City Under Fire: Rebranding Neighborhood Names In New York City May Soon Be Illegal

New York, USA – May 12, 2016: Bars and restaurants at Frederick Douglass Blvd at sunset on spring. Frederick Douglass Blvd is one of the main streets of Harlem.

(New York, NY) — New York City neighborhoods all have their own names. Some were the result of local artists who were known for making changes by abbreviation. SoHo, which stands for South of Houston, is one example.

However, most abbreviations and coinages were altered by real-estate brokerage firms and developers, as well as their marketing divisions. This has been happening for a long time. Some names have successfully stuck while other were quickly abandoned. Have you ever heard of NoBat, NoCal, BoHo, and GoCaGa? We think not. These names disappeared either because they sounded ridiculous or indecipherable. The names that stuck include, but are not limited to, Nolita (north of Little Italy), Tribeca (triangle below Canal), Dumbo (down under the Manhattan Bridge overpass) and the aforementioned SoHo.


All these names have been the result of the real estate industry trying to create cache for a neighborhood, including those that have actually never heard of the word gentrification. The practice of renaming is a way to rebrand an area as more desirable in a misguided effort to attract affluent New Yorkers.

New York City, NY, USA: View of Jersey street and Lafayette (NoLita). People cross the street. Guys on the floor across the street, working on the Ray Ban mural ad on wall. Mini scaffolding. Guy with ‘just do it’ back pack crosses street.

Behind these altered neighborhoods is a dirty way for brokers to make a profit. Real estate brokers coined the East Village in the 1960s and, as a result, it became a neighborhood of higher value in relation to those areas who were not subjected to a new acronym. Another example is NoLita, which, in the late 1990s, was rebranded and, as a result, the neighborhood underwent a successful gentrification and had a notable spike in buyers. In 1996, you could rent a studio for around $800 per month. Today, the neighborhood is prohibitively expensive, with monthly rentals soaring over $3,000 and more.

Now, the practice is under fire. The longstanding tradition of manufacturing or reinventing neighborhoods that historically had a widespread belief for being either undesirable and lacking in variety and interest is having such an impact now that the practice may soon be illegal.


A demonstration outside a Keller Williams real estate office hoping to capitalize on a nickname for part of Harlem. Photo Credit: New York Times, Maria Alejandra Cardona

Which brings us to our point. South Harlem, a neighborhood that many African Americans have called home, was recently changed to “SoHa.” Once again, a brokerage firm was behind the coinage. Keller Williams, one of the largest and most powerful New York City real-estate firm, was recently accused of the naming so that Harlem can appear to renters and buyers as a more appealing and a more affluent New York City neighborhood than it really is, based on the successful transition of neighborhoods like SoHo, Tribeca, and DUMBO. The move, which again is being driven by greed and profit, is an attempt to attract a different profile of people, such as high-paid executives and business men and women.
The problem is, the manufacturing of the name South Harlem has an effect that obscures racial history, a neighborhood that is the most diverse and iconic urban neighborhood in all five boroughs of New York. It is an affront to African Americans who live here, and the name has, in the ugliest way, singlehandedly erased and obscured their culture and rich background.

Now the tables have turned. The manipulation on behalf of real estate brokerage firms has been met with a massive backlash from neighbors and politicians.
Early last month, Representative Adriano Espaillat, who represents the 13th Congressional District, held a news conference outside the famed and iconic Apollo Theater and, according to the New York Times, said,

“Harlem is about an attitude, a personality, a legacy. It is the capital of the African diaspora in the world.”
Espaillat also told US News the following:

“I, along with leaders and constituents of this community, stand united to vigorously oppose the renaming of Harlem in yet another sanctioned gentrification.”

The affront has been met with so much opposition that Keller Williams was forced to drop the name.



Meanwhile State Senator Brian Benjamin, who was born in Harlem, is working to make the practice of rebranding historically recognized areas illegal, a formal protocol that would involve many higher-ups, including the mayor’s office and the City Council. He added that there would be penalties for real estate brokers and agents who advertise a property as part of, or located in, a designated neighborhood that is not traditionally recognized as such. In short, he wants the manufacturing to be illegal.


Recent renaming, which the New York Times succinctly said were complete “fiction,” will also be evaluated. This includes the abbreviation of “ProCro,” for Crown Heights in Brooklyn and the reclassification of Sunset Park, which is also in Brooklyn, to “Greenwood Heights.”

According to the New York Times, “Whatever may come of this action, it stands at least as a meaningful act of protest against an industry that has been given too much power over the character and configuration of neighborhoods populated by minorities.”

So far, Senator Benjamin’s proposal, which is called the “Neighborhood Integrity Act” has yet to be approved by the New York State Senate. Until the act is put into law, the rebranding of names for neighborhoods that sometimes exploits their past or violently obliterates its culture in one fell swoop, as in the case of South Harlem, will persist.

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