London has a rich tradition of renaming its neighbourhoods. Around five years ago, technology companies started moving to the Old Street area of London, on the edge of once white-hot trendy Shoreditch and London’s financial district, the City. Someone joked that the area would start getting called “Silicon Roundabout” soon. And hey presto, that’s what it’s now known as – and it’s now enjoying all the hoo-ha that the “Silicon” tag inevitably brings.
Now it’s the turn of Tottenham, just a little bit north of where I live, and the site of some of the most extreme disturbances of the summer 2011 riots. A year and a bit ago, I heard someone born and brought up there speculate, half-jokingly, about whether gentrification would ever start lapping at the lower fringes of Tottenham, or “SoTo” (short for South Tottenham) as, he said, it would then no doubt be dubbed. Well guess what? London magazine Time Out has just heralded “SoTo” as the next hotspot in its “Property Predictor” section.
As the above suggests, mapping the tectonic shifts in London through its district monikers is a favourite activity of mine, which is why I was fascinated to hear about the Times-Picayune/Nola.com “NOLA Neighborhoods” project, “an interactive journalistic partnership” with its stated mission to “examine New Orleans area neighborhoods in depth – their boundaries, histories and changing cultures”.
There’s so much of interest here, but I was particularly fascinated to read that the names of NOLA neighbourhoods too are by no means set in stone and, just as in London, indicate social currents and changes. A great case study for the project centres around Pigeon Town – or is it Pension Town? Like Tottenham/SoTo, this area is experiencing tidal waves of gentrification and is the subject of intense debates about its present identity, its past, and its future, manifested in debates about its name.
When thing start to get heated, the desire to find, and/or retain, a neighbourhood’s “true” or “right” name can be strong. Robert McClendon, the Times-Picayune journalist who wrote the Pigeon Town/Pension Town piece says in the comments section that he’s, “still kind of mad that I couldn’t get to the bottom of this”, and I sympathise with him. In cities with turbulent histories like London and New Orleans, getting everyone to settle on one name for an area can seem like a route to cohesion and stability.
But soon after this impulse comes, you realise it’s a bad one. In the FAQ section for the NOLA Neighborhood project’s crowdsourced “Yat Map”, one question reads: “What if all the dots in my neighborhood are different colors, indicating that my neighbors and I don’t agree on the name of our neighborhood? In the great spirit of community building, will you at NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune facilitate a meeting for my neighbors to hash out our differences until we arrive at consensus?” “No,” comes the sensible answer.
The always perceptive New Orleans geographer Richard Campanella says in Eve Abrams’ fascinating radio documentary “Along St Claude” that, “people living in NOLA today, particularly transplants, read too much into the names”. He goes on to say that he thinks getting too hung up on them undermines “the messy richness that is the real story”. And if he’s right, and a “messy richness” of names means stories, then it looks like London and New Orleans’ neighbourhoods have plenty to tell. But I think you and I knew that already.