Harlem Residents Rally Against ‘SoHa,’ Saying ‘Harlem Is Harlem’

In Harlem, debates have erupted over high-end grocery stores, affordable housing and historic buildings. Now, the latest discussion and dissent is over the name Harlem itself, as developers adopt “SoHa” as a nickname for South Harlem.
“SoHa” has popped up on everything from restaurants and coffee shops to farmers markets and pediatric offices over the past decade, as real estate professionals seek a catchy way to market the area of Harlem from West 110th to 125th streets.

Marketers say the argument for “SoHa,” which appears to have first been used around 2001, is the same as other renamed neighborhoods: It might draw new businesses and residents, as well as add a buzzy flair.

On the corner of 115th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, business owners and community members come together to rally against the use of the term “SoHa.” Maria Alejandra Cardona/NYT Institute

“It brings in more interested developers, it brings infrastructure and capital investment,” said Santiago Conway, owner of Conway and Partners, a global real estate and marketing agency not involved in the rebranding.

Tony Bruno, owner of Max SoHa, a restaurant that has been in the South Harlem area since 2000, said the name doesn’t take away from Harlem, but serves a real estate purpose and helps the area be a bit more attractive.
“I think it is an identity, nothing to replace one name or demoralize another name,” he said. “I think it is to distinguish in this city.”
But some longtime residents, led by a Manhattan Community Board 10 member, Danni Tyson, said such attempts to rebrand the neighborhood are unnecessary and tamper with an already iconic name.

“What they fail to see is this is a community that has been here a long, long time,” Ms. Tyson said. “It has a history. Why would you want to rebrand it something else?

“Harlem is Harlem.”

Ms. Tyson, who is a real estate agent in Harlem, also said that “South Harlem” isn’t a real place. Rather, city planners only recognize East, West and Central Harlem.

During recent months, opposition to the name has grown louder, with open disapproval from the community board and potential state legislation. This resistance, in large part, has been a reaction to a SoHa promotional office created by a real estate company, Keller Williams. The company has its own “mega agent team” just off West 115th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard.

The business on the left, on the corner of West 115th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, uses the term “SoHa” on its awning, referring to South Harlem. Marketers are using “SoHa” to rebrand the community. Maria Alejandra Cardona/NYT Institute

Keller Williams has actively marketed the surrounding area as “SoHa,” and a large sign on the front of its office stating “SoHa Team” has drawn community resentment. Last week, dozens of residents, community board members, legislators and activists held a rally near the office to declare, “No SoHa!”

The company declined to comment despite multiple in-person and phone inquiries.

Catchy neighborhood labels are abound in New York City. There’s SoHo in lower Manhattan, Dumbo in Brooklyn and NoLo on the Lower East Side. As the South Bronx revives, a few there are trying out SoBo.

But while real estate experts agree that rebranding an area can help bolster it, changing a name isn’t a sure route to success. And in the case of Harlem, it may actually be a hindrance.
“I wouldn’t recommend changing the name, but maybe a facelift making it more aspirational, ” Mr. Conway said. “It has that poetic approach. If I say anywhere in Europe that ‘I’m from Harlem,’ it generates already a picture in your mind of a strong community, of a lot of values that a lot of communities don’t generate.”
Mr. Conway said Harlem may be better served not by rebranding the name, but rather by building on the brand it already has. This would be done through promoting interesting architecture, historic sites and community events.

For many in the community, “SoHa’’ evokes another sign of gentrification, and for some, another assault on black history.

Hans Honschar, a community activist, writes on on the sidewalk: “This is Harlem, Not SoHa.” Maria Alejandra Cardona/NYT Institute

“The idea of renaming parts of Harlem, I think it is despicable really,” said the Rev. Dr. Charles Curtis, senior pastor at Mount Olivet Baptist Church, one of Harlem’s historic churches. “I think it is a further attempt to erode the culture of Harlem, and I think the people that have been here have a right to protest against such because Harlem is doing all right without being renamed.”

He added, “It’s part of this gentrification thing and it’s part of this real takeover of Harlem.”

Brian Benjamin, a newly elected state senator representing the neighborhood, said he plans to work on legislation that would require any development project that is receiving local or state subsidies to undergo a community review prior to marketing with any new name for the area.
“This issue is such an affront to the people who have dedicated and fought to make Harlem what it is,” Mr. Benjamin said. “You’re now going to come with a new name that basically erases the people who were all here.”
The law, however, wouldn’t address private residences and companies.

But for Danni Tyson, all she really wants is to see the “SoHa Team” sign come down and for real estate professionals to stop marketing with the name.

“Maybe where you’ve been before that works, but not in Harlem,” she said.