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It's time to stop NY's alphabet soup of neighborhood names

Jonathan P Hicks | 5/25/2011, 9:23 a.m.

New York City is a metropolis whose landscape and demographics are always in a state of change. What a neighborhood looks like one year typically bears little resemblance to how it will appear in 10 years, let alone in another generation. Yet the neighborhoods of our city develop strong identities and pronounced cultures, even in the midst of change. Just mention the name of a neighborhood in New York City and strong images come to mind, whether Harlem, Washington Heights, Flushing, Bedford-Stuyvesant or Crown Heights.

It's wonderful when neighborhood names and identities develop organically. However, there are some names that are calculated products of a real estate industry ever eager to make money at any cost, with disregard for whomever it might burden. They create brand-new nicknames, literally out of thin air, for areas within the well-established boundaries of existing neighborhoods in an effort to provide that vicinity a sufficient cachet to drive up rents and home prices. It's a practice that has become widespread and, frankly, mindlessly out of control.

But it works. A quadrant of, say, the South Bronx is becoming known as "SoBro," while a section within the southern blocks of Harlem is turning into "SoHa." This phenomenon seems to occur primarily in working-class and lower-income communities of color, areas where the nation's economic strain is felt with all its cruelty. More than anything, it signals to the newer class of urban pioneers that it's safe to start moving in, that all the accouterments of Upper West Side living aren't far behind. Outdoor dining is on the way, along with chic places to get a morning latte and scones.

No one in these neighborhoods mind a good muffin shop or sushi bar, but for the residents, it's become yet another callous force that causes their housing costs to spiral out of control, pricing them out of their homes. Meanwhile, it's another weight that makes the cost of doing business steadily out of reach for the local barbershop and beauty salon, for the longtime hardware shop and the corner storeowner.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with the transformation of neighborhood names. The problem here is the motive. Assemblyman Karim Camara said it best: "The people who drive the changing of the names are not the people who live there. They are the people who attempt to profit from changing the name."

Camara, who has studied this issue for a number of years, represents a district that includes the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Crown Heights, Prospect Lefferts Gardens and East Flatbush. It is also the district that includes a relatively new name concocted by the real estate folk: "ProCro," an area that includes a small terrain of Prospect Lefferts Gardens and Crown Heights.

What should be done about it? In a city where there are strict guidelines for issues that affect neighborhoods--from the height a building can stand to what a street no more than a block long can be named--it seems time to mandate a process under which realtors and developers can designate how they refer to a particular area.

That's the central point behind a bill introduced in Albany by Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, a Democrat from Brooklyn. The bill would require a process of approvals from community boards within New York's neighborhoods as well as the City Council and the mayor to determine neighborhood name changes.

Under that bill, there would be a fine and the possibility of license suspension for brokers who promoted properties by using non-sanctioned names pulled from thin air.

It's unclear what the chances of the bill might have in a legislature that includes a Republican-controlled Senate, where the real estate and developer industry carries an inordinate amount of weight. Moreover, the industry is certain to counter it by saying that it is preposterous to insist on developing official names of neighborhoods whose current boundaries are ill defined.

Still, for working-class and low-income New Yorkers, the people who remain deeply immersed and plagued by the nation's recession and feel most the vulnerable--and dispensable--any measure that would ease the difficulty of maintaining their homes is a measure that is certainly worth enacting.