When JBG Companies purchased three large parcels of land five years ago in the District, the developer had trouble pitching its luxurious urban vision in the Shaw neighborhood to prospective retailers.
Most of the prospective businesses assumed that the project was a half-mile south in Shaw, home to a burst of high-profile new development.
JBG decided it needed a name for its project, sprawled near the 9:30 Club at Eighth and V streets NW, that distinguished it from other developments and offered a sense of its location. The company floated the name “Eastern Part of U” but eventually settled on “North End of Shaw” to market the development to prospective tenants.
Five years later, four new apartment buildings are full of tenants, and about 40 retailers are open. An old warehouse and parking lot were transformed into trendy shops, a movie theater and luxury condos, where rent for a one-bedroom apartment can run upward of $3,000 a month.
Some signs and businesses now refer to the neighborhood by the developer’s moniker, local blogs have hyped restaurants in “North End of Shaw” and earlier this month the New York Times published an article about the five best places to go in “North Shaw.”
“It wasn’t meant to rename the neighborhood in any way. . . . We wanted to fit in the neighborhood,” said Robin Mosle, JBG’s executive vice president. “I don’t really know ultimately where the name will end up. If people end up calling it the North End of Shaw, then that’s a decision for the people.”
Such is life in the District, where developments seemingly spring up overnight, new residents with no historical knowledge of the city move in and concocted neighborhood names emerge — often to the consternation of longtime residents who complain that trendy new names are nonsensical and another sign of gentrification.
The D.C. Office of Planning says it doesn’t recognize official neighborhood boundaries, but in the past 20 years, such neighborhood names as NoMa, Hill East and Capitol Riverfront have emerged, with some catching on better than others. Even Penn Quarter, now an established neighborhood name, came from efforts to revitalize the neighborhood.
The developers might not have intended for “North End of Shaw” to become a neighborhood, but to nonresidents, it can be difficult to discern a marketing term from a neighborhood name.
Christopher B. Leinberger, chairman of the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at George Washington University, said new neighborhood names are booming across the country as urban areas flourish.
“I think that’s just a natural consequence of urbanization,” he said. “People need to have a name, identity so that they feel like they belong.”
Shaw, a neighborhood with a rich African American history, already has a strong identity, but Leinberger said new neighborhood names typically refer to areas far smaller than Shaw. Shaw’s unofficial boundaries seem to expand with its trendiness, as real estate agents and developers market properties as being in the neighborhood. The names and boundaries can change as property owners and real estate companies seek to associate or dissociate themselves with certain places depending on fast-changing trends.
One of the District’s most successful neighborhood rebranding efforts is NoMa — short for North of Massachusetts Avenue — a former industrial neighborhood now filled with high-rise apartment buildings near Union Station.
Robin-Eve Jasper, president of the NoMa Business Improvement District, said that while the name has entered into mainstream vernacular in the past decade or so, it dates back to the 1990s.
When the District’s finances were in shambles, it received grants to rebuild parts of the city and created a proposal called “The Economic Resurgence of Washington, D.C.” Tucked within its pages was a plan for an area that was a sea of parking lots and abandoned warehouses dubbed “NoMa.” It stuck.
When the BID was created in 2007, the organization worked to rebrand the neighborhood as NoMa. In 2011, the nearby Metro station was renamed NoMa-Gallaudet U, which helped cement the name.
“There were people, predominantly property owners, who thought maybe there would be more panache calling this neighborhood Capitol Hill North,” Jasper said. “The name refers to a general area where people have a community of interests around transit, building typology, retail. A lot of people here have this shared experience of creating a new neighborhood together, and I think that the name is just a shorthand for all of that.”
Other neighborhood rebranding efforts have fallen flat. In 2012, there was a brief push to call the southern part of Adams Morgan — the commercial blocks south of Kalorama Road NW along 18th Street and Florida Avenue — “SoMo” to highlight new retail. The name was ridiculed — no organization put money into the rebranding, and it flopped.
“I was pretty vocal about it being a bad idea,” said Kristen Barden, executive director of the Adams Morgan Partnership Business Improvement District. “Adams Morgan is already a pretty clearly defined neighborhood, and it’s pretty small, and subdividing it even more doesn’t make sense.”
The four new buildings that JBG has opened in its “North End of Shaw” project have created 708 rental and condo units. Three more buildings are set to break ground in the fall, including one that will have a 40,000-square-foot Whole Foods supermarket.
For now, residents seem to view “North End of Shaw” as a way for JBG to push its development. But when new residents flock to these buildings — many of whom won’t know of a time when these massive developments didn’t exist there — there’s no telling what residents will call it.
“It’s an ambiguous area. I would never tell someone I live in North Shaw,” said Even Callihan, who lives in one of the JBG’s new apartment buildings. “I will say I live in Shaw or the eastern part of U Street.”