Residentially, the NoMad area has always been a nondescript no-man’s-land. As president of the Rose Hill Neighborhood Association, Gerard Schriffen led a long effort to officially name the neighborhood “Rose Hill,” after an eighteenth-century farm, but those efforts have flagged of late. “A lot of young people have moved in,” he says of the neighborhood’s changes. “They work so hard to afford Manhattan that they don’t get involved in the community the same way family people would.” Cheap rents lured a postcollegiate cohort down from Murray Hill, causing the neighborhood to swell, with mixed results: For example, it’s led to a mini-boom in the kind of nightlife you might expect to find in Murray Hill. Along Broadway, the historic architecture is more interesting, but few of the blocks are zoned residential. It’s not unusual to hear of people renting apartments in the area only to come home to find a notice from the city informing them they’re illegally living in a commercial building. A few condo developments have clustered around the park; when a 60-story luxury tower at One Madison Park was announced in 2008, it seemed like a glamour magnet. Now that building looms forlorn, like a giant glass filing cabinet, and is headed toward foreclosure.
The neighborhood itself exerts a weak pull. One long-timer, now moving out, told me his reason for doing so was simple: “It doesn’t feel like a neighborhood. It has no charm.” A real-estate broker who recently moved into NoMad told me he loves it—though what he loves most is how close it is to other areas. “You’re in the Village in five minutes or you’re in the Fifties in five minutes.” Then he adds, “Truthfully, I wanted to be further south. Gramercy is ideally where I’d want to be.” Thomas Gensemer, a managing partner at Blue State Digital, bought in the area in September. “When people would say, ‘Where did you buy?’ I’d struggle,” he says. “It’s definitely a community longing for an identity.” When I asked Charles Isherwood if he or any other locals actually call the area “NoMad,” he said, “I’m practically the only local I know.”
Unlike Williamsburg or Park Slope—neighborhoods that are ultimately defined by the character of their residents, often to the point of cartoonish cliché—NoMad isn’t defined at all by NoMadders. As of now, NoMad is defined, appropriately, by its nonresidents; specifically, its hotels. There’s not only the Ace and the NoMad but a clutch of nearby boutique hotels: the MAve, the Carlton, the Hotel Roger Williams, the Gershwin, and a new branch of the Gansevoort going up at 29th and Park. Many of the area’s hotels advertise themselves as being in either the Flatiron district or Chelsea. (The promotional material for the new Eventi hotel and rental complex, which will take up a whole block of Sixth Avenue between 29th and 30th, currently places it in Chelsea, though “Penn Station Heights” might be more accurate.) The folks behind the Ace and the NoMad, however, had no interest in stretching the boundaries of some attractive adjacent neighborhood. They decided to create a new one all their own.
Normally, it would take years for one neighborhood to develop such a diversity of attractions. But the Ace Hotel is like a hot-neighborhood starter kit.
Despite all the destination hotels, GFI is careful to explain that NoMad won’t become another meatpacking district—a tourist-choked amusement-park parody of a neighborhood. “We want NoMad to be a neighborhood for New Yorkers. And we want the Ace to become a ‘living room’ for the neighborhood,” Zobler says, and even at 8:30 a.m. on a weekday, there is a lot of living going on. The Breslin, the in-house restaurant, with its hunting-lodge-and-tartan vibe, is filling up with a local breakfast crowd. (It opens at 7 a.m.) It’s run by Ken Friedman and April Bloomfield, proprietors of the Spotted Pig in the West Village, which, like the Breslin, marries the unpretentiousness of a no-reservations policy with the quiet exclusivity of never actually being able to get a dinner table.
As a destination, the Breslin is crucial. The restaurant is always the catalyst. “First food, then fashion. Fashion always follows food,” Consolo explains. Retail wants to cluster near retail, but people will travel for a hot restaurant, whether to far-flung Vinegar Hill or Broadway south of Herald Square. And once they get there, they’ll also find, all under the Ace’s roof, a Stumptown coffee shop (for the morning crowd), the No. 7 Sub Shop (the lunch crowd), the Lobby Bar (the after-hours crowd), and a branch of the chic clothing store Opening Ceremony (the skinny-jeans-and-geometric-spectacles crowd). The Ace is negotiating to bring in an upscale nail-art salon, Valley. Normally it would take years for one hot neighborhood to develop that diversity of hip attractions. But with the Ace, the whole thing comes preassembled. It’s like a hot-neighborhood starter kit.
Joey Arak, senior editor of the real-estate blog Curbed.com, marvels at the genius of it. “It’s so much easier to kick-start something when it’s a hotel-driven development patch, because then restaurateurs and store owners have a built-in client base,” he says. “I can’t imagine Ken Friedman saying, ‘I’m going to cruise 29th and Broadway to see if there’s anywhere I can open a restaurant.’ But the Ace Hotel is its own entertainment multiplex. It’s a self-contained pleasure dome of fun.”