By TED SMITH
When I was a kid growing up in Pittsburgh, my civic booster grandmother would often tell me, “You know dear, they call Pittsburgh ‘the San Francisco of the East.’” And it’s true that our fair city, with its cozy ethnic neighborhoods clustered on various hills and valleys around the city, and our two cable cars climbing the side of Mt. Washington, might have had a slight resemblance to the City by the Bay. But as I used to retort, “Maybe, Grandma. But no one ever calls San Francisco ‘the Pittsburgh of the West’!” (Except maybe in jest.)
I call this phenomenon of borrowing the prestige of someplace by extending its name to another slightly similar or neighboring place, “gilt by association,” and it goes on a lot in real estate. It’s interesting to see how Realtors’ names for the same neighborhood have changed over time, as the place has acquired or shed prestige. For example, Capitol Hill (at least in real estate terms) used to extend all the way north to H Street, N.E., and east and south to the Anacostia River (at least, until the I-395 freeway cut those neighborhoods off). But on MLS listings, you can still see various permutations like “North Capitol Hill” or “Capitol Hill—North” to distinguish properties north of E. Capitol St. from those below. That’s now being replaced in some instances with the H Street corridor (or the Atlas District) as that neighborhood has grown in prestige.
The place names for real estate neighborhoods don’t necessarily correspond with the political boundaries for a neighborhood. For example, I live on 10th Street, N.W., between M Street and Massachusetts Avenue. Sale properties in my neighborhood are variously listed as being in Logan Circle (the gilded lily name), Mt. Vernon/Convention Center (my preferred name), Shaw (really?), or that old development standby for a neighborhood without a distinct identity in mid-city D.C., Old City #2 (not to be confused with Old City #1 to the east of us). If you’re a long-time resident of the District, you might pretend to be able to precisely differentiate those neighborhoods. But, though each of them may have a distinct geographic center, their boundaries are fuzzy—partly because their names come from and are used in various political and economic contexts.
Why is all this significant? Because naming is power. To identify a place with a distinctive name is to be able to increase or diminish its political and economic clout. Don’t believe me? Want to know how much extra you can get selling a property with a “Georgetown” neighborhood name? In an interesting negative twist on this, the Park View neighborhood south of Petworth almost disappeared (oh, the signs on Georgia Avenue were still there) when the Washington, D.C. Economic Partnership omitted it from the 2012 Neighborhood Profiles and Maps. (It was replaced with Petworth/Park View after residents raised a ruckus with their Council members.) Why would it be important if the place name disappeared? Because a way of distinguishing one neighborhood from another (whatever the relative real estate prestige of either) would be gone.
What this means to sellers and lessors of real estate property should be pretty obvious: Borrow the best neighborhood name for your property that you can legitimately claim; it will mean an increased price for your home. For buyers and renters, the lesson is to either use zip codes or a map search when looking for a property in order to avoid any confusion over place names.
The power of names to elevate or deprecate the value of objects has long been recognized. Many people will know the famous quote from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But would it? Not in real estate.