Brand Evolves

The New York Times nervously ponders the evolution of a Harlem, a neighborhood whose core now has fewer black residents “than at any time since [Charles] Rangel was first elected in 1970” and is now eleven percent white.

More than ever, Harlem is less a clearly identified voting bloc than an idea. A brand. … Viewed from on top of those tour buses, Harlem is banking on a future tied to its legacy. Its currency is authenticity, a term that Harlem stakeholders added to their conversations as though pouring hot sauce and syrup over an order of chicken and waffles.

Leaving aside the problem with this imagery, this is (in theory!) in part the kind of transformation that every neighborhood with a name sort of desires, the transmutation into a idea that is boundless — a hashtag. But it’s curious, in some ways, to marvel at the notion of Harlem as a legitimate branding exercise — that is, one that is more brand than any other function of its identifier — as a new thing. The Harlem brand, one might say, has always been #strong, for better or for ill, and seemingly more elastic than a neighborhood whose name merely signifies “good schools,” or “annoying weekend crowd” or “a real estate broker just thought of this.”

The fear of a brand planet is rooted in the notion that the transubstantiation from place or thing to Brand necessarily displaces the thing it represents, a fear that manifests most visibly as an obsession with authenticity — the irony being, of course, that the quest for authenticity is the primary marker that a thing has become nothing but a brand.