Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

What’s In a Name?

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One of the New York Times’ favorite activities is to discover places that are already inhabited and then rename them; effectively planting a flag out in the wild hinterlands of, well, New York City – but a New York City outside the purview of the metropole, ie: Manhattan south of 96th Street. Like urban pioneers, they are masters of all they survey, and the natives best scatter when they come to claim the “scene.”

Such gallant explorers coined a near standardized sobriquet that has become something of a running joke: Starting with SoHo in 1973 – formerly the Printing District, the Cast Iron District and, colorfully, when it was a no-man’s-land of heroin junkies and hookers, Hell’s Hundred Acres – came a cavalcade through the 70s and 80s: TriBeCa, NoHo, NoMad, NoLIta, and DUMBO. With each discovery quickly came Historic District status, ironically under a newly-coined moniker.

These modern conquistadors didn’t stop there. It’s not Harlem, it’s SoHa. It’s not Mott Haven, it’s SoBro.

Pretty much every time a neighborhood is “discovered,” it’s painted with a new name, and if the whole district can’t be claimed, it’s subdivided. NoLITa, which stands for North of Little Italy, used to just be Little Italy. The East Village, Alphabet City and the Bowery were just part of the Lower East Side. TriBeCa, which stands for Triangle Below Canal, is a moniker invented by the same folks who coined SoHo, yet it was formerly Washington Market and part of the same industrial belt that now sports such names as Hudson Place and NoHo (North of Houston). Once the New York Times picks it up, it’s practically official: The neighborhood thus changes.

Renaming can be relatively benign, as in the case of Morningside Heights, which has gone through a series of names – Harlem Heights, Riverside Heights, Cathedral Heights, Bloomingdale – before settling on the current one. It can also reflect a natural confluence, such as with Museum Mile, Ladies’ Mile, and the Garment District, the former Radio Row, Meatpacking District and Tenderloin, and the ever-expanding Chinatown.

But it can also be aggressive; a means to redefine an area that’s perhaps not yet transitioned: Bushwick becomes “East Williamsburg,” Bedford-Stuyvesant – a neighborhood that’s been unified for well over a century and a half – suddenly gets Stuyvesant Heights split off again, the village of Manhattanville is resurrected after being West Harlem since the city incorporated. Likewise it can be a means of landowners to ensure little further development and protect their fiefdoms, as is the case in the coinage of “Prospect Lefferts Gardens” in 1968 and of “Hudson Heights” in 1993. Nobody knows if “South Village” is even a thing, but it’s a now historic district.

On come the real estate speculators, and fast on their heels come the gentrifiers and transplanted preservationists.

As a form of astroturfing, it doesn’t always stick: Nobody in their right mind is going to call the South Bronx “SoBro,” nor will Hell’s Kitchen (formerly known simply as The West Side) ever truly be called Clinton (but that hasn’t stopped preservationists from stepping in). Furthermore, god knows why anybody would call Ridgewood “Quooklyn.”  But to name a place is to assume a form of ownership over it, especially when the place is already named. Whether it’s to obfuscate, as in the minor fiasco of “BedWick,” or to assert one’s grandeur, as in the case of “Jefftown,” it can be seen as an intent to impose one’s will upon a situation.

Therein lies the colonial nature of the act: Instead of becoming a citizen of the current reality, one creates a new one in their own image. The residents of Little Italy stood to lose their popular, long-running San Gennaro festival because the coterminous residents of NoLIta thought it too disruptive. The residents of Mount Morris Park Historic District sought to end the drum circles the coterminous residents of Harlem had in Marcus Garvey Park. For residents of East Williamsburg, Stop and Frisk was a fresh outrage. For residents of Bushwick, it was a long-standing reality.

It’s clear that names have power. It should then go without saying that one should hold anyone who wishes to rename an already-named place with deep suspicion, for at best it’s a claim of ownership. At worst it’s cultural whitewashing.

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