He’d seen a Times article referring to the neighborhood as Soma but he hated that name. “We didn’t think of ourselves intellectually as south of Macy’s,” he says. “We think of ourselves as extending, if you will, the Zeitgeist of Madison Square Park north.” Zobler claims that GFI came up with the name NoMad, and when I suggest it had a brief previous life, he says, “I didn’t know that. If it has a history, even better.” Either way, when GFI unveiled plans for its NoMad Hotel in 2008, it announced that the hotel would be located in “the newly established NoMad district,” which “consists of upscale residences, retail shops, creative agencies and renowned restaurants.” The only wrinkle was that, at the time, there was no such place as the NoMad district. If it was newly established, it’s because GFI established it. Typically, someone discovers a happening new neighborhood and decides to give it a name. NoMad was a name in search of a neighborhood.
It’s not impossible, of course, to create a neighborhood from scratch. David Walentas famously did it in Dumbo. “But Dumbo was unique,” he says, “totally different from other neighborhoods that have gone through transformation and gentrification in the last 30 years.”
Walentas, who is 71, started Two Trees Development in 1968. He bought buildings in Soho in the early seventies and Noho shortly after. Then Walentas asked his staff, “Soho, Noho, what’s next?” Someone told him “Dumbo.” Walentas said, “Where the fuck is Dumbo?” He decided to pay it a visit.
What he found was a largely vacant district of warehouses and factories on the Brooklyn waterfront, zoned for industrial use. He bought eight buildings, 2 million square feet, for $12 million, in 1981. “I got lucky. No one else wanted it. I bought the whole neighborhood.” It took seventeen years for him to persuade the city to rezone the area. After that, he assumed the role of “benevolent dictator,” as he says, “with a vision for the whole neighborhood.” He lured stores like Jacques Torres Chocolate and West Elm by offering them a few years’ worth of free rent. “That way, we created the neighborhood. We could give space away because we had so much, it didn’t matter. And it made my other properties more valuable. If you only owned one building, you would never do that. If you own one building, you take care of one building.”
It was a rare experiment in SimCity-style neighborhood building, but it worked, right down to the goofy name. Most people assume Walentas invented the acronym Dumbo (Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass), but it predates him. “I loved it, but my lawyers and consultants said, ‘What are you, crazy? No one will ever want to go there.’ So they came up with ‘Fulton Landing.’ I said, ‘Fulton Landing? That sounds like it’s on the Ohio River. That could be fucking anywhere.’ ”
An area like the Brown Zone—or, as it’s often called, the wholesale district—has been resistant to transformation in part because it’s not a blank slate like Dumbo. Everyone who owns one building there is only taking care of that one building. The lack of amenities like cafés and shops discourages residential development, which in turn discourages new cafés and shops. The area itself feels dingy and inhospitable—an online commenter once suggested it be called “DoNeNo,” for Down Near Nothing. When Bar Breton, a new venture from Michelin-star-earning chef Cyril Renaud, opened at Fifth Avenue and 28th Street, a reviewer located it in “a grungy zone between Koreatown and the Flatiron district that’s quiet in a decaying, rather than leafy and cloistered, kind of way.” Of course, other less-than-picturesque neighborhoods have been remade; Smith Street in Brooklyn in the nineties was not exactly the West Village. But cheap rents encouraged restaurateurs to take a risk there. There are no cheap rents in midtown Manhattan.
So to change a neighborhood like that, “you need one landlord who’s willing to cut a deal for a new kind of tenant,” says Faith Hope Consolo, chairman of retail real estate at Prudential Douglas Elliman. “If you can find someone who owns more than one building, you have a much better chance.” Otherwise, when the blocks are dominated by fast-food outlets and stores selling perfume, jewelry, and wigs, there’s not much incentive to open anything other than a fast-food outlet or a perfume, jewelry, or wig store.
In fact, the only way to jump-start that kind of neighborhood is to (a) buy up as much real estate as possible, in a kind of mini-Dumbo-fication; (b) bring in a business that can serve, like a mall, as an all-in-one destination to attract outsiders; (c) undertake a campaign to remake the image of the neighborhood in the minds of the public; or (d), as is the case with GFI in NoMad, all of the above.