When I lived at 125th Street and Fifth Avenue in the borough of Manhattan, it was a hard-won badge of honor. I’d hopscotched around New York City for more than a few years, moving from Hell’s Kitchen (in what is now predominately known as Chelsea, in a victory of urban planners with no sense of urban poetry) to Greenwich Village, and even vacating the city altogether, spending a brief stint in Jersey City.
But when I took possession of my fourth-floor walkup up-uptown, I also took proud ownership of a relationship with an old neighbor, one that began when I crossed Central Park North and walked into the southernmost district of Harlem.
For generations, the history behind this celebrated 3.8-square mile swathe of upper Manhattan has been a source of pride to African Americans — indeed, to any and all Americans with a sense of history beyond the star-spangled pabulum we’ve been fed all our lives.
From shortly after the turn of the century — the turn of the 19th century into the 20th — Harlem was a redoubt of African American life, politics and culture, an ambassador of the black American experience to the world.
During the 20 years of the Harlem Renaissance, novelists, poets, artists and musicians made the area a vibrant, genially explosive hothouse for some of America’s most powerful and enduring artistic contributions. And the streets and parks of the area have kept the names of the secular saints of black history: Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, Malcolm X Boulevard, Frederick Douglass Boulevard, Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard, Marcus Garvey Park, Jackie Robinson Park.
One indelible memory of my time in the city is of the days when busloads of tourists from Europe or Japan crept through central Harlem on weekend mornings, their wide-eyed passengers gazing with curiosity, and maybe even wonder. So this is Harlem, their expressions seemed to say, the real Harlem.
For years now, there’s been a kind of cultural détente at work there, a relationship that saw elements of upscale, privileged, entitled America co-existing with the earthier aspects of Harlem’s more indigenous identity. Even as Starbucks, Old Navy and American Apparel moved into the neighborhood, the older, legendary persona persisted. The lion, it seemed, could lie down with the lamb. Mocha Frappuccino went just fine with sweet potato pie.
Lately, however, there’s been a move afoot to obliterate the name of that iconic district. With one trial balloon or another, real-estate developers and some business owners have undertaken efforts to change the name of at least part of Harlem to “SoHa,” a too-hip-by-half compression of “South Harlem” that borrows the sadly frequent tendency to shorten established neighborhood names to something almost unintelligible (and certainly unintelligent).
The rationale is flimsy at best; the proposed name change is thought to attract more home buyers, or to make the neighborhood more appealing to young, upwardly mobile residents — those with no compunction about changing manifestations of history that don’t personally involve them.
But just because you can do something doesn’t always mean you should.
The first question name-change supporters have to answer is, of course, Why? The evolution of Harlem from gritty, historically troubled minority enclave to bellwether of a smarter, wider, more cosmopolitan New York City has been going on for at least a decade, with people of all races migrating there and apparently having no problem with the name (which stems from the area’s early life in the mid-1600s, as a Dutch village named after the city of Haarlem, in the Netherlands).
The fact is, the neighborhood’s been changing. Whether you call it Harlem or SoHa or HamSandwich, business has been growing by leaps and bounds, in no small part because so much of the rest of Manhattan has for many years been plagued by insanely high real-estate and property rental prices. Gentrification has been coming to Harlem, and not taking baby steps to do it. A case in point is yet to come.
On July 21st, Whole Foods, the famed food retailer and a bastion of upmarket identity wherever it opens its outlets, will open a 39,000-square foot store at 125th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard, not far from my old stomping ground.
A press release on the company website says Whole Foods “has worked closely with Harlem Park to Park, a social enterprise representing more than 100 neighborhood entrepreneurs, to source unique local products that will make the store a one-stop destination for both Harlem-made goods and high quality grocery staples. In addition, Whole Foods Market has partnered with numerous Harlem community organizations ... to create approximately 200 new local jobs.”
And there’s no escaping the power of unintended consequences. In July 2016, the New York Post, quoting from statistics from Zillow, reported that homes within a one-mile distance from Whole Foods stores "appreciated an average of 4.5 percent more than properties outside this radius.”
But however the battle for Harlem plays out economically, some are fighting that fight not so much in the streets as above them, using the tech that more and more often defines what the streets are called. One of the smarter tactics employed by opponents of the name change has been recognizing that the terms of engagement for this conflict will be decided as much in the online world of Google Maps, Waze and GPS technology as in the everyday world of casual use.
Google Maps, in particular, holds the high ground on street-name decisions by virtue of the number of searches it executes (it claims more than 1 billion users), generally as well as for any particular street or neighborhood name. If you maintain online leverage with your earlier, antecedent name, you’ve got an advantage over those who’d change that name to something else.
New York Rep. Adriano Espaillat, whose district includes Harlem, understood this in comments made at a June press conference, as quoted by The New York Times. “We want Google Maps or some app that gives you directions to let you know when you enter Harlem, to give you a message that says, ‘You’re in Harlem,” he said.
The fight’s far from over, but there’s some sense that history has gained some ground as it rightly pushes back. The Harlem edition of Patch, the nation-by-neighborhood community news venture, reported early this month that Keller Williams real-estate brokers have agreed to stop using the SoHa acronym in the company’s listings.
But... a page on the website for the Trulia real-estate service announced a recent listing as being in the “Harlem SoHa Section” — truly a case of trying to have one’s cake and eat it too.
What might seem like a civic hissy fit has a deeper resonance. While the reasoning behind those who’d change the name is more rooted in the commercial, the passions aroused on the keep-Harlem-Harlem side of the argument stem from a more basic, natural, human longing for order and connection. They’ve dug in their heels maybe not so much because of the name “Harlem” as much as what it represents: continuity, reliability. In an ever-changing world, the name is something that stays put.
More of the clashes between the two sides can be expected at an event by the “Anti-Soha movement,” scheduled for Monday, July 17, at East 106th Street near 3rd Avenue. But for now, as Harlem makes economic strides that were hard to imagine not so long ago, there’s every good reason to celebrate those strides, to take note of this latest renaissance that’s got a lot in common with the first one. Including the name of the place that birthed them both.