During any other summer, one in which the news didn’t ricochet from presidential wrestling videos to threats of nuclear annihilation at the hands of North Korea to the mysterious arrival of Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets into the treasure chests of people who make scrapbooking easier somewhere in Oklahoma, ordinary citizens might have produced a louder collective tirade over the attempts of real-estate interests to obscure the racial history of one of the most iconic urban neighborhoods in the world. Over the past several months, the industry has been working to designate a section of Harlem, roughly spanning West 110th Street to West 125th Street, as SoHa, an acronym that has been used more casually before. Imagine the creative manpower, the whiteboards and worn-out felt-tip markers it must have required to come up with that.
Real-estate developers and their marketing divisions have, of course, a longstanding tradition of manufacturing or misguidedly reinventing neighborhoods and giving them ludicrous names. At one point there was an effort underway to reconsider the area around the Brooklyn Academy of Music in Fort Greene as Bamcudi (standing in for the Brooklyn Academy of Music Cultural District). This presumably would have tricked tourists with no yearning for “Titus Andronicus” or Pina Bausch into believing they were going somewhere with hot-air balloon rides and rum smoothies.
In a more notorious example, two years ago, Keith Rubenstein, occupant of an $85 million Upper East Side townhouse with a billiard room covered in Hermès leather, decided that a section of the South Bronx, where he had luxury towers planned, needed to be rebranded as the piano district. Pianos were manufactured there in the early 1900s, and young, aspiring tech executives were unlikely to be drawn, on their own, to a neighborhood with a 40 percent poverty rate. A Halloween party in 2015 to christen the new landscape featured, in addition to supermodels and other variants of Manhattan celebrity, burning trash cans and a display of bullet-ridden cars, to evoke the horror of the area in the 1970s and repackage it as a means of consumer titillation.
With rare exception, gentrification proceeds in the modern era either by exploiting the past (often tastelessly) or obliterating it. In his new book, “Race, Class and Politics in the Cappuccino City,” Derek S. Hyra, an associate professor at American University, tracks the evolution of Washington’s Shaw/U neighborhood as a place that fell victim to what he calls “black branding.” This, for the most part, is the developer’s practice of using black history to attract young, affluent renters who want to think of themselves as living a groovier, grittier existence than fate has allotted them. Over the years, the neighborhood went from one that held a black majority to one that didn’t.