Why Neighborhood Nicknames Matter

They can have a big impact on economic fortunes and social cohesion, which explains the controversy that often surrounds them.
October 2017
(Shutterstock)
Alan Ehrenhalt
By Alan Ehrenhalt  |  Senior Editor

Twenty years or so ago, working on a book about the Chicago of the 1950s, I spent some reporting time in Bronzeville, the neighborhood that had been the segregated but vibrant home base of the city’s African-American population from the 1920s through the 1960s. I was surprised to find that a friend of mine who had grown up nearby claimed not to be familiar with the name. “Bronzeville?” she said. “Don’t believe I’ve heard that one.”

Thinking about it some more, I began to understand how the name Bronzeville got lost. It was a symbol not only of segregation, but of the innumerable indignities that people of color were forced to endure in the Chicago of the early- and mid-20th century. When things started to open up in later years, and black people could live and shop and play pretty much where they chose, the last thing they wanted to be reminded of was the confinement they had just escaped from. If they knew the old name, which most of them probably did, they preferred not to use it. Bronzeville was a ghetto name. The ghetto was over.

Recalling all this, I find it comforting to see that in the new century, Bronzeville has sprouted back to life as an emblem of ethnic and community pride. There are guided tours, summer art fairs, blues festivals, and cool places to eat and drink, some of them trading on historical neighborhood themes. The name itself has been central to the neighborhood’s revival.

One of the many lessons to be learned from Bronzeville is that as generations pass, history that was once depressing can become the locus of community pride. Another is that what residents decide to call their community can make a great deal of difference to its economic fortunes and social cohesion.

That last point has come up repeatedly in the last few months in a battle over what name to use for a portion of Harlem, perhaps the only historic black community in America that is even more iconic than Bronzeville. It turns out that Keller-Williams, the giant real estate company with a heavy presence in Manhattan, had started marketing properties at the southern end of the neighborhood (between 110th and 125th streets) under the name SoHa, a sort of code name for “southern Harlem.” The company never gave a clear reason for why it was doing this, but local residents nearly all believed that it was an attempt to attract affluent white people who were uneasy about buying into Harlem’s dangerous reputation.

It didn’t take long for a storm of protest to develop. Street corner rallies were organized. Op-eds were published in the city’s newspapers. A state senator from Harlem, Brian Benjamin, introduced a bill in the legislature that would create a city office of neighborhood naming and punish businesses that “advertise a property as part of, or located in, a designated neighborhood that is not traditionally recognized as such.”

The Benjamin bill didn’t go anywhere, and likely would have encountered First Amendment problems if it had. But it served to reinforce the widespread belief that a neighborhood’s name belongs to its residents, not to the real estate industry. For outsiders to come in and give it a new name is insulting. The company caved. In July, it announced that it would be putting SoHa away in a drawer until further notice.

Insults and racism aside, however, New York City has been on a neighborhood rebranding binge since the early 1960s, when an urban planner named Chester Rapkin decided he could save a dingy old warehouse district in lower Manhattan by rechristening it SoHo, for “south of Houston Street.” Within less than a decade, warehouses once threatened with demolition were turned into condominium lofts, artists moved into them in droves and the whole place became a tourist attraction. Today, very few working artists can afford to live in SoHo.

Why a simple name change worked so well was never entirely clear, but it provoked a flurry of imitation. SoHo begat Tribeca (Triangle below Canal), Tribeca begat NoLita (north of Little Italy) and real estate brokers all over the city started trying to find similar magic in nearly every neighborhood where the market needed a boost. Not all of them succeeded: BoHo wasn’t a very attractive name for Bowery below Hudson, and SoBro for the South Bronx was too big a stretch for most tastes. It sounded like a bunch of jocks who had vowed to quit drinking. But the fad itself had staying power. Rapkin had proved, in the words of urban writer Kevin Deutsch, “that you can essentially call a neighborhood into existence with sheer will, imagination and a catchy acronym.”

Some of the new names teetered for years on the cusp of popular acceptance. Brooklynites who live “down under the Manhattan Bridge overpass” have grudingly come around to saying they live in Dumbo. But the most interesting of these involved a nondescript swatch of light industrial territory just north of Manhattan’s Madison Square Park. It had no history of neighborhood cohesion to speak of. In 1999, real estate brokers decided to name these few square blocks “NoMad.” The New York Times picked up on it, and headlined one article, “The Trendy Discover NoMad Land, and Move In.” The fad didn’t last. By 2001, the term had fallen into almost complete disuse. Local residents said it sounded too much like No Man’s Land.

But seven years later, an ambitious developer opened a hotel in the middle of the district, and to give his project a little pizazz, resurrected NoMad to describe the surrounding area. Within months, Britain’s Guardian newspaper was calling NoMad “a hipster hub in midtown Manhattan.”

This time, the name stuck. Within just a few years, NoMad had acquired an identity pervasive enough that its leaders decided to apply for historic district status. Sadly for them, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission turned down the application earlier this year. But it’s hard to escape Deutsch’s lesson that with enough effort, a name can create a community.

New York is clearly the rebranding capital of the United States right now, but the strategy has taken root in many other cities. A few months back, San Francisco, which coined a hit years ago by calling the area south of Market Street “SoMa,” spent $70,000 on a project to find a name and build a neighborhood identity for the cluster of downtown office buildings and high-rise condos known to residents mostly as “the area around the transit center.” The name the city came up with was East Cut. How this could be a prizewinner is a puzzling question, and some of the residents pointed out that the territory was once called “Rincon Hill,” and would be better off going back to that. But they didn’t prevail.

 

Over the years, there’s been a fair amount of research on neighborhood identity, and while there’s no consensus on what makes for a strong one, there’s general agreement that commonly accepted names and boundaries bring an enhanced sense of community and lead to a higher level of citizen engagement.

Chicago is often described as a city of neighborhoods, and that is a fair description. What’s less well known is that the city’s strong neighborhood identities are the product of work done by sociologists at the University of Chicago in the 1920s. They created a city map that delineated 77 precisely defined communities, each with a name that the residents could use to place themselves. Those names have been an important part of the city’s culture ever since. When Barack Obama was elected president, journalists reported that he owned a home in Hyde Park, a well-known neighborhood on the city’s South Side. But some locals pointed out that the Obama house wasn’t really in Hyde Park -- it was in Kenwood, a half-block outside the Hyde Park border. People in Chicago know things like that.

Chicago’s neighborhood naming system has generated a few imitators, most notably an effort a few years ago by a citizens’ group in Indianapolis, one that included Governing columnist Aaron M. Renn. The group felt that the city was weak in neighborhood identity and, as a result, was lagging behind in civic participation. So it produced a Chicago-style map with precise boundaries and precise names. “Where there weren’t well-defined neighborhoods, we created them,” Renn told CityLab in 2012. The project didn’t carry official government sanction, but today the neighborhood map is posted on the wall in cafés and stores, and, in the words of principal mapmaker Josh Anderson, it has given cohesion to parts of the city once known only by “neighborhood diehards.”

The liveliest running debate about neighborhood identity, however, revolves around the question of what size the ideal neighborhood should be. The pioneering urbanist Jane Jacobs argued in the 1960s that most of them were too small, unable to muster the energy and clout they needed to negotiate with city government. But most current scholarly opinion is on the other side of this issue, arguing that smaller communities create more loyalty and cohesion. “The greatest deficiency in neighborhood names,” the urbanist David Boehlke wrote in 2013, “is that they refer to places that are just too large, places that people can’t identify with. … Neighborhood naming is a core aspect of economic renewal. It must be done with care.”

We all know what Shakespeare said about roses. You can call them anything you want and it won’t affect the fragrance. That’s probably true of a lot of things. It just doesn’t seem to be true of neighborhoods.