Naming New York’s Neighborhoods
Some names stick. Others are too silly
Harlem’s Apollo Theatre, where Ella Fitzgerald first sang, and the Hotel Theresa, which counted among its guests Josephine Baker, Muhammad Ali and Fidel Castro, are landmarks. Malcolm X, who called Harlem “Seventh Heaven”, preached on the corner of 116th Street. Stretching further back, in the 1920s and 1930s the Harlem Renaissance gave rise to an outpouring of literature, art and music. Harlemites are proud of this history, and proportionately upset that estate agents are trying to rebrand the southern part and call it SoHa.
Such rebranding is nothing new: New York was once called Nieuw Amsterdam and before that Mannahatta. Pigtown, in central Brooklyn, is now called Wingate. Gas House District is now Stuyvesant Town. Yellow Hook became Bay Ridge after a yellow-fever outbreak. Bloomingdale became the Upper West Side. Neighbourhoods can be fluid, with vague borders. Some have disappeared. Shapes change: in Brooklyn, Park Slope keeps getting bigger and Flatbush keeps getting smaller. Chinatown has been taking over Little Italy.
SoHo, so-called because it is south of Houston Street, was better known until the 1960s as Hell’s Hundred Acres. It was the first to use an acronym, and has spawned imitators. Tribeca (triangle below Canal Street) emerged in the 1970s. Despite, or perhaps because of, its silly name, Dumbo (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) is one of the most sought-after areas in the city. NoHo (north of Houston) and NoLita (North of Little Italy) are now on maps. Others, like SoBro (south Bronx), BoCoCa (Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill and Boerum Hill, which is in fact flat) and Rambo (Right after the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), mercifully did not stick. “None of these worked,” says Philip Kasinitz, a sociologist at City University of New York. “At a certain point they got too silly.”
They also didn’t work, he says, because their residents objected. ProCro, a rebranding of Crown Heights, another historically black neighbourhood in Brooklyn, did not take either. Hell’s Kitchen is equally resilient. Attempts to change the name to the generic Clinton have not been successful. It is a lot easier to rebrand when there are few residents, as was the case in SoHo. Brokers also rely on recent arrivals not knowing the city well.
“You can’t talk about this without talking about race,” says Amy Plitt of Curbed, a property blog. Affluent white New Yorkers have flocked to Harlem, followed by restaurants, bars and shops. The stock of cheap housing has dwindled. Longtime residents, already feeling financial pressure, resent what they see as a deliberate move to erase their history. “It’s about identity,” said Brian Benjamin, a Harlem-born state lawmaker. He recently introduced legislation in Albany requiring estate agents to consult the community on any name change, or face a fine. Others see a clumsy attempt to link SoHa to SoHo in the minds of would-be buyers, making it cooler and justifying higher prices. But nowhere is cooler than Harlem.
This article was posted on The Economist and appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline”Harlem shuffle”