Holding the line: Brian Benjamin sees the nickname SoHa as an attack on Harlem’s history.
An ongoing brouhaha over what to call a section of Harlem is the latest battle in a long-running war over neighborhood naming rights.
A Harlem businessman in 2010 trademarked the term SoHa with plans to print T-shirts and promote southern Harlem as a residential and retail destination. Now the community board is trying to compel Paul Phillips to enforce that trademark in order to ban developers and real estate brokerages from using SoHa, a moniker it says deliberately diminishes the area’s past.
“Harlem has a rich political and cultural history, but there is also another history of rundown streets and crime,” said board chair Brian Benjamin, who is leading the fight against SoHa. “These people are trying to separate the two legacies for those who spent a lot of money on condos and brownstones and think of Harlem as a bad word.”
Arguments over what New York’s neighborhoods are called, where they start and end, and who has the right to say so are as old as the city itself. But the battles lately have become much more sophisticated. Mapping software, government approvals and even federal courts are being employed by various factions looking to demarcate the city to suit their interests. Neighborhood names and boundaries are not officially recorded by the city and largely exist as a matter of collective opinion that evolves over the years. Real estate developers, however, have had an outsize hand in christening New York’s neighborhoods since much of the city was once vacant land that they could simply buy
“While we are not opposed to new investment and economic opportunities for Harlem families, we fear that this effort to rebrand Harlem will have a number of serious negative consequences,” Benjamin wrote in an email to Phillips.
It’s unclear when the term SoHa was first uttered. The New York Times ran a story on the nickname in 1999, tracing its origins to a bar with that name that opened two years earlier on Amsterdam Avenue. In 2007 sales launched at a 92-unit condominium calling itself SoHa 118, near the corner of Frederick Douglass Boulevard and West 118th Street. The developers billed the project as “the face of South Harlem.” Last year listings website StreetEasy added South Harlem as a distinct neighborhood in its database. And earlier this year, the community board began publicly expressing its displeasure with a group of brokers at Keller Williams who were calling themselves the SoHa Team, referring to the more than 80 blocks bounded by 125th Street, Park Avenue and Central and Morningside parks the group was charged with marketing.
The community board argues that these streets have long been part of Central Harlem, which stretches between Morningside Park and Fifth Avenue from 110th Street to the Harlem River at around West 155th Street. Since 2000 this area has experienced the second-largest average rent increase in the city, according to NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. At a rise of nearly 45%, the neighborhood was outpaced only by Williamsburg. That dramatic change has made the push to rebrand Harlem sting even more, a sentiment expressed in a resolution the board passed earlier this month: “Efforts to alter and rebrand Central Harlem for profit are arrogant and disrespectful and an affront to generations of Harlem residents who invested blood, sweat and tears to make Harlem what it is.”
Such outrage doesn’t end in Harlem. Earlier this year Bronx residents held a rally against a development at the borough’s southern edge, taking issue with efforts by Somerset Partners and Chetrit Group to create something called the Piano District in a section of Mott Haven. That neighborhood was created by Jordan Mott, an iron tycoon who purchased a large tract of land there in the 1800s, according to Lloyd Ultan, official historian for the Bronx. Ultan has a saying about his borough’s neighborhoods: “The only boundaries everybody agrees on are on City Island.”
Over the past decade, key new players have emerged in the great neighborhood debate: listings websites, which increasingly serve as primary resources for apartment hunters. As such, these digital databases can quickly alter the perception of a property’s value depending on where they draw a neighborhood’s boundaries. In 2014, for example, developer Ben Shaoul inked a deal to buy an art deco office building on Manhattan’s West Side between Barclay and Vesey streets that he planned to turn into luxury condos. According to maps on StreetEasy at the time, the building was located in the northern part of the Financial District. But less than two weeks later, StreetEasy shrunk the boundaries of that neighborhood by two blocks. That put Shaoul’s project in TriBeCa, the most expensive housing market in the city, putting his high-end listings more in line with the area’s $3.8 million median sale price, which is more than double that of the Financial District. Naturally, the building’s TriBeCa location was part of Shaoul’s marketing pitch.
A spokeswoman for StreetEasy would not comment on that specific shift, but did say that the company has never moved a neighborhood boundary to appease a developer. Instead, its data team mulls over requests for changes to its maps each quarter and compares them with other neighborhood identifiers such as ZIP codes, school districts, geographic boundaries and shifts in common usage that happen over time. If all those factors point toward the same change, StreetEasy will update its maps.
The southern border of TriBeCa has long been Chambers Street but is now mapped several blocks south to Vesey Street or Barclay Street by brokerages and listings sites such as Compass, the Corcoran Group and Trulia.
The same change occurred on Wikipedia in 2011. After a weeks-long, behind-the-scenes argument between the TriBeCa entry’s editors, one pointed out that real estate sources were being cited for the switch. That might provide insight into StreetEasy’s rationale for moving the area’s southern border, while the serpentine boundary line on the neighborhood’s east side, which makes six turns between Worth and Canal streets, could be based on a historic district there.
Hendecagon below Canal
The above map shows StreetEasy’s current delineation of TriBeCa. See the areas that were added between 2014 and today, delivering a benefit to developer Ben Shaoul. With 11 distinct sides, the Triangle Below Canal resembles a triangle in name only.
Using an internet archive called the Wayback Machine, Crain’s looked at the neighborhood maps used by StreetEasy between 2014 and today, and found that the site had also shifted a handful of other borders. East Harlem got bigger, while Central Harlem shrunk. The Civic Center (a rarely cited lower Manhattan neighborhood that encompasses City Hall) grew smaller by a block. And the demarcation between Brooklyn Heights and Dumbo moved north, placing part of Brooklyn Bridge Park and a condo project called Pierhouse in Brooklyn Heights.
StreetEasy and many others also have embraced novel neighborhood names that have found their way into wide usage. The Related Cos., for instance, is creating Hudson Yards out of whole cloth by decking over rail yards on Manhattan’s West Side and constructing a mix of office and residential buildings. After Trinity Church and a group of property owners converted a cluster of industrial buildings to offices in what was once known as the Printing District in the early 2000s, they created a new neighborhood by using city rules to establish a business-improvement district. After drawing up plans blessed by the Department of Small Business Services, the Hudson Square Connection BID was approved by the City Council in 2009. Four years later the area was rezoned to allow for residential development.
But defining even these brand-new neighborhoods has sparked arguments. “Some people say [Hudson Square] goes up to Morton Street, and some people say it goes to Leroy Street,” said Ellen Baer, the BID’s chief executive. “We think it goes naturally to Clarkson Street because of the building types and uses, which is what we think defines the neighborhood.” The organization is currently petitioning the City Council to expand the BID’s—and in theory the neighborhood’s—boundaries.
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the board is that the use of SoHa has already spread well beyond real estate listings. Harlem residents can shop at SoHa Square Market and SoHa Style Furniture, and eat at Max SoHa, all of which serve as proof that new neighborhood names have a tendency to evolve all on their own.
The ever-shifting nature of neighborhood nomenclature helps explain the reticence of Manhattan Borough Historian Michael Miscione to weigh in on the topic. “As a standing policy,” Miscione wrote in an email, “I refuse to say anything about neighborhood ‘names’ or ‘boundaries.’ (Note quotes.)”
A version of this article appears in the April 24, 2017, print issue of Crain’s New York Business as “You are where?”.
Article by Joe Anuta. April 23, 2017