This neighborhood-naming foolishness must end. It’s gotten completely out of hand. This week, the Prince of Petworth blog pointed out that a Shaw neighborhood Internet mailing list made reference to an area apparently called SoNYA. As in, south of New York Avenue. I’m not joking.
The debate over neighborhood monikers is extremely sticky. There are those who think renaming places is just another sneaky tactic
of displacement. Take NoMa, for example. For decades, the area loosely known as “New York Avenue” to nonresidents transformed into a slick-named business improvement district. Even Metro got on board when it finally put a station there. Goodbye New York Avenue, hello NoMa. The word, technically stands for North of Massachusetts Avenue. A boss of mine lived there for years after moving from Boston and had no idea of this update until recently.
And some object to new names because they believe the shorthand is selling out the city’s authenticity. People will tell you that these new neighborhoods are fake. Homogenized and created by real estate types to make things sound more attractive by placing an artificial label on something that was previously “real.”
As a general rule, I’m not opposed to new names. I certainly understand the argument that seemingly sanitized labels can delete a certain history that is only held by the name representing it. As in, when you’ve lost everything else, your name is all you have. See: Penn Quarter. As a kid, that area was just an extension of “downtown” or “old downtown.” And then it became PQ. There are now blogs, a Metro stop (again) and other signage using that name. In short, it stuck. Fine. Another neighborhood named after a major roadway.
But I just don’t understand why these naming patterns have to be so lazy these days. SoMo? SoNYA? The GaP? Seriously? Neighborhood names should be less about a literal geographic distinction and more about evoking a sense of place and history. Also, it seems like most of the new shorthand is based off of one kind of dual abbreviation: SoHo. That’s the downtown Manhattan neighborhood that stands for “South of Houston.” How did that neighborhood’s name become the progenitor for which all new nicknames in the District must be derived?
The point is, if you’re going to go through the hassle of renaming something, put some real thought into it. Before naming something, say it, out loud: SoMo. Now try SoNYA. Or Borderstan. Look around. Yes, you sound like a fool. And not because you’re buying into a potentially divisive naming pattern for no reason. But because those are words devoid of any real meaning. Period.
News flash, developers: A mishmash word that combines the direction above or below a street or cardinal point aren’t the only things available to name something after. There was a time when the blocks surrounding Cardozo High School were known plainly as Cardozo. Easy! Not Southeast CoHi or West Petworth. But these days, I’d be satisfied with calling it Hornets Nest, after DCFD Engine Co. No. 4 on nearby Sherman Avenue.
Abbreviations are different. For example, as often as I mockingly refer to Adams Morgan as AdMo, at the very least it stems from something sensible. The name Adams Morgan comes from two schools, Thomas P. Morgan Elementary and John Quincy Adams Elementary, both of which were desegregated in the ’50s. So, AdMo, I’ll allow.
Neighborhood name battles have been an old parlor game in the District for some time. And it can be a good time. 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.
If you want to hyper-classify every single mini-block subset of the city, be my guest. Just come up with something smart. Try finding a historical figure or icon specific to that neighborhood to use as an anchor. A public library is a good place to start.
I grew up in Takoma. But on the road we’re headed, I don’t think it’ll be long before someone calls it TaKoMa. There’s a word for that sort of thing: silly. And nobody’s got time for that.
Yates is a columnist for The RootDC
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