Back in the day, before the trendy Northeast Washington, D.C., neighborhood NoMa was a thing, it was a post-industrial area in the shadow of Union Station. James Curtis, founder and managing partner of real estate firm The Bristol Group, says there only were three “landmarks” to speak of in the 1990s: a McDonalds, a Greyhound station and a methadone clinic.
“It was kind of like the moon. There were a lot of completely vacant lots — no buildings even. [They] had been knocked down. Just huge swaths of land,” says Curtis.
The General Services Administration, which manages procurement and acquires property for federal agencies, stipulates that government office space must be within 2,640 feet of a Metro stop. While the southern edge of the section was mere blocks from the Capitol, the heart of the area was located almost a mile from the nearest transit station, hovering around the GSA’s limit. So, Curtis and his colleagues at the Bristol Group hatched a plan to rejuvenate the tract through transit-oriented development. Working in concert with partners from the private and public sector, they envisioned a vibrant, redeveloped neighborhood with its own train stop, which opened in 2004, and a new name: North of Massachusetts Avenue.
“Being in San Francisco, there was SoMa, which is South of Market,” says Curtis. “And then I was dating a girl in New York City, so I was down in SoHo all the time. We had to come up with something, so I said, ‘Well, what about NoMa?’”
The Bristol Group created neighborhood maps to illustrate their hopes for what NoMa could be. Curtis says the firm has worked on redevelopment projects that have made a point to honor neighborhood history, but that local heritage didn’t play much of role in previously desolate NoMa’s christening. But that doesn’t mean that the name hasn’t managed to catch some D.C. residents off guard.
The Washington Post reported earlier this month that new arrivals were reconfiguring the city’s (traditionally thought to be black) voting blocs, and named NoMa as the center of the surge. The Bristol Group’s early maps focused on a 55-acre tract behind Union Station, eight acres of which the firm owned. The domain that some Northeast D.C. residents might describe today, which Curtis supposes is closer to 400 acres now, reaches northward into the Eckington section of town. The 2011 renaming of the transit stop that Curtis pushed for, from New York Avenue-Florida Avenue-Gallaudet University to NoMa-Gallaudet U, has further legitimized the appellation, but it’s also opened it up to more criticism.
“Neighborhood name battles have been an old parlor game in the District for some time. And it can be a good time,” Clinton Yates wrote for The RootDC in 2012. “But this two syllable-compass-style naming trend has to go. I can hear it now: ‘Yeah, I had lunch in SoMo, before hopping on CaBi to a meeting in NoMa. Might hit a party in SoNYA tonight.’ Stop it.”
An interesting paper published in late February in the Urban Affairs Review explored how residents in gentrifying areas identify their neighborhoods. Jackelyn Hwang, the Harvard doctoral student who authored the study, focused on South Philadelphia and found that many African-American residents resisted new names, preferring to identify with “South Philadelphia” as a section and speak to the area’s history. In contrast, white newcomers were more likely to identify with subneighborhoods, drawing inconsistent boundaries that revealed imagined communities, often separated by class.
“It’s a funny topic of conversation because the area is not really South Philly … ” one respondent told Hwang. “Psychologically, I’m in Center City,” explained another.
“A lot of [the new arrivals] were trying to come up with a name that matched up with how they saw themselves as people in the neighborhood, and carving up their own sense of belonging,” says Hwang. “There wasn’t necessarily a malicious intent of excluding other people, or at least that’s not what it seemed. But from the other side, a lot of longtime residents really felt like it was.”
Hwang conducted her fieldwork in 2006; it is of note that South Philadelphia has seen more gentrification and new, niche neighborhood designations since. John Betancur, an urban planning and policy professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, thought of 11 examples of recently renamed sections in Chicago alone before saying, “You know, it’s all over the place.”
Rebranding and renaming efforts have become something of a calling card for gentrification. In 2011, then New York State Assembly Hakeem Jeffries proposed the Neighborhood Integrity Act to restrict developers from concocting new names without community involvement. (The bill would eventually founder in the state legislature.) An op-ed in La Voz, a bilingual Spanish-English newspaper based in Denver, commented on gentrifiers referring to the Northside, a Chicano stronghold, by a historical name, the Highlands.
“There are those who find it objectionable to market the Northside by any other name. These feelings are however a manifestation of a deeper pain that threatens the very essence of an identity forged with so much sacrifice in the social and political arenas that continues today,” wrote David Conde. “I do not begrudge those who seek to live in the Northside. I just wish that they respect the fact that words are important.”
While an overall dread for the g-word can be observed in news articles, forums and community meetings, the popularity of new neighborhood names reflects a desire to create distance from old stigmas, and in the process, local character too. The old guard may find this “alienating,” explains Hwang, as legacies and conventions they may cherish appear snubbed. Betancur notes that it might read to some longtime residents as prejudice veiled under a different “code.”
When LPMG Companies started to rebrand a portion of South Philadelphia in the mid 2000s, it was because president and founder John Longacre felt that the strip needed more of an identity. At the time (and still to this day) some people might have called it the eastern edge of Point Breeze. Longacre says he sought the input and support of local organizations like the Point Breeze CDC and Neighbors in Action before calling the area by his new coinage: Newbold.
According to Longacre, things went south — or rather east and west — after a new group, the Newbold Neighbors Association, started to use the name beyond its originally designated limits. “I told them at the time it was craziest thing I had ever heard. ‘There’s like 75 associations that have been around forever. There’s a lot of sensitivity with that — what are you doing?’” Longacre says LPMG has disassociated itself from NNA. “Back then the only answer we could find for why they extended their boundaries that way was, ‘Because we have friends up there.’ Okay, so you have friends in Point Breeze. I don’t get it.”
Why do names like NoMa and Newbold seem to spread onto other areas? Saying that strong marketing extends “experiences,” Curtis likens the process to sand being added to an hourglass, or what he calls “the branding jar.” NoMa, he says, “just kept building and building.”
But also, pliable boundaries, radiating use of trendy new labels and overlapping domains may signal how communities have become more diverse, but have yet to cohere completely.
“How we make sense of our identity has a lot to do with race and class in American society and highly segregated cities,” says Hwang. “As these neighborhoods change, I think identity by race and class becomes really salient.”
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Cassie Owens is a regular contributor to Next City. Her writing has also appeared at CNN.com, Philadelphia City Paper and other publications.