Close your eyes and picture Broadway between 23rd and 30th Streets. There’s a good chance you’re either drawing a blank or you’re envisioning a long strip of wholesale perfume retailers, luggage liquidators, and stores that specialize in human-hair wigs. This is not the most picturesque area in the city, nor the most easily romanticized. Instead, it is famously the neighborhood, south of Herald Square, north of Flatiron, and east of Chelsea, that, on the classic New York taxi maps, stood alone as officially nameless. It was simply an unlabeled rectangle. And brown.
Now close your eyes and picture NoMad.
NoMad isn’t a neighborhood, not yet. In fact, there’s not really much to NoMad so far, except a few scattered restaurants, a handful of rental buildings, and, of course, the Ace Hotel, that humming new hotel–restaurant–bar–coffee shop–sandwich emporium–fancy clothing boutique that stands, like a planted flag, at Broadway and 29th Street. From the street, at night, in a downpour, you might peek through the steamed-up windows of the Ace and get a dreamy glimpse of the people inside, lit by lamplight, perched on armrests, cradling drinks. A clipboard-equipped doorman, studiously scruffy, might then helpfully redirect you away from the entrance for Hotel Guests Only, toward the Stumptown coffee, to an interior door, which will be locked. A barista, wearing cat’s-eye glasses, will regard you, not without pity, and say, “We’re at maximum capacity.”
How do you make a neighborhood? Can you conjure one out of thin air? If the crowds at the Ace are any evidence, then yes, you can, sort of, at least for a moment. The Ace opened officially one year ago, and it’s now the heart of the district called NoMad (North of Madison Square Park), insofar as any such neighborhood exists. Like never-never land, NoMad is a place that can only be visited if you believe in it hard enough.
In 1963, Chester Rapkin, a University of Pennsylvania professor and urban-planning expert, sat down with a map of New York. He was preparing a study for the city government on an area of downtown Manhattan that was full of landmark architecture but faced widespread demolition, since much of its former industrial life had drained away. Rapkin hoped to persuade the city to save the area as an urban incubator, where small and mid-size businesses might thrive. On his map, the area in question was marked SOUTH HOUSTON INDUSTRIAL AREA; Rapkin shortened this to Soho and used this nickname in his report. And in this one act of graceful (and ultimately successful) preservation, Rapkin not only helped save the area; he loosed the viral idea that in New York City you can essentially call a neighborhood into existence with sheer will, imagination, and a catchy acronym.
Of course, Rapkin had lots of help on the ground—the artists, for example, who colonized the area’s cheap lofts; the galleries that followed the artists; the restaurants that followed the galleries; the resultant boutiques, and so on, in the cycle of urban regeneration now so familiar to New York. This cycle repeated itself in Tribeca (Triangle Below Canal), a name that was coined in the seventies and later took on the luster of a brand—literally, in the case of the 2006 car model named the Subaru Tribeca. Since the coining of Soho, dozens of Balkanized slivers of Manhattan and Brooklyn have been diced up, claimed, and either renamed (Nolita, Noho, Soha) or simply reimagined (the meatpacking district, Williamsburg, Park Slope). Three years ago, on How I Met Your Mother, a sitcom set in New York, two characters bought into the trendy and up-and-coming DoWiSeTrePla neighborhood, only to find out later that it stood for “Down Wind of Sewage Treatment Plant.”
The nameless neighborhood in that brown taxi-map rectangle—roughly bordered by Madison Square Park to the south, 34th Street to the north, Broadway to the west, and Second Avenue to the east—has always resisted such neighborhoodification, despite boom times and persistent attempts. Back in 1996, some plucky Silicon Alley entrepreneurs tried to christen the area Soma, partly meaning “South of Macy’s” and partly in homage to San Francisco’s neighborhood of the same name. (No mention of Aldous Huxley.) The name didn’t stick. Then in 1999, the Times ran an article titled “The Trendy Discover NoMad Land, and Move In,” picking up on a popular coinage that seems to have appeared that year. That one didn’t stick either. By 2001, this magazine declared that NoMad “has fallen out of use,” with Leonard Steinberg of Corcoran explaining, “The connotation was bad, like you’re in no-man’s-land.” (It didn’t help that Madison Square Park, the area’s jewel amenity, was not fully revitalized until 2001.) In 2007, Times theater critic Charles Isherwood, who lives on Madison Avenue, wrote an essay in which he called his neighborhood simply “the Brown Zone” and lamented the “shaming fact of its namelessness.” NoMad, both the name and the neighborhood, lay dormant. Then Andrew Zobler took a taxi ride downtown.
Zobler, the 48-year-old CEO of GFI Development, recalls riding down Broadway late nights from his office in midtown to his home in the West Village, and as he passed through the Brown Zone, he often wondered: Why are the buildings on Broadway so stately but the storefronts so ticky-tacky? In 2007, GFI acquired a run-down hotel on 29th, the Breslin, named for its original proprietor, James Breslin, who opened it in 1904. The company formed a partnership with the Ace Hotel Group, a successful venture in Seattle and Portland, and agreed to bring a branch of the Ace here. GFI also purchased the Johnston Building, at 28th and Broadway, to develop into a separate hotel, which Zobler decided to call the NoMad.