In the latest issue of Harper’s, a published correspondence between South African author, J.M. Coetzee, and New York novelist, Paul Auster, converged upon -of all things- place making through place naming.
Auster waxes poetic about Manhattan, claiming the anonymous connotation that Coetzee finds in a street name like “55th” can actually elicit the visceral and the nostalgic, from the depths of “erotic encounters” and father’s office alike. However, these connotations derive only from previous experiences. What does “55th” mean in the abstract? None too much. What is in a name without numbers? Lots.
SoMo v. AdMo v. Adams Morgan
Auster recognizes the value of connotation in name alone. An unfortunate name, like that of his relative Elmer Deutelbaum, derives misery all on its own. Destiny is driven by name for Coetzee, and, à la Elmer, name derives value. Does this existential destiny apply to place name? It would seem. There might be hope, if you don’t live on dullll “L Street”, but with a name with pizazz, like “Z, or O, or X Street,” according to Auster, how chic it would be.
What of neighborhoods? If the Meat Packing District is any indication of denotation missing connotation over time, does a cool name on its own, a neighborhood make? The ire drawn from the rebranding of Southern Adams Morgan in DC as “SoMo” (aka, at the bottom of the hill on 18th St NW) was epic, if not comical. My roommate, living Adams Morgan adjacent for 6 years, still flinches when I say “AdMo.” I am totally comfortable with being more descriptive when I café at Pleasant Pops, with geo-tagging it as SoMo.
Geographic specificity aside, what would Auster and Coetzee say of rebranding after the fact? Would Elmer live a life less mundane as a Walter? The boring fate of an abstract L Street address may doom the dweller to obscurity, but what if we rebranded it to something like “Elle Street?” Quelle Parisienne? Would you want to live there? Would you want to eat in SoMo, not just Adams Morgan?
Rebranding for this sake is perhaps a distraction. Why do I go to Pleasant Pops or Duccini’s in SoMo? Infrastructure. It is close-by, walkable, and there is a bikeshare dock RIGHT there. I’d be more convinced to visit even the most mundane neighborhood if I could actually get to it. Maybe then, I could patronize businesses, bring friends and get the word out: rebranding it with content, not a shiny book jacket cover.