Residents Fight against Neighborhood Rebranding

(Photo via El Diario)

First there was “Nolita,” “Dumbo,” “SoBro,” and now there is “SoHa.” These are the nicknames that real estate agencies and businesses are using in a number of neighborhoods across the Big Apple with the purpose of making them more “attractive” and drawing in new residents, generally of a higher purchasing power.

However, this past week, residents of South Harlem took to the streets along with elected officials and community leaders to send an emphatic message to people who have a commercial interest in the area: “No ‘SoHa’!” The community categorically opposes having the area between East 125th and East 96th Streets and West 110th Street promoted with the abbreviated name.

For families who have lived there for decades, the name only takes away the area’s identity as a part of Harlem. They consider it utterly “disrespectful.”

“This is an arrogant and disrespectful attempt to make a profit and promote the area among people who do not really appreciate or understand the value and contributions that Harlem has made to U.S. culture,” said John Lynch, vice president of Manhattan’s Community Board 10, to El Diario.

“I feel insulted because this is our community,” said June Broxton, who has lived on 117th Street for over 10 years. “They are trying to put that ‘SoHa’ name everywhere, but South Harlem does not exist. There is an East, West and Central Harlem, but no South Harlem,” she said.

Equally uncompromising was her friend Joy Williams, also a resident of the area. “What they are trying to do is push middle- and low-income families out of here to essentially turn the city into a place for people with high incomes,” she said.

South Harlem residents Joy Williams and June Broxton oppose people calling their neighborhood “SoHa.” (Photo via El Diario)

Increasingly expensive

The two women have seen how living in Harlem has become increasingly expensive over time. “It is more expensive for tenants and for homeowners. And I feel that what we need to focus on is on permanently affordable housing,” insisted Williams, adding that renting a one-bedroom apartment could easily cost $2,200. “And it is microscopic compared to other places.”

Ernesto Visoso, from Mexico, has worked at a laundry on 115th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard for eight years and has witnessed how the neighborhood has been slowly changing. “There are new buildings, new stores, new people, and some people who lived here for a long time have moved away,” he said.

Ernesto Visoso has worked in this area of Harlem for more than eight years. (Photo via El Diario)

Those opposing the name “SoHa” are not against the economic development of the area. Rather, they say that they want to keep its identity. Community Board 10 member Danni Tyson, even though she is a realtor herself, opposes using the nickname to promote the area among prospective owners and tenants. “We will not allow this to continue happening. We’re going to stop it now.”

“No real estate agency, no coffee shop, no business should be using the term ‘SoHa’ to refer to Harlem because this is our home, this is our culture and this is a place that people visit.”

City Comptroller Scott Stringer joined the sentiment. “What ‘SoHa’ represents is the acknowledgement that real estate developers are capable of displacing residents.”

Stringer expressed his concern that this situation is being repeated all over New York City. “We see it every day. We see how they rename our communities. But what they are really doing is displacing the longtime residents of these areas.”

A law to end the trend

As the trend to change the names of some city neighborhoods becomes more common, newly-elected state Sen. Brian Benjamin made a commitment to act to end the situation. “My intention is to introduce legislation in the State Senate – similar to the one introduced by Hakeem Jeffries – to demand the participation of the community in any name change proposed for neighborhoods in our state,” he said. “If anyone is going to change Harlem’s name, it will be its residents, not newcomers.”

In 2011, then-State Assemblymember Jeffries introduced a bill in Albany to “prohibit the renaming or re-designating” of a neighborhood without first requesting the participation of the area’s community boards.

According to legislative documents, the justification for the initiative is that “realtors are artificially inflating housing prices […] to the detriment of working families and middle class residents,” and that “prospective homebuyers and tenants are compelled to pay higher rents or purchase prices than they might otherwise confront” when these “appealing” names are used.

Still, the piece of legislation was stalled in the Committee on Local Governments and was never voted on by the full assembly. State Assemblymember Robert Rodríguez, who has also followed the issue closely, said that he is willing to promote the bill again if necessary. “This is happening in every borough, and we are going to look into the best way to forbid and penalize people who are changing our neighborhoods’ names,” he said.

The legislator agreed that New Yorkers must have an active role in any modification proposed for the area where they live. “Any changes need to be in the hands of the community,” he concluded.

Real estate developers promote their projects under the name “SoHa.” (Photo via El Diario)

Residents fight back

Harlem residents are not the only ones fighting back to prevent realtors from promoting their neighborhoods with different names. It has been a long struggle for Bronx residents who for years have opposed the nickname “SoBro” for the South Bronx. Other examples with varying degrees of success have appeared in areas such as Crown Heights – nicknamed “ProCro” – and “Nolita,” for the northern part of Little Italy, as well as Sunset Park, for which the name “Greenwood Heights” is being promoted, referring to its proximity to the Green-Wood Cemetery.

None of these attempts has stuck the way the now famous SoHo – for “south of Houston Street – or TriBeCa – for “triangle below Canal Street – did. Both abbreviations have taken their own identity, been consolidated over the years and are now recognized by New Yorkers and foreigners alike.

Other name changes

  • NoHo: North of Houston Street
  • Dumbo: Down Under the Manhattan Bridge
  • DoBro: Downtown Brooklyn
  • NoMa: North of Manhattan (for the Riverdale area of The El Bronx)
  • SoBro: South Bronx (Port Morris area)
  • SoPA: South of Port Authority
  • HellChe: Area between the south of Hell’s Kitchen and the north of Chelsea
  • ProCro: Crown Heights
  • Nolita: North of Little Italy
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