Modern day New York real estate has become a study in acronyms and identity crises. Old neighborhoods are rebranded to be catchier, apartments in existing ones are advertised as being somewhere else entirely and the areas in between are a constant point of contention. DUMBO is recognized by the city but RAMBO is not. TriBeCa and SoHo are perfectly acceptable, yet ProCro and BoCoCa sound ridiculous. You live in East Williamsburg not Bushwick, or Clinton Hill instead of Bed-Stuy.
The confusion is endless and at first glance, the significance is minimal. The names of our neighborhoods should have no bearing on the quality of our apartments or the details of our lives. Nationwide studies have shown that if you interview a cross-section of residents in any given neighborhood there will be no consensus on its boundaries or sometimes even its title. New York City has officially stated it has no interest in arbitrating neighborhood names. When Representative Hakeem Jeffries, then a member of the New York State Assembly, proposed a bill in 2011 that would require city approval for all of these alphabet soup concoctions, he was widely ridiculed for being heavy handed. When updating its maps, Google doesn’t even consult with the city, leaving the task to unpaid citizen arbitrators instead. It seems that these neighborhood names we defend so fiercely aren’t being taken seriously by anyone of authority at all. Yet in the vast expanses of our cities, especially this one, our identities as citizens are tied very closely to the areas where we live.
In an effort to better understand this complicated situation, I decided to focus on Manhattan’s most recent crop of artificial neighborhoods and what effect they’re having on the city as a whole. Over the last few years, the words “MiMa” and “NoMad” have been popping up on bus stops and in magazines with alarming frequency. While I discovered that MiMa is thankfully just a building, NoMad is indeed a real thing. Located in the area north of Madison Square Park, its supporters claim the boundaries extend from 25th to 30th Street and 6th to Lexington Avenue.
The name is a real estate creation in its purest form. While records show it appearing in a few New York Times articles during the late ’90s, it wasn’t until Andrew Zobler of GFI Development decided to build the NoMad Hotel and make arrangements for a branch of the trendy Ace Hotel chain that the name regained any kind of currency. Since opening in 2009, and attracting the equally exclusive Stumptown Coffee and John Dory Oyster Bar soon after, the Ace has become a mecca for a whole new brand of elite urban cool. What was once a desolate stretch of office buildings and cheap storefronts hawking everything from T-shirts to perfume to wigs made of human hair has become a haven for trendy restaurants and hopefully soon, the residents to go with it.
Nearly four years later, the storefronts haven’t gone anywhere and the residential vibe hasn’t set in. The city still hasn’t recognized NoMad in their unofficial list of neighborhood names and the average New Yorker responds to the name with derisive laughter. Urban designer Zeke Mermell found NoMad to be particularly unappealing from an aesthetic standpoint, though cautioned that such considerations don’t always matter. After all, he said, “…in the ’60s they were trying to tear down SoHo to build the Lower Manhattan Expressway, but then you flip the switch and 10 years later they’re christening it as a landmark district.” Yet if not NoMad, what exactly should the area be called?
There are few residents to take up the cause in the first place. Those that do live there seem to keep to themselves. Aside from the recent spate of trendy restaurants, the commercial offerings are scattered and incomplete. The closest grocery stores are multiple avenues away, laundromats or dry cleaners are almost nonexistent and bodegas are few and far between. Even the park that is NoMad’s namesake seems hollow. While Madison Square Park’s view of the Flatiron Building and well-manicured lawns are undeniably attractive, its visitors aren’t even allowed to walk off the paths. The hours I’ve spent roaming the surrounding streets, both on weekdays and weekends, have been eerily quiet aside from the standard level of Manhattan traffic and construction noise.
Even neighboring Kip’s Bay, which is more residential, feels disconnected from the bustle that’s only a 15 minute walk away. Extending from the East River to Lexington Avenue, the area’s development almost seems to be a product of half-thought zoning. Towering offices line one street while rows of apartment buildings line the next. Standard looking pubs and random ethnic take-out places are sprinkled in between. The closest subway line is many blocks away and the East River shoreline is barely accessible. For a swath of prime real estate, in the middle of one of the world’s largest cities, something about NoMad and its general vicinity feels alarmingly off.
Truly stumped, I dove further into research and soon found what may be the key to it all. In 1747, John Watts bought a 131 acre plot of land in the area and named it Rose Hill Farm after his family’s property near Edinburgh. A known loyalist to the British crown, Watts was banished from the city before the Revolutionary War and was forced to forfeit his land. While a fire would destroy the main house, and subsequent sales would divide the property into lots just in time for Manhattan’s 1811 adoption of the grid plan, the area from roughly 25th to 30th Street and Fifth to Third Avenue would still be known as Rose Hill. The name was used commonly for years — and occasionally mentioned in the Times as recently as 10 years ago — yet has since fallen out of favor. In 1999 there was even a proposal to make the name official, supported by then Borough President C. Virginia Fields, yet nothing happened and NoMad swept in not long after. Today, there is still a Rose Hill Neighborhood Association and one incongruously old farmhouse on 29th Street (thought to be one of the oldest remaining in the city and possibly part of the original estate) but few others traces of the neighborhood remain.
Thrilled and inspired, I’ve attempted to contact a variety of officials for comment but so far have had no luck. I’ve contacted local historians, Community Board 6 and the office of City Councilwoman Rosie Mendez (whose website lists Rose Hill as one of the areas she represents) to no avail. While some of this can be chalked up to Realcity’s small stature and summer vacation season, it seems that there’s something else at play. In other areas of the city, residents have fought tooth and nail to preserve their neighborhoods’ history, yet Rose Hill seems to have few champions.
What does Rose Hill’s disappearance say about the pace and planning of our city’s downtown development? Would we still have NoMad, let alone Kip’s Bay, if history had taken a different turn? Would having another well-preserved historic district, along the lines of nearby Gramercy, have altered the fabric of Midtown New York as we know it? Even more importantly, what does it say about our city that we’ve let real estate developers rebrand an area with an acronym when a more than 250 year old name already exists? In the coming weeks and months, it will be my mission to find the answers to these questions and undoubtedly more. Rose Hill may be ancient history at this point, but that doesn’t mean its fate couldn’t befall any one of the neighborhoods we so fiercely call home today.