The difficulty in naming urban neighborhoods

It is not easy to name every neighborhood of New York City:

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.

This raises a whole host of questions:

  1. Who gets to name the neighborhood? The article mentions several actors including residents and those in real estate but I could also imagine local officials might want a say. The gatekeepers of neighborhood naming have the power to define a place for years to come.
  2. How long does it take for a name to change? Even if it is a relatively short official process – say the city changes it on its official maps – it may take years before residents and others know and use the new name.
  3. How often can the name for a neighborhood change? Urban neighborhoods can be very fluid yet switching names too often will simply confuse people.
  4. How easy is it to define the boundaries of the named place, particularly if things are changing? Each neighborhood is also affected by the activity of the neighborhoods around them.

It would be interesting to compare these processes across major cities. For example, compare Chicago with its well-defined community areas (little major change in names or boundaries since the early 1900s) to New York City or a booming city in the developing world.

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