Move to rename Harlem sparks outrage

Historian Mitchell poses outside the Apollo Theater in the Harlem, NYC. Photo: Reuters
Historian Mitchell poses outside the Apollo Theater in the Harlem, NYC. Photo: Reuters

New York City real estate companies' attempts to rename a Harlem neighbourhood "SoHa" have enraged long-time residents of the historically black enclave.

The neighbourhood 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," and artists such as poet Langston Hughes, and singers Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.

The appearance in real estate ads of the "SoHa" nickname, echoing the high-priced, largely white Manhattan neighbourhood of SoHo in lower Manhattan, angered Harlem's US Congressman Adriano Espaillat, who vowed to introduce a House resolution to protect Harlem from being renamed.

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 neighbourhood 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."

Harlem is not the only historically black US neighbourhood 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, DC, real estate firms have recast the Shaw neighbourhood 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.

The "SoHa" name 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.

Neither Keller Williams nor the Real Estate Board of New York, an industry association, immediately responded to requests for comment.

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