Monday, March 15, 2004

Jenny From The Block West Bronx Riverfront Revival District

Don't worry, this isn't about Jennifer Lopez. But it is about claiming to live in New York City yet never leaving, oh let's say, theoretically, a five-block radius on the Upper West Side <ahem>

So anyway, I thought it was just happenstance that one of New York City's countless subway lines is named the J/Z. But considering that J/Z the subway runs right past the Marcy projects, where Jay-Z the rapper grew up (back when he was just known as little Corey Carter), it seems like more than just a coincidence that the rap superstar and the subway have the same moniker. Hey, with the success Jigga Man is having these days (and the ways he's giving back to his old 'hood in the shadow of the J/Z), it's probably only a matter of time until the J/Z line gets changed to the H/V and every stop is renamed either Izzo or Izzay, so you can only give directions to the area by saying "take the H to the Izzo, or the V to the Izzay." (Get it? Wokka wokka wokka!)

On a semi-related note, the Sunday Times featured an article about controversies relating to neighborhoods and nicknames in Brooklyn, specifically the ideological battle that arose from renaming/"rebranding" the Boerum Hill/Cobble Hill/Carroll Gardens area (a.k.a. "the goyish white part of Brooklyn that isn't Park Slope or Williamsburg") as the "BoCoCa" district, all in an attempt to draw WASPs scared of living in what is basically Red Hook. This new name=new image magic trick is obvious to all those who took useless Lit classes in college: any hack with a copy of Barthes's S/Z can tell you that naming is just a mechanism of control, with words becoming the currency of power in the laissez faire market of speech (hereafter known as the (Yo)United States of [Ana]Logos), with language locking society into a slavish but delusory matrix of linguistic need and forcing compulsory citizenship in the hegemonic Dis(Semi)Nation, all of which only serves to underscores the inherent sadomasochism of speech and eventually cause the transformation of the nominous into the numinous. Throw in a My Fair Lady reference, quote something inexplicable by Bhabha because you just have to, hint that the Holocaust was really just a failure of translation, and you're done—Judith Butler couldn't have asked for anything better (well, she could have, but she would have demanded a bunch of motherhood hangups, incest, and tongue metaphors, and who wants that?).

Sadly, the NYT article barely scratches the theoretical surface of the neighborhood naming controversy; thankfully, the whole naming as power/renaming as gentrification thing—as it relates to Brooklyn—is covered in much better/greater detail in Jonathan Lethem's excellent novel-length love letter to the borough, The Fortress of Solitude. In short, Fortress's whole tragic, dramatic arc is set in motion when a racist Jewish woman rechristens the all-black drug ghetto Gowanus as "Boerum Hill" in an attempt to make it seem more quaint and residential, and thus more attractive to white people—this despite the fact that the area has neither a hill nor any connection to anyone named Boerum, and is basically just a cluster of crackhouses. (Even better, Lethem—who lives in "BoCoCa" to this day—talks about name games, Brooklyn's yuppie invasion, and old-skool Brooklyn 'hood life in this interview with The New Yorker.)

Indeed, New York is almost legendary in this respect, with a long history of giving run-down neighborhoods more upwardly mobile names in an attempt to attract the honkies—and even creating totally new "gentrified on delivery" neighborhoods out of dilapidated industrial districts (who knew a place called DUMBO would end up a desirable address?). Some famous neighborhood rebrands in recent NYC history....

Clever renamings in the 70s and 80s (respectively) transformed a stretch of stinky, abandoned docklands in the southwest corner of Manhattan into the chic district of art galleries, $2 million lofts, overpriced restaurants, and Gwyneth Paltrow sightings that we today call SoHo and TriBeCa. (Robert DeNiro and his temple to conspicuous consumption, Nobu, are almost single-handedly to blame for the latter—Bobby DeNiro pretty much owns the entire TriBeCa neighborhood.) In the 90s, when Chinatown's ever-expanding borders effectively wiped out all the Italianness in what was once one of the country's most storied Little Italy districts, some linguistic genius renamed all that was left of the historic area (basically two random factory buildings on Mulberry St.) as NoLIta, for "North of Little Italy"—and overeducated, overmedicated, overspending white people flocked to the area because of its saucily ironic name, visions of Humbert Humbert dancing in their heads. (It's now also known as NoHo, supposedly for "North of Houston" but really just to chase away all the Nabokovian/underage prostitute associations of NoLIta.) And we all know the story of Hell's Kitchen: once a favorite gang battleground (West Side Story takes place there), it was unsuccessfully scrubbed clean of the nastier (read: Hispanic) elements, marketed as a more urban chic (read: shitholey) alternative to the staid Upper West Side (which it borders), and of course renamed/rebranded as the "Clinton" district—all to bring in the rich white people. Didn't work, most likely because no one seemed to realize that it's so much cooler to say you live in Hell's Kitchen than in "Clinton." (Ditto for "BoCoCa": is some trucker-hatted fool going to get cred by telling their unemployed friends fellow Strokes rip-off band members that they live in BoCoCa [isn't that in Florida?] or in "South Brooklyn"?)

Yo, but my favorite neighborhood renaming story is actually from San Francisco, which (because of its tiny size) often slams very ghetto and very wealthy districts right up against each other, and thus often ends up with weird Bohemian no-man's-lands springing up between the two. Smack dab in the middle of downtown SF is the legendary Tenderloin district, which trafficks (as its name implies) almost exclusively in the sweet sweet loins of barely legal boy-sluts. The 'Loin is east of exclusive, snooty Nob Hill, home to countless upscale SF landmarks like the Ritz-Carlton, the Top of the Mark, and the four-star Fleur de Lys. Hepcats have recently discovered the Tenderloin's low rents but don't care much for the rent boys that come with it, so they've set up camp within the technical bounds of the red-light district but crept closer in feel to their yuppie white brethren to the west, high up on Nob Hill. In doing so, they've ended up populating a liminal space between the two regions that obviously and immediately earned the name Tender Nob. Yum!

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