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From Bloomingdale to SoHa: One UWS Neighborhood's Quest for a Name

The Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Amsterdam Avenue and 113th St. Morningside Heights, NYC.
The Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Amsterdam Avenue and 113th St. Morningside Heights, NYC.
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DNAinfo/Paul Lomax

UPPER WEST SIDE — If there's a reason no one knows what to call the section of the Upper West Side between West 96th and 110th streets, it probably has something to do with the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum.

The neighborhood was known as Bloomingdale as far back as the 17th Century. The name was thought to be a reference to the Dutch town Bloemendaal, which translates as "vale of flowers." It probably could have kept that bucolic label if the largest local institution wasn't the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum, which opened in 1820 on what's now Columbia University's campus.

Though a center for innovative treatment of the mentally ill, the asylum wasn't exactly a selling point for real estate promoters during the city's post Civil War boom, so they stopped calling the neighborhood Bloomingdale, said historian Gilbert Tauber.

The Holy Name of Jesus Roman Catholic Church stands at 96th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, New York City.
The Holy Name of Jesus Roman Catholic Church stands at 96th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, New York City.
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DNAinfo/Paul Lomax

"A lot of money was being made," Tauber said. "For people who wanted to sell real estate, the name Bloomingdale had some negative connotations."

Almost 150 years later, no one has come up with a suitable replacement moniker.

Locals say the neighborhood has a distinct enough personality to warrant its own name — similar to the Lincoln Square area around Lincoln Center — but efforts to christen it have failed.

That doesn't mean many haven't tried.

A decade or so ago, a movement sprung up to start calling the area SoHa, for South of Harlem.

"That never held, thank goodness," remembers Peter Arndtsen, district manager of the Columbus-Amsterdam Business Improvement District, which covers Columbus and Amsterdam avenues between West 96th and 110th.

"I took it as an affront, because we aren't SoHo, and we don't want to be SoHo," Arndtsen said. "This is a neat neighborhood with a lot of diversity and to just lump into one of those acronyms didn't seem to be appropriate."

In the late 1990's, the name "SoCo" — for south of Columbia University — emerged. It didn't catch on either.

"To me the area defies description," said Malcolm Carter, a real estate broker at Charles Rutenberg Realty who admitted he struggles to come up with a fittting name when he writes about the area on his blog. "Perhaps it's the Upper, Upper West Side." Carter also suggests Columbia Heights as a possible label.

For some, the idea of a separate name for West 96th to 110th streets doesn't sit well, because the area fought for years to be considered part of the Upper West Side. Yet it still sometimes isn't.

Online rating service Yelp! halts its map of Upper West Side establishments at West 96th Street, and City Councilwoman Gale Brewer's district stops there too. When the Planning Department unveiled an early version its Upper West Side Retail Streets Initiative — a zoning proposal aimed at preserving the neighborhood's unique character — it left out West 96th Street to 110th streets (they were added later).

Home to the the New York City Housing Authority's Frederick Douglass Houses and the former Mitchell Lama complex Park West Village, the neighborhood from West 96th to 110th was once regarded as a working class enclave that didn't quite fit in with wealthier blocks to the south. But some say those days are over.

"They were the stepchild, then all of a sudden it changed. You've got some very cool restaurants up there," said Linda Alexander, a longtime member of Community Board 7. "It's the Upper West Side and people get uptight if you call it anything but."

She pointed to French bistros Picnic (on Broadway and West 101st Street) and Alouette (Broadway and West 97th Street) as draws for diners, and said additions to the retail landscape such as the new Westside Market on Broadway and West 97th Street are making the area even more desirable.

The new Columbus Square luxury housing development brought a Whole Foods, Michaels arts and crafts, and Home Goods to the blocks around West 97th and Columbus Avenue, and locals cheered when news broke recently that the long vacant Metro Theater on Broadway and West 99th Street is set to reopen in 2013 as a movie theater that sells food and booze.

Greg Kammerer, an associate broker with The Corcoran Group, says he tells home buyers that the area is a combination of the Upper West Side and the West Village. "There are things there you just don't see in the West 70s," Kammerer said, referring to the mix of small ethnic restaurants as well as national chains such as Chipotle and Pinkberry.

Another plus: it's more affordable than the rest of the Upper West Side, said Kammerer, who lives in the Straus Park condominium on West 107th Street and Broadway. He said apartments in his building are probably 20 to 30 percent cheaper than in comparable buildings to the south, such as The Laureate at Broadway and West 76th Street.

Even with all that going for it, Kammerer was hard pressed to come up with a fitting name for the neighborhood.

"The neighborhood is called a lot of different things," Kammerer said. "The people that live there like to refer to as Morningside Heights. Some people want to call it the Bloomingdale District. People that really don't know say it's Harlem. The New York Times calls it Manhattan Valley."

The Aspirineum located on Amsterdam Avenue and 96th St. on the Upper West Side, NYC.
The Aspirineum located on Amsterdam Avenue and 96th St. on the Upper West Side, NYC.
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DNAinfo/Paul Lomax

Indeed Manhattan Valley has been a popular term for the eastern side of neighborhood in local media, usually in stories about the area's imminent revival. The Times in 1987 declared Manhattan Valley an up and coming neighborhood, and predictions of its renaissance continue unabated.

In 2011 the Wall Street Journal said Manhattan Valley was seeing higher asking prices for apartments, and New York Magazine deemed it one of New York's "next big neighborhoods."

But local Adam LeBow said he doesn't like the term Manhattan Valley because it seemed invented by the real estate industry.

Another reason some may not have embraced the term Manhattan Valley is that the term first appeared in city social agency reports detailing the poverty and crime that afflicted the area in the 1970s, said historian Tauber.

"It was really a name associated with the less happy aspects of the neighborhood at that time," Tauber said. "Now things have become more prosperous over there, and folks in the real estate business have taken to using that name."

LeBow, who lives at West 100th Street and Riverside Drive, says people often wrongly assume he lives in the 70s or 80s when he tells them he lives on the Upper West Side. A new name for his neighborhood would cut down on the amount of explaining he has to do, he said.

A composer, lyricist, librettist and actor, it didn't take long for LeBow to rattle off several possible names. He offered The Pre-Columbian, ReBeHa (for Rectangle Below Harlem), Riverside Park North,  Riverside North, and Candelaville, in honor of architect Rosario Candela, who designed several residential buildings on West End Avenue and Riverside Drive.

Some say they want to bring the name Bloomingdale back to West 96th to 110th streets.

The historic label still lingers on local institutions like the public library on West 100th Street, the Bloomingdale School of Music on West 108th Street, and P.S. 145 on West 105th Street, which says Bloomingdale School on its building, although it's now called the Magnet School for Technology and Communication.

The park at West 106th Street and Broadway was named Bloomingdale Square in 1907, but after local couple Isidor and Ida Straus died aboard the Titanic, the park was renamed Straus Park in their honor in 1912.

Peter Arndtsen of the Columbus-Amsterdam BID said he'd like to see the Bloomingdale name come back into wide use because it captures the history of the neighborhood and speaks to recent positive changes.

"Bloomingdale fits," Arndtsen said. "We're trying to make this neighborhood greener. Restaurants are doing oil recycling. Some are trying locally-sourced foods. We've got a lot more trees than we did 15 years ago. All that I see as being positive and having potential toward making this a very neat area to live and work in, and Bloomindale fits with that."

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