The SoHo Effect

ROMAN MARS:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

ROMAN MARS:
In San Francisco, the area South of Market Street is called SoMa. The part of town North of the Panhandle is known as NoPa. Just north of our office is a part of town that Oakland is trying to brand as KoNo, short for Koreatown Northgate, but no one actually calls it that.

AVERY TRUFELMAN:
I live in a part of town at the intersection of North Oakland, Berkeley, and Emeryville, a neighborhood real estate brokers are calling NOBE.

ROMAN MARS:
That’s producer Avery Trufelman.

AVERY TRUFELMAN:
The whole NOBE thing makes me feel pretty icky. These abbreviated neighborhood names are such clichés. There’s that episode of South Park where part of town gets rebranded as South of Downtown South Park or SoDoSoPa.

CLIP FROM “SOUTH PARK”: There’s a certain quality, vibe, and energy that is SoDoSoPa. From the independent merchants and unique cafés to the rustic charm of a mixed-income crowd.

ROMAN MARS:
In an episode of How I Met Your Mother, two characters buy an apartment in DoWiSeTrePla.

CLIP FROM “HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER”: DoWiSeTrePla!

Woman: Oh, I see! You’re not New Yorkers.

Barney Stinson: Oh, actually we live on the Upper Westside…

Woman: No need to be embarrassed. Listen, here in New York, we just shorten names of all the neighborhoods. SoHo, TriBeCa, Nolita.

Lily Aldrin: Oh right! DoWiSeTrePla. No, I’m from New York. I know this neighborhood.

ROMAN MARS:
DoWiSeTrePla turns out to be short for “downwind of the sewage treatment plant.”

HAKEEM JEFFRIES:
There are brokers who are renaming parts of Harlem as SoHa, parts of Little Italy as Nolita, marketing the Bronx as SoBro.

AVERY TRUFELMAN:
This is Congressman Hakeem Jeffries. He represents New York’s 8th Congressional District which is Brooklyn and parts of Queens.

HAKEEM JEFFRIES:
These are names that are created out of thin air. They’re fantasy. They’re fiction. They’re made up solely, in my view, to artificially inflate prices.

AVERY TRUFELMAN:
Before Congressman Jeffries was elected to the House of Representatives, he was a member of the New York State Legislature, and he saw these neighborhood abbreviations creep into his jurisdiction.

HAKEEM JEFFRIES:
Real estate brokers are renaming parts of Crown Heights as ProCro.

ROMAN MARS:
That’s ProCro. P-R-O-C-R-O.

HAKEEM JEFFRIES:
Which is a combination, apparently, of the Prospect Heights neighborhood and Crown Heights to its east.

AVERY TRUFELMAN:
Properties in Prospect Heights have generally sold for more than those in Crown Heights. By making this new neighborhood, ProCro, brokers can sell Crown Heights properties at Prospect Heights prices.

ROMAN MARS:
Congressman Jeffries did not like anything about this. He didn’t like the sound of ProCro, and he didn’t like what the name was trying to do. So, he tried to stop it.

HAKEEM JEFFRIES:
When we researched the issue, it turned out that there was no sort of governmental entity involved in the designation of neighborhoods.

AVERY TRUFELMAN:
In 2011, Jeffries proposed the Neighborhood Integrity Act which set out to create guidelines and regulations for new neighborhood names and boundaries.

ROMAN MARS:
But, it turned out that it’s hard to pass a law against names. The Neighborhood Integrity Act didn’t gain traction, but neither did the name ProCro.

HAKEEM JEFFRIES:
Well I should point out some names don’t stick. ProCro was just silly. Thankfully, it was abandoned.

AVERY TRUFELMAN:
You never really know which of these names will stick around. There’s this part of Midtown Manhattan that was recently renamed NoMad, for North of Madison Avenue. People are starting to use it. You can see it on Google Maps.

ROMAN MARS:
And, it’s weird. There’s not really a name for this naming convention like NoHo, SoBro, NoMa. They’re not quite acronyms. They’re not quite portmanteau. They’re not just abbreviations. Around the office, we’ve been calling them acronames, or if you want to get into the spirit of the thing, AcNa’s.

AVERY TRUFELMAN:
AcNa’s is too much, that’s not going to be a thing.

ROMAN MARS:
Fine. They’re acronames, and they trace their lineage back to SoHo short for South of Houston Street in New York.

SHARON ZUKIN:
It’s really interesting how SoHo developed first as a local neighborhood brand, and then became globalized.

AVERY TRUFELMAN:
Sharon Zukin is a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

SHARON ZUKIN:
You have neighborhoods of Boston and Washington D.C. and Seattle and Denver abbreviated as LoDo, SoDo, SoMa, SoWa, trading on the brand name of SoHo.

ROMAN MARS:
Now, there already was a SoHo district in London, but as The Allusionist’s Helen Zaltzman will tell you, that is not an acroname.

HELEN ZALTZMAN:
Most of the evidence points to it having been a hunting cry, “SoHo!” like “Tally-Ho!” because SoHo stands on what used to be hunting land. Other people will tell you that SoHo is a shortening of South of Holborn, but those people are willfully ignoring the fact that SoHo is actually West of the area of Holborn which would make SoHo, WeHo, which it isn’t.

AVERY TRUFELMAN:
London’s SoHo may have been first, but the American abbreviation of SoHo and the birth of the acroname can be traced back to 1962 and a fellow of the name of Chester Rapkin.

SHARON ZUKIN:
He was an urban planner and eventually a member of the New York City Planning Commission from the late ’60s to the late 1970s. And, he was asked to investigate the conditions in what he called or what the City Planning Commission called the South Houston industrial area.

AVERY TRUFELMAN:
A lot of people think that the resulting paper, known as the Rapkin Report, invented the term SoHo.

SHARON ZUKIN:
Now, I have recently reread that report, and I do not believe that Rapkin used the term SoHo in that report.

ROMAN MARS:
It’s also been said that Rapkin coined the term SoHo in conversation, however it happened, around this time.

SHARON ZUKIN:
People seized upon the term SoHo as an abbreviation.

AVERY TRUFELMAN:
Which was certainly better than the South Houston Industrial Area, but not nearly as badass as its previous name, Hell’s Hundred Acres.

ROMAN MARS:
In the 1950s and early ’60s, SoHo was zoned for industrial manufacturing, but a lot of the buildings were empty. At the time Rapkin was writing the report, it was not the most pleasant part of town.

SHARON ZUKIN:
He mentioned in passing the grim caverns of factory buildings in SoHo, and that’s absolutely true.

AVERY TRUFELMAN:
The South Houston Industrial Area was threatened with demolition. The brick buildings with cast iron facades were seen as ugly, outdated eyesores. I mean they were factories, smack in the middle of Downtown Manhattan.

SHARON ZUKIN:
There had been a major pressure on the part of city government, as well as, probably the real estate industry, to demolish these worthless buildings, and replace them with one of the new residential projects.

ROMAN MARS:
This was in the early ’60s when New York City, under the influence of Robert Moses, was trying to tear down and rebuild. They were wrecking ball happy.

AVERY TRUFELMAN:
But, the Rapkin Report made a plea to preserve the factory buildings, and the city held off on their plan.

SHARON ZUKIN:
Rapkin said the manufacturers in those buildings were viable, and it would be interesting, maybe even great, if the manufacturing buildings were renovated for manufacturing use. Nobody foresaw that the area would become colonized by artists.

ROMAN MARS:
Artists rented the manufacturing spaces for studios, and to save money, they lived there, too.

SHARON ZUKIN:
SoHo in the 1970s quickly gained the identity of an artist district.

AVERY TRUFELMAN:
But, the lofts weren’t supposed to be residential. They weren’t up to city housing standards, state standards, fire codes, anything. For a while, the city skirted around this problem by classifying artists as machines who manufactured art, and could thus stay in the factories overnight.

ROMAN MARS:
Performers and painters and musicians hosted happenings and art openings out of their lofts, and these attracted attention from arts publications and newspapers.

SHARON ZUKIN:
SoHo was if not the very first industrial district to be transformed into live, work and living space. It was certainly the most prominent in the media.

ROMAN MARS:
After the success of SoHo, the urban planning department wanted to do on purpose what had happened by accident in SoHo. They set their sights on a nearby area, the Triangle Below Canal Street, or as they called it, TriBeCa.

AVERY TRUFELMAN:
TriBeCa was also a former manufacturing district, but it was intentionally rezoned for mixed use. So, now factories and residences and galleries could exist side-by-side, legally.

ROMAN MARS:
You know the story from here. Artists moved into the old lofts, made them seem hip and desirable, and higher income residences and businesses slowly took over.

AVERY TRUFELMAN:
And now of course, SoHo and TriBeCa are fancy, fancy places, full of boutiques and high-end residences, all housed in the architectural skeletons of old industry.

SHARON ZUKIN:
SoHo was able to incubate and disseminate all of these trends that became so important in interior design in the ’80s and ’90s and you know probably on into the 2000s.

AVERY TRUFELMAN:
SoHo and TriBeCa weren’t just the rise of acronames. They were the birth of industrial chic. They created the whole aesthetic that comes to mind with these neighborhoods.

JACKELYN HWANG:
In SoHo, artists embraced the vestiges of the factories they were living and working in. They found the big, metal fixtures and beams and loading docks charming.

SHARON ZUKIN:
And, this became a kind of expensive minimalism that marked high status taste in interior design.

ROMAN MARS:
Exposed brick walls, distressed floors, big windows, large, open spaces, big beams, and bronze fixtures. The old factories became trendy, and new wealthier residents added layers of conventional luxury.

SHARON ZUKIN:
Now, people install very expensive marble baths and floors and wine vaults into former industrial lofts, so that the simplicity of the first generation of industrial chic has turned into the excess of the current multi-million dollar lofts.

AVERY TRUFELMAN:
Lofts in these genuine old buildings now go for millions of dollars, and new condos and developments are actively trying to look like old warehouses.

ROMAN MARS:
And, in other parts of New York and other cities around the world, developers started to copy SoHo. Not just in industrial areas, but in all kinds of neighborhoods, independent of whoever was already living or working there.

SHARON ZUKIN:
Real estate developers around the world copy this and they say “Let’s bring some stores. Let’s encourage some performance spaces, some art galleries. Let’s make this area interesting. Let’s give it a name.”

AVERY TRUFELMAN:
And, as time went on, a new name, especially an acroname, became the big indicator that your neighborhood was about to change.

JACKELYN HWANG:
What we’re seeing is something of an era of gentrification.

AVERY TRUFELMAN:
This is Jackelyn Hwang, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Princeton University. In 2006, she did a comprehensive study of residents in section of South Philadelphia where she basically went up to them and asked “What do you call your neighborhood?”

JACKELYN HWANG:
So, in this section of Philly, most of the minority residents refer to it as South Philly.

ROMAN MARS:
But, not the new, mostly white residents and the real estate agents and Craigslist posts that listed the properties. Most commonly, they used the name Graduate Hospital, so named because a hospital used to be in that neighborhood.

JACKELYN HWANG:
Other people have referred to it as GHo, SoSo, which is supposed to represent South of South Street.

AVERY TRUFELMAN:
Even if they groaned or laughed at GHo or SoSo, these newcomers really identified more with Graduate Hospital than South Philly.

ROMAN MARS:
Now, just to be clear, neighborhoods do shift and change names periodically, but Jackelyn says the recent naming rush is different.

JACKELYN HWANG:
I would say that there’s an intention behind this in sort of a power play happening. You know, there’s a group that’s redefining it while another group is trying to hold on to this older name.

AVERY TRUFELMAN:
As cities boom and gentrification rises, new neighborhoods get made and new names proliferate.

JACKELYN HWANG:
I’m not saying neighborhood change is not good for these neighborhoods, they certainly need the investment, but I think the idea that there is this alienation that’s taking place and that, you know, it’s intentional of displacing and devaluing the previous name in order to make the neighborhood change faster.

AVERY TRUFELMAN:
This gets at the ickiness I feel about using the term NOBE to describe where I live. I don’t want to be the newcomer who alienates the old residents by using some term that was fed to me by real estate developers. But, NOBE is also useful because it’s specific and it’s efficient. I mean saying I live in NOBE is obviously faster than saying I live at the border of North Oakland, Berkeley, and Emeryville.

W. KAMAU BELL:
I live in DoBe which is Downtown Berkeley. I just made up the name DoBe.

AVERY TRUFELMAN:
That is comedian and longtime Bay Area resident W. Kamau Bell. I was thinking about my neighborhood and gentrification when I happened to run into him, appropriately, at the South Berkeley Farmer’s Market.

W. KAMAU BELL:
I know they call this the South Berkeley Farmer’s Market, but I’ve lived in the Bay Area long enough to remember when this was called Oakland right here. This feels like south, south, south, south Berkeley.

ROMAN MARS:
Kamau feels uncomfortable with these acronames, too.

AVERY TRUFELMAN:
KoNo, which they’re trying to make Downtown-

W. KAMAU BELL:
KoNo? What is that?

AVERY TRUFELMAN:
Koreatown Northgate.

W. KAMAU BELL:
KoNo?

AVERY TRUFELMAN:
KoNo.

W. KAMAU BELL:
Oh no!

ROMAN MARS:
But, he says if you’re focused too much on neighborhood names, you might be missing the point.

W. KAMAU BELL:
This is just symptomatic – the neighborhood name is like the old log in the woods, and you lift up the neighborhood name, and you see all the bugs underneath, and that’s gentrification. If you get too focused on the name, you’re probably not focused on what’s going on under the wood.

ROMAN MARS:
Acronames are easy to lampoon. They’re ubiquitous to the point of parody and often cringe-worthy. So, we may see a shift away from these names. Real estate developers will start using less silly sounding names to market neighborhoods to higher paying customers. These names might sound more authentic like Graduate Hospital in Philly or Temescal in Oakland, but they’re different names for the same thing, the same log over the ants of gentrification. And, as far as what you should call your neighborhood if you’re a newcomer…

W. KAMAU BELL:
I mean I feel like the bigger issue is to respect the neighborhood you’re moving into. If you respect the neighborhood you’re moving into and you aren’t trying to be the change, you’re trying to be the blend, then whatever the people in the neighborhood call it, then call it that.

AVERY TRUFELMAN:
So, I took Kamau’s advice. I walked around my block and I asked people “What do you call this neighborhood?” And, I met a few newcomers, like me, who were just as confused as I was. Was it NOBE, was it the Ashby BART region, the Golden Gate District, the Lorin District? But the neighbors who’ve lived here for a while all said the same thing, “It’s just North Oakland.”

ROMAN MARS:
And, really, it doesn’t need to be called anything else.

AVERY TRUFELMAN:
Can I put you on the air? Can I use this tape?

W. KAMAU BELL:
What are you talking about? Can you put me on 99% Invisible? #lifegoals

Comments (22)

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  1. Joel

    SOHO
    ˈsōhō/
    adjective
    adjective: SOHO
    relating to a market for relatively inexpensive consumer electronics used by individuals and small companies.
    Origin

    1990s: acronym from small office home office .

  2. Rex

    Just started listening to the episode and laughed out loud because my small town, Middletown, CT has a neighborhood (well, technically one block) called NoRa for North of Rapallo St. in effort to beautify what was once a bad section of town.

  3. Mark

    Saying you live in “South Philly” wouldn’t be very helpful. It would be like saying “Lower Manhattan.” Well, what neighborhood in Lower Manhattan? South Philly has always had smaller neighborhoods within it like Pennsport, Grays Ferry, and Passyunk. Graduate Hospital (“G-Ho”) was actually push-back from the residents after real estate folks started using “SoSo” (South of South Street) and “3S” (????) to describe the nab.

  4. When SoHo quickly became too costly for young artists, brave urban pioneers looked to Brooklyn in the early 70s. We named our dying manufacturing neighborhood DUMBO (down under the Manhattan Bridge overpass) as a joke on acronaming. We hoped it would discourage real estate developers. Who would want to live in a place called DUMBO? Never thought it would stick, much less appear in ads for luxury lofts.

  5. Joe

    As I understand it, many residents of SF were anti-NOPA when that thing started years ago. It was an effort to rebrand Western Addition and the Divis corridor by realtors as well, I believe. Which is hilarious, because both of those areas are just as much east of the panhandle as they are north. But EOPA just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

  6. Jim

    There’s a newish design and arts district in San Francisco called DoReMi (Dogpatch, Potrero Hill, Mission)

  7. Camile

    “DUMBO Heights” is a supposedly super cool mixed use development/loft-type techy place in Brooklyn. I can scarcely believe the name. I wouldn’t want to live in a place that sounds like “the heighth of stupidity” . It’s being developed by Donald Trump’s son-in-law……..

  8. Heidi

    Here in Denver an apartment building is trying to rebrand what I think of as “south broadway” into “SoBo” makes no gd sense!! However, Sobr wouldn’t really describe this hipster neighborhood accurately.

  9. Josh

    I really think we should push to call them “partmanteaus” before “acronames” can take hold

  10. Tim

    “Acronames are easy to lampoon, but a new trend may be in the works: using more authentic-sounding names, like the rapidly-changing neighborhood of Temescal in Oakland.”

    Temescal has been in continuous use to describe that North Oakland neighborhood since at least the late 1800’s! The boundaries may always be in flux and it depends on who you ask but there’s no question that many people have, for a very long time, identified themselves as residents of the Temescal neighborhood. Definitely not a new trend.

    You can read more about it in Jeff Norman’s “Temescal Legacies: Narratives of Change from a North Oakland Neighborhood.”

    1. bram draper

      Came here to make the same comment. Even anecdotally, I remember people calling it Temescal at least 25 years ago, long before the recent gentrification wave.

  11. Michael Schuler

    An excellent show! Before my brother got priced out and moved to Flatbush, he joked that the stretch of Smith Street that he lived on, between Butler and Baltic, was ButLic.

  12. Kitty

    NextDoor.com defines your area by neighborhood names, many on the map are new to my eyes, and just down the road.

  13. Sean

    I much prefer the cryptic neighborhood names we get in old cities. Here in Worcester Ma we have all the hill neighborhoods (union hill, vernon hill, etc), all the squares and circles (colombus circle, washington square), block designations (Beacon-Brightly), and then the weird ones… Green Island, which is not green or an island, Burncoat, Tatnuck, Beaver Brook, Quinsigamond. Love em

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