What’s in a name? According to Nestor Davidson and David Fagundes, in Law and Neighborhood Names, a lot. As the authors recognize, the conflicts over neighborhood names that seem to be popping up in city after city may, at first glance, seem “trivial,” “cosmetic,” or (I might add) downright silly. Perhaps for these reasons, government regulation of neighborhood naming has largely been passive, reactive, or weak. But neighborhood names are emblems for the communities, values, and conflicts that they demarcate.
Law and Neighborhood Names provides a new perspective on this complex phenomenon. The authors also provide a pragmatically effective set of tools for addressing the injustices that so regularly flow from gentrification.
To be sure, gentrification is just one of the contemporary issues, though a key one, on which this article sheds new light. The authors also provide fresh insights on important debates about ownership, governance, identity, and space – informing conversations within the fields of property law, local government law, and toponomy (the sociology of place naming).
For example, they make a compelling and startlingly sensible case (effectively, a prima facie case) for a neighborhood to claim ownership of a neighborhood name as a form of cultural property. Although such claims are context-dependent, they argue that groups seeking to protect neighborhood names that have developed from the “bottom up” should be able to meet the three basic conditions of ownership of cultural property. These conditions are:  a coherent group of people that “can claim ownership;”  a “thing … that is the object of a property relation;” and  “a relationship whereby the thing is constitutive of the people’s identity.” (P. 801.) By demonstrating the pragmatic potential for groups historically marginalized in neighborhood naming contests to make such an argument, the authors strengthen the doctrinal understanding of cultural property. Their analysis is an effective means of transforming the battle over renaming parts of Harlem from a debate about culture and history into a debate that is also about law.
In addition, Davidson and Fagundes provide a fascinating analysis of the multiple connections between legal regulation of neighborhood naming (especially covert forms of regulation) and the ongoing dynamics around formal and informal neighborhood governance. The bluntest example is the taxing authority available to some business improvement districts (BIDs), which allowed one San Francisco BID to use much of its tax revenue to invest in and advocate for a neighborhood name change.
Broadly, the authors’ analysis of the implications of such efforts for local government law raises crucial questions about the power and perils of devolving democracy to the very local, and often informal, level. Such localized democracy can better respond to local preferences and information, but it can also risk exclusion of those with less money and political power.
These observations about neighborhood naming as a case study of local democracy relate to a third conversation to which the authors contribute compellingly. As the authors describe, the vocabulary and values underlying the legal concept of cultural property are useful tools for neighborhood residents who seek collectively to protect their neighborhood’s identity, history, and culture by preserving its name.
The concept of cultural property is useful because it is a tool for understanding, defining, deploying, and “concretizing” the pluralist values – “belonging, history, identity, and pride” – that people associate with being a part of a neighborhood. (P. 822.) Though socially powerful, these values can seem more “diffuse.” As a legal matter, it can therefore be easier to dismiss or underappreciate these values, especially when a community raises them in response to more financially grounded claims that renaming a neighborhood can raise property values and produce other economic benefits. (P. 821.)
This is a crucial point, perhaps the most valuable one for those of us who live in and work to support and nurture urban neighborhoods. It is relevant to discussions about affordable housing, health care, financial access, access to work, and local development.
While Davidson and Fagundes provide a range of interesting examples of neighborhood naming conflicts, the one that I kept turning over in my mind as I read this article was the attempt by a local group of realtors to rename a portion of Harlem “SoHa,” perhaps to leverage some of the success of the already-gentrified SoHo neighborhood. (P. 759.) It is the example with which the authors begin, and for good reason. It compellingly captures the range of losses that those who live in – and once lived in, visited, and felt association with – Harlem would experience if that name became a historical relic.
Consequently, a reasonable metric for assessing the authors’ analytical and normative claims is to consider their potential value for those who seek to preserve Harlem as their neighborhood’s name. My answer is strongly positive. Indeed, it is interesting to consider how arguments about cultural property might fare – in court, local government meetings, and other legal and extra-legal settings.
One response to the proposed renaming in Harlem was the reintroduction in 2017 by state senator Brian Benjamin of the Neighborhood Integrity Act, a piece of legislation originally introduced in 2011 to prevent the renaming of a portion of Brooklyn, that would penalize those who “advertise a property as part of, or located in, a designated neighborhood that is not traditionally recognized as such.” (P. 766.)
That bill has yet to be passed into law, despite supportive commentary by Harlem residents that it would help avoid “erasure” (P. 819) and would protect their neighborhood’s “history, culture and character.” (P. 790.) It is promising indeed to ponder whether the bill would have a better chance of passing if such commentary was made in support of the claim that the name “Harlem” is the cultural property of its residents.