Where the Neighborhood Has No Name

We’ve written before on whether a child’s first name has any effect on life outcomes, and whether street names have any effect on housing prices. What if a neighborhood changes its name?

Ask the residents of South Central Los Angeles. Actually, you can’t, because technically the neighborhood no longer exists. The name “South Central” was wiped from official maps of the city five years ago to improve the reputation of an area that had become synonymous with violence and crushing poverty after the 1992 L.A. riots.

But erasing the neighborhood’s name may have had some unintended consequences, the Los Angeles Times reports. Investment seems slow to come to this neighborhood with no name, and residents of this nowhere place say they’ve lost the sense of community they used to have.

In the case of a neighborhood, could it be that having a bad name is better than no name at all?

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  1. Marci Kiser says:

    Another example: ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ in NYC was changed by developers to ‘Clinton’ a while back. This provoked an interesting backlash of traditionalists who can now say that they live in hell’s kitchen, while their transplant neighbors two doors down live in Clinton.

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  2. matt says:

    There is a similar occurrence in Toni Morrison’s novel “Song of Solomon.”

    In that novel, the neighborhood where the mostly poor and most black populace resides is built around a street the residents call Doctor Street. The street is so named because it was where the only doctor in town servicing black folk lived and worked (in the time before the white hospital admitted blacks for general treatment).

    In an effort to “improve” (re: control) the neighborhood and, ostensibly, the lives of the residents, the (all-white) town council “renames” the street “Mains Avenue.” The residents don’t take to the new name. Because they continue to call it Doctor Street, the council publishes signs and leaflets admonishing something to the effect of “This is not Doctor Street.”

    Not ready to give up their street (and the culture identity that accompanies it), they residents take to calling it “Not Doctor Street.”

    Perhaps the residents of what was once South Central ought to now call their neighborhood “Not South Central.”

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  3. Elan says:

    This is a very interesting article… Living in South Africa, I have been watching the name changes of roads, suburbs, airports and even towns, and it would be interesting to look at the economic impact of those changes.

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  4. 10803 says:

    Why not just start a PR campaign with a made-up name? It worked for Hell’s Kitchen, err, Chelsea.

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  5. 10803 says:

    Woops, I meant Clinton.

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  6. discordian says:

    Seems to me a lot of the country lives without neighborhood names just fine.

    There’s quite a few people who live in the suburbs and small cities and don’t have neighborhood names to identify with.

    Sure, there’s neighborhoods, but they aren’t “named” and a source of pride or identity.

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  7. Chris says:

    East Detroit, Mich. changed its name to Eastpointe in 1992. I’ve heard that their attempt to evoke an image of wealthy Grosse Pointe helped real estate prices at the time, although I’ve heard it is pretty abysmal now.

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  8. Mitch says:

    A few years back when my county renamed and renumbered streets to more effectively implement 911 coverage, a small lane that had never been named was christened “No Name Lane” after the residents complained their street was going to be named.

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  9. Tomas says:

    I’ve heard as a rule of thumb (and unless you specifically know better), anyplace with the word “Heights” in the name is a bad place to live.

    By the way, my opinion is that even if “South Central” isn’t “South Central” anymore, everyone knows it’s still “South” Central”…

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  10. Chris says:

    Where the streets have no name….

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  11. Elena says:

    Another example: The Lower East Side being re-named the “East Village.”

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  12. Rufus T. Harlemberry says:

    So the next race riot will be held in “The neighborhood formerly known as South-Central.” Problem solved.

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  13. Jake says:

    Here in Pittsburgh, a new shopping development called “Eastside” was built on the border between one of the nicer neighborhoods, Shadyside, and one of the worst examples of urban renewal, East Liberty. Developers and the city love to throw the name around; most everyone else recognizes it as the blatant diversionary tactic that it is.

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  14. RZ says:

    Neighborhoods need to have names. I’ve lived in Los Angeles (though not in “the neighborhood formerly known as South Central”) for years and still have trouble figuring out where things are because so many areas don’t seem to have names. L.A. is simply too large to have neighborhoods without names. One Los Angeles address could be 20 miles from another area listed as Los Angeles!

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  15. JD says:

    In Pittsburgh, the area across the river that now has Heinz Field and PNC Park used to be known as the North Side. When they started redeveloping with the stadiums and other attractions, the City changed the name of the neighborhood to the “North Shore”.

    The “North Shore” of today is a vast improvement from the “North Side” of 10 years ago, so changing the name of a neighborhood is probably a better idea than leaving it without a name entirely.

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  16. SM says:

    When a law firm moved to East Palo Alto some yrs back, they just shortened their address to Palo Alto which is trendy and richer. Of course people were angry.

    Also in San Jose, the Viet-Americans fought furiously over the name to be given to the Viet business district, whether it should be Little Saigon or something else. They wasted so much of the city council’s time and almost recalled the first office holder of Viet origin.

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  17. wb says:

    There has been a huge battle in Portland, OR over which street to rename Cesar Chavez. I’m frankly offended that they renamed Portland Blvd. to Rosa Parks Way. I would LOVE it to be named after a LOCAL African-American achiever. But it irritates me to rename a street after someone who has no local ties, when we have plenty people with direct ties to Portland who could and should be honored. We already have an MLK Blvd. At least Cesar Chavez was famous on the west coast.

    I loved them renaming Front Ave. to Naito Parkway, after the Japanese-American family who have invested so much in the city even after having to relocate to Utah during WWII.

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  18. Chris says:

    It helps if everyone has the same idea of what a place name means. On a somewhat larger scale than neighborhoods, everyone in Western New York knows that “upstate” ends around Utica but everyone in NYC thinks “upstate” starts at the edge of NYC (or maybe the top of Westchester or even Dutchess County) and extends to cover the rest of the state.

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  19. Paul says:

    In Baltimore you have real estate agents trying to change the name of the Pigtown neighborhood to the generic name of Washington Village.

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  20. Charles says:

    Chris (#18) – I thought “upstate” started at 96th St… 😉

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  21. Jake says:

    @15: It’s the “North Shore” when talking about new construction and entertainment. “North Side” is generally reserved for talk about blight and shootings.

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  22. mohan says:

    I used to live in the Maryland suburbs of DC, where neighborhoods happily borrow the prestige of their more affluent neighbors. Driving northwest from Georgetown (probably one of the nice neighborhoods in all of DC) up to the Maryland border, you hit Bethesda, a VERY nice suburban town. Adjacent to Bethesda is the pricey suburb of Potomac. Continue up rt 355, and you hit Rockville, again, a very nice town, but it didnt have the cachet of Bethesda. What did the developeres do? The southern end of Rockville now calls itself “North Bethesda”!?!?! I almost broke a rib laughing when I heard that one. I lived in a townhouse on the western end of Rockville where they started referring to themselves as “North Potomac”. Again hilarity ensued. I started referring to both faux-burbs as “Not Potomac” and “Not Bethesda” to remind myself of where I was. I kept waiting for Baltimore to start referring to itself as “North District of Coumbia”.

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  23. Tudza says:

    Pete Townshend

    “The White City, that’s a joke of a name

    It’s a black violent place if I remember the game

    I couldn’t wait to get out but I love to go home

    To remember the White City fighting”

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  24. anne, wrigleyville, lakeview, chicago says:

    levitt, you should know chicago prides itself on its neighborhood names, you probably could do some interesting studies on the west/south loop areas…

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  25. Daniel Schein says:

    The name of the neighborhood makes a big difference. I’m a Realtor in San Jose, California.

    Here in San Jose, Willow Glen has seems to be getting bigger every year because we Realtors realize that we can get a higher price for the house if we say that it’s in Willow Glen.

    “East San Jose” first started shrinking and now has disapeared entirely – replaced with Alum Rock, Berryessa, and a number of other sub-neighborhood names.

    Finally, there aren’t any more areas in this city that don’t have a name at all. If we get a listing in a neighborhood without a name, we will give it one on the spot. We often like to pick neighborhood names that come from the local history. That way, other agents will use the name rather than admit that they have never heard of it.

    Dan Schein



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  26. Grant says:

    I’m currently searching for an apartment in New York.

    I’ve noticed that a lot of people seem to have taken to calling Bushwick “East Williamsburg” in order to draw on some of that Wburg cachet. Same thing with the whole “DUMBO” thing.

    That should be a “stuff white people like” entry. Renaming formerly ethnic neighborhoods.

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  27. Light says:

    I can say my name, yes, Light, has definitely had en effect on my life. Up until about 4th grade it was a reason to make fun of me. People named John or David aren’t usually hassled similarly. I eventually took up my middle name throughout school. Only recently have I been identifying myself with my first name again…about 23 years later…. I’m 28.

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  28. Patrick says:

    If you want to see how big the consequences of naming can be, take a look at Ireland. When the Irish town of Derry (Gaelic: Doire) was incorporated by a London company on behalf of the crown all those years ago, it became Londonderry The name’s importance to Loyalists was solidified symbollically by the failed seige of Derry by Catholic King James, when the Protestant Loyalists held out in the walled portion of the city. To this day, British and Unionist Irish call it Londonderry and in the Republic and amongst the Catholic/nationalist community it’s just Derry. You’ll see a number of roadsigns in Catholic neighborhoods in Northern Ireland where the “London” has been spray-painted over.

    In Co. Kerry, the town of Dingle (Gaelic: An Daingeann), on the edge of the Gaeltacht (the Irish-speaking area of Ireland that’s not coincidentally also the most remote and economically disadvantaged) there’s continued tension over whether the signs should have the Irish name over the English name or vice versa with similar graffiti “corrections” on road signs.

    Words mean things.

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  29. Adam Herbst says:

    Beaver College changed its name to Arcadia University in 2001 – wonder why?

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  30. what's in a name? says:

    good question- I ask students to tell me what is in their names- most have stories- great stories to tell- when I think that they/we might be linked- as neighbors are -really by our first names- it even gets so much more interesting- particularly in light of the fact that in the Jewish religion- it’s the first hebrew name and not the last that’s considered on important occasions-

    mine’s golda.–a true story

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  31. Rebecca says:

    It’s just as bad in Philly. The city and developers have been spending more than 10 years strenuously calling West Philadelphia “University City” — but not even the university students there today call it that. Likewise Fishtown was rechristened “Port Washington” a few years ago — but nobody but the realtors seem to know exactly where Port Washington is (and a city paper derisively refers to it as “Port Fishington”). Philly’s very patchwork qualities sometimes make it genuinely difficult to find the right name, though. There are lots of places in town where you can live on a beautiful block that’s bordered by abandoned buildings and projects on two sides.

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  32. Cameron says:

    I saw a show about that on Tyra today

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  33. Anna says:

    Tom, (comment number 9)

    Your rule may hold generally, but Brooklyn Heights is pretty darn swanky, to give an alternative example.

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  34. Diana Lynn says:

    FYI: The South Central area is unincorporated. Recent reports indicate that residents are attempting to incorporate it as their own city — South Central. Apparently, the residents aren’t reading the Freakonomics blog.

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  35. Luis Baldomero says:

    In Mexico, at the state of Tamaulipas, south of Texas, there is a town called “Ciudad Valle Hermoso” (Beautiful Valley City) …. but most of the people of other towns call it different … they use the name ” Ciudad de las Tres Mentiras” ( Three Lies City) ….because … it is not a valley … it is not beautiful….and it is not a City ….

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  36. Darksider says:

    My home city is thinking about changing their name. From Halifax Regional Municipality, otherwise known as HRM, to just Halifax. Everybody is in uproar, but let’s face it, when I say I’m from Dartmouth, in any place outside the Maritimes, people think I’m in college. So I’m down with being from Dartmouth! (class of 39!!), Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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  37. Nameless in South Central says:

    My neighborhood, South Central, is what it is. It is a tight-knit community, poverty links us to each other, and crime can break us apart. We learn at a young age not to live in fear…but be cautious. I’ve seen random acts of violence but i’ve also seen random acts of kindness and love. Sometimes they are seen together. Ironic, but true. The fact remains that crime, gangs, drugs, guns, and juvenile-like-schools are the problem in our community. Poverty is the root. A name doesn’t make a neighborhood…the neighborhood makes a name.

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