wide assortment of toppings ready to go by the slice, ie: all-cheese, all-veggie, pepperoni, etc.

My B-I-L would like you to know that traditionally the cost of a slice of NYC pizza has been the same as a subway token, which has been replaced by a Metrocard, which needs to be swiped at a subway gate. Hillary Clinton is not the only person to be befuddled by the Metrocard – me, too! – and there are special kiosks in major stations where folks with bungled Metrocards can get their magnetic/electronic mess straightened out.


Manhattan is divided into three districts: Lower Manhattan or “downtown,” which is the area around Wall Street and the World Trade Center complex.

Mid-Town is the central business district of Manhattan, and includes Times Square, Madison Square Garden, Penn Station and the LIRR, Trump Tower, and the fancy department stores, like Macy’s and Lord and Taylor.

Uptown is everything above Central Park, which starts at 59th Street and goes to about 100th St.

Also, there are sub-divisions: The Upper-Eastside is the fancy-schmancy residential district, east of Central Park and 5th Avenue, from the 50’s and up to the 90’s.

The Upper-Westside is on the opposite side of Central Park and is generally more middle class, but does include The Dakota, where John Lennon lived and died.

“Hell’s Kitchen” is the area west of Mid-Town and it used to be slummy in the old days. Now it’s getting gentrified.

“The Village” is Greenwich Village, and is the small area surrounding NYU and Washington Square Park in the general area of 8th St. The “East Village” is the bohemian district where hippies ruled in the 1960s and is known best for its “letter streets,” ie: A St, B St, etc. The “West Village” is where Bob Dylan hung out in the ’60s and is known as the residential and political center of gay culture.

“Chinatown” is south of The Village.

“Little Italy” is south of The East Village and north of Chinatown.

“Brighton Beach” is the Russian enclave in the southern-most portion of Brooklyn, and is known as “Little Odessa.” It is located on the ocean, and is next to Coney Island, which used to be a small, sandy island, but is now connected to the rest of Brooklyn and is also the western-most part of the sandy beaches of Long Island.

Harlem is the traditional home of African – Americans in Manhattan. “Bed-Stuy” aka Bedford Stuyvesant, is the hood in Brooklyn.

There are cultural and ethnic divides as well.

Manhattan is the cultural and financial hub of NYC, and arguably the world. Wall Street is in Manhattan, as is the UN. Museums abound. Broadway and the Theater District are located in Manhattan. The Knicks and the NY Rangers play in Mid-Town at the Madison Square Garden.

Staten Island is full of NYPD and NYFD personnel and their families. It is highly conservative, white, and generally votes Republican. Queens is racially and ethnically diverse, and is mostly working-class. But Donald Trump grew up in the Jamaica Estates section of Queens, which is a ritzy section of town. The Mets play in Queens. LaGuardia Airport is located in the northern end of Queens, while JFK is in the southern-most part.

Brooklyn is a sprawling urban mix that is home to many different kinds of folks, from the poorest to the richest. It is also home to many professionals, such as teachers, who can’t afford to live in Manhattan, where the cost of living is extraordinary. “Red Hook” is an industrial section of Brooklyn along the waterways and is filled with warehouses and shipping facilities. It is a filming locale for a lot of movies and TV. The Nets and NY Islanders play in Brooklyn at the Barclay Center.

The Bronx is the poorest section of NYC. The police precinct known as “Fort Apache,” is in the “South Bronx,” which is the poorest of the poor. However, Yankees Stadium is located in the central portion of the Bronx.

Special Additions – Direct from my BIL:

The most diverse population in America is in Queens due to the large number of ethnically different neighborhoods.

Old neighborhoods are being renamed to suit the purpose of real estates agents. A part of Sunset Park in Brooklyn was carved out and called Greenwood Heights to separate it from the Latin American residents. NOLITO (North of Little Italy) was carved out from Little Italy. Tribeca and SoHo (south of Houston) were created from the old areas of South of Canal to make them more attractive. And of course there is DUMBO, Brooklyn. It’s an acronym for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, a very gentrified and yuppified area.

Many of the old ethnic neighborhoods of NYC are dying out. You can identify the ethnic group that used to live there by the old churches.

Yorkville, in Manhattan, has a small population of German and Central Europeans. The apartment in “I Love Lucy” was in Yorkville.

Williamsburg in Brooklyn, aka “Willieburg” is now hipster heaven. Some Poles and Lithuanians still live there. The Slovaks have left, though there is still a large Czech and Slovak area in Astoria, Queens surrounding the Bohemian Beer Garden. A large Greek populations lives there as well, as do large numbers of Italians.

Carol Gardens still has a good-sized population from Italy, but many of the old neighborhoods, such as Gowanus in Brooklyn, are being gentrified. Still Gowanus lays claim to the oldest Italian restaurant in Brooklyn. Newer generations of Italians have moved farther south to Dyker Heights, which is closer to the Verrazanno Bridge.

Hassidic Jews are in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Prospect Heights, Midwood and Williamsburg. In 1947 there were more Jews in NYC than in Palestine. On Saturday afternoons, the Sabbath, the streets of Midwood are vacant and the the shops are closed.

5th Avenue in Sunset Park is filled with Latino Shops and restaurants. The Jackie Gleason bus depot is located there, and the “Honeymooners” lived in nearby Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.

NYC has three major Chinatowns. The oldest is in Manhattan where most of the tourists go. It is slowly expanding and devouring neighboring sections of Little Italy. As far as variety of foods and shopping go, the Chinatown is now considered to be in Flushing, in central Queens, where the 7-Train terminates, which is often called “The Orient Express.” In Brooklyn, its Sunset Park neighborhood is NYC’s third Chinatown, and most of the shops and restaurants are along 8th and 9th Avenues.

There are also large South Asian neighborhoods. Little India is on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan between 25th and 29th Streets. An even larger collection of shops and restaurants are located in Jackson Heights in Queens, whereas Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn is lined with numerous South Asian establishments.

Little Korea is located in Manhattan on 32nd and 33rd Streets between Broadway and 5th Avenue.

The famous “Diamond District,” where many heists are re-enacted for TV, is in Manhattan on 47th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. Little Brazil is one block south on 46th Street, also between 5th and 6th.

Further south, surrounding 23rd Street and over to 7th Ave, lies the Chelsea section of Manhattan, the long-time nexus of literary publishing.

Little Scandinavia is in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and still exists despite the intrusion of the BQE plowing through it.

The area along Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, south of Prospect Park, is heavily populated with folks from the Caribbean Islands, especially Jamaica and Haiti. Every Sunday members of these communities gather in Prospect Park at the Drummer’s Grove for a jam session, which often includes a variety of drums.

NEXT: Hollywood, Los Angeles, and California

To better understand American pop culture we need to know the nitty-gritty of LA. For instance, where the hell is Ventura Highway? Or where is the Valley, where the Valley girls are from? Some of us are truly lost, so if any native Angelenos would like to educate the readers of the Mountain News, please let me know – BAS.

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11 Responses to Understanding New York Lingo

  1. Jane says:

    Wow…we live in northern Minnesota, in the woods, with deer and woodpecker and owl and eagle and squirrel and raccoon and pheasant and coyote and grouse and porcupine and hawks and lots of birds and lots of bugs/butterflies when in season…what a ‘difference’ in neighborhoods! 💖

  2. kitcatalina says:

    Here’s a book to read: 97 Orchard.

  3. brucesmith49 says:

    Editor’s Note:

    The following additions come from ” Steve-o”:

    “LaGuardia” references NYC’s other major airport serving domestic and North American destinations, not the former Mayor.

    The “PATH” is the Port Authority Trans-Hudson underground train system in lower Manhattan connecting to New Jersey, not a foot path.

    The “Port Authority” is the bus and NJ transit train terminal on the west side, not the government entity.

    “30 Rock” is not just the name of a TV program, rather the center & tallest building of Rockefeller Center.

    Fabulous, loved this! – thanks for sharing.
    If you do San Francisco, would love to contribute.

  4. Jane says:

    This kind of conversation amazes me…I have never traveled to the cities you discribe with the people and houses and landscape. Even living in the St.Paul/Minneapolis area…I never ventured in very far, just drove through getting to another point. Didn’t like all the concrete and it seemed heavy/dead to me. Reading your story makes me wonder if ‘I’ missed something/opportunity to know more? Maybe? However the city never interested me…so did I really miss something? I will follow your stories and the other readers input and travel the adventure that way…through your words and my imagination💫 P.S. I didn’t mention the bear and fox and skunk AND we do have some ‘bullies’ living on our block/turf…Ticks and Mosquitoes can be so mean and naughty to us and our pets! We take them on in the same manner as any bully in NYC I am sure! 💖Jane

    • brucesmith49 says:

      Every environment can have its troubling side. The last year I worked as a full-time investigative reporter for the Eatonville Dispatch, 2009-2010, we had ten homicides or other deaths by violence.

  5. Jane says:

    So, I am very glad to report in the Northland…our homicides and or death by violence ARE the ticks and mosquitoes. I am in no way being disrespectful…just ‘light-hearted’! Where we live it is not so much people/places/things/times/events…there is so much more to contemplate/embrace with nature and not the cities with humankind/conflicts. We pick our situations accordingly…yes?💖

    • brucesmith49 says:

      Yes. We chose our realities, or more accurately, we see what we hope or want to see. When I was a reporter, I wanted to know all of the grittier side of life. As a mystic-in-training who lived in the woods, I communed mostly with trees. One of the best Christmases I have ever had was a Christmas afternoon I spent deep in the snows of Mount Rainier while in the company of a large Doug Fir.

  6. Jane says:

    I will reply with one of your favorite quotes…”YUP”! ✨🎄

  7. Don and Ange says:

    Great piece, Bruce. Really enjoyed it.

    I used to test people I suspected were from LI by asking them to say “orange”. If they replied “ahR-ange”, invariably, they were from lon-GUY-land. 🙂

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