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.
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.
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,
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.”
Last month, eleven years after the term’s debut, NoMad returned to the Times, in the headline “In NoMad, a Bar With a Pub Vibe,” about the scene at the Ace. The Guardian in London called NoMad “a hipster hub in midtown Manhattan.” Even David Walentas said of NoMad, “We’re looking at a building there. But we’ll be just another asshole.”
There are other dots to be connected as the rough borders of NoMad are sketched in: There’s Bar Breton; the Eventi; and Eataly, a 32,000-square-foot skyscraper–cum–Italian artisanal market going up at the southeast corner of Madison Square Park, which will feature an 8,000-square-foot rooftop garden and six (!) restaurants under the guidance of Mario Batali. There’s also, of course, Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack in the park, where I once stood in line while a homeless man jeered, “Look at you! You’ll wait 40 minutes to pay $8 for a cheeseburger!” I wanted to correct him: The double cheeseburger is only $7, and I’d been in line for an hour and a half.
If the Ace is a neighborhood starter kit, then massive projects like Eventi and Eataly are the same approach taken to a Vegas-level extreme. It’s like creating a whole new neighborhood—complete with residences, restaurants, bars, shops, and a steady flow of tourists—inside one towering building: the neighborhood-as-biosphere. Gone are the days when you might reimagine an underused industrial zone on a map, or stumble on a bunch of vacant warehouses on the waterfront, or find some funky frontier in which to rub two sticks together and hope to ignite something new. There are no new frontiers, save the ones you carve out or conjure yourself, starting with the right magic word. “We all might be saying NoMad sounds dumb now,” says Arak. “But if 10,000 people keep repeating it for five years, who knows?” He corrects himself. “Maybe not 10,000 people. Maybe 100 trendsetting Ace Hotel regulars.”
Eventually the name, and the neighborhood, and the idea of the neighborhood, will drift out into the city, and make its way into more headlines and tourist guides and maybe even taxicab maps—everywhere, it seems, except across the street, on 29th, where two shops stand side by side. One bears the enigmatic name City Group King Star, though a neon sign explicates further: BELT LIGHTER WALLET hat. Judging from the window display, they could add LED BOB MARLEY LIGHTER SKULL BONG SNOW IN A CAN.
Next door is M.K. Sterling & Watches. Inside, I ask a clerk how long they’ve been here and he laughs. “Here? We just moved. We used to be there—” and he points across the street to the corner of 29th and Broadway, which is now the prow of the Ace Hotel building and is currently covered in plywood, awaiting a new tenant. “We got kicked out,” he says. His name is Umang. His boss, the owner, also gives only his first name, Shappy. (To be fair, his business card uses only his first name; that’s how you do business in the wholesale district.) Shappy’s had a store in the neighborhood for 25 years. Recently, he’s seen other shops pick up for New Jersey or, in an odd echo of the Victorian mad wife stashed in the attic, move to the upper floors of the local skyscrapers when the storefronts got too expensive. Most of the storefronts on the east side of Broadway between 29th and 28th are now for rent. “Small people can’t survive no more,” Shappy says. He likes the Ace. They’re decent neighbors. They even put planters out in front of their bar to obscure revelers and appease a mosque on the block. “They’re busy,” Umang says. “They bring good crowds,” though few of those people wander over to shop for wholesale watches. “What we sell is inexpensive. They sell T-shirts for $150.” I think of Remington Guest (yes, his real name), a 21-year-old who lives in Hoboken and was written up in a Blackbook article on the Ace. “I mean, look at the area it’s in,” Guest said. “You walk outside and there’s some guy trying to sell you suitcases for five bucks.” Correction: The Ace used to be in that area. It’s in NoMad now.