By Barbara Goldberg
NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York City real estate companies’ attempts to rename a Harlem neighborhood “SoHa” have enraged long-time residents of the historically black enclave, who say the move erases the community’s rich cultural history.
The neighborhood served as home and inspiration to generations of leading African Americans, including activists W.E.B. Du Bois and Malcolm X, who dubbed it “Seventh Heaven.” Artists such as poet Langston Hughes and singers Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald also lived there.
The “SoHa” name, echoing the high-priced, largely white Manhattan neighborhood of SoHo in lower Manhattan, has begun appearing in real estate listings for apartments located between 110th Street and 125th Street, and Realtor Keller Williams boasts a “SoHa Team” of agents on its website.
Keller Williams did not respond to a request for comment.
Harlem’s U.S. Congressman Adriano Espaillat vowed to introduce a House resolution to protect Harlem from being renamed.
“#WeRHarlem! And we refuse to be called by any other name! #NY13 #HarlemStrong,” @RepEspaillat wrote on Twitter on Monday.
The tweet accompanied a photograph of the famed Apollo Theater, where Fitzgerald made her singing debut at age 17 on Amateur Night in 1934.
Espaillat said the congressional resolution he plans to introduce this week “supports imposing limitations on the ability to change the name of a neighborhood based on economic gain.”
“I along with leaders and constituents of this community stand united to vigorously oppose the renaming Harlem in yet another sanctioned gentrification,” he said in an email. “This is an incredibly insulting attempt to disown Harlem’s longtime residents, legacy, and culture.”
Jamie McShane, a spokesman for the Real Estate Board of New York, an industry association, said the group supports existing state regulations, which prohibit real estate brokers from using “a name to describe an area that would be misleading to the public.”
Harlem is not the only historically black U.S. neighborhood to have its image challenged by eager real estate agents. Further north, parts of the South Bronx have been christened the “Piano District,” a reference to its former instrument manufacturing base.
In Washington, D.C., real estate firms have recast the Shaw neighborhood around historically black Howard University as North End of Shaw.
Both sparked outrage among long-time residents, particularly after developers who pushed the Piano District name change threw a “Bronx is Burning” themed Halloween party in 2015 that focused on the neighborhood’s 1970s decay, complete with a bullet-riddled car sculpture.
(Additional reporting by Gina Cherelus; Editing by Dan Grebler)