DIA’s branding survey is out, and now we have to talk about it

Courtesy of the Downtown Investment Authority.

Jacksonville’s Downtown Investment Authority has released a survey on a proposed rebranding of Downtown neighborhood districts with logos, color palettes and in two cases, new made up names. If the social media response is any indication, this hasn’t been especially well received. Much of the criticism is tied to the proposed renaming of the Northbank and Southbank, but the general sense is the whole thing wasn’t ready for primetime.

Rather than simply registering disapproval, we at The Jaxson decided to take a deeper dive into the problems with the proposals, and offer solutions on what to do about it. So here goes.

1. The whole project is underbaked

Let me start with this: I actually like some of the font and color choices. Some proposed color schemes for LaVilla, the Southbank and Brooklyn are vibrant and eyecatching, and a step above what we sometimes see in Jacksonville. But many of the choices are bland and corporate, and fall far short of what local graphic designers are capable of. For example, compare one of the better options in the survey for Brooklyn…

Courtesy of the Downtown Investment Authority.

…to this logo created by BrooklynJax, a placemaking nonprofit by my Jaxson partner Mike Field that didn’t end up being formed.

The survey version is just the word “Brooklyn” written in a somewhat interesting font. The BrooklynJax logo is intricate and original, and it captures two elements that the DIA’s entire Brooklyn project overlooks: the fact that Brooklyn is a historic neighborhood dating to 1868, and the fact that we’re talking about Jacksonville’s Brooklyn, not that other one that may, just may, be more famous.

Other cases simply miss the mark on what makes the neighborhoods significant. LaVilla, for instance, was once an epicenter of Black performance, music and culture so vibrant it was known as the “Harlem of the South.” Somehow the DIA’s proposed vision statement manages not to mention African Americans once in about 40,000 words. One of the LaVilla designs incorporates shapes that appear to be based on the windows of the Ritz Theater and Museum, but rather than photos of the African-American performers who lived and played in the neighborhood, the designs use this:

Courtesy of the Downtown Investment Authority.

But nothing is more emblamatic of the project’s half baked rollout than the suggested renaming of the Downtown Northbank. This area doesn’t really have a single common name. Most Jaxsons just call it “Downtown,” as it represents Jacksonville’s traditional downtown area before the city added additional neighborhoods to the official Downtown boundaries. If it needs to be distinguished from the rest of Downtown, it’s typically called just the Northbank or Downtown Core.

To get to NoCo, DIA first suggests renaming the Northbank as “NorthCore,” a weird, CamelCase Frankenstein of a name that, like NoCo, has never been used by anyone. It’s even more confusing than it otherwise would be considering that developers have been referring to one particular area of the Northbank between State, Broad, Church and Main Streets as the “North Core” since last year. Even if the abbreviated names were a good idea, which they are not, it’s a mystery why DIA opted for this convoluted path to “NoCo” rather than “NoBa” to match “SoBa.” Madness! But that’s just the start of the problems with “NoCo.”

2. The neighborhood renaming trend is tied to gentrification (and also lame)

Green Street in SoHo, Manhattan, the neighborhood that started the abbreviated rebranding trend. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The trend of giving neighborhoods abbreviated names comes from New York in the 1960s. In 1962, urban planning theorist Chester Rapkin wrote a report on a rapidly changing old industrial area below Houston Street in Manhattan, which he dubbed “SoHo” for “South of Houston”. While light industry was declining in New York, SoHo’s cast iron buildings with their large, open lofts and cheap rents attracted artists. The city had planned to demolish much of the area for expressways, but the Rapkin Report showed its potential for new uses. SoHo was spared and grew into a major arts and culture district.

Rapkin’s “SoHo” coinage is an example of a syllabic abbreviation or portmanteau, words that combine parts of multiple other words to create a new use. Both the name and the construction took off, and in the 1970s, an area of South Manhattan became known as TriBeCa, for “Triangle Below Canal Street.” This also became a prominent arts district, and before long New York was teeming with portmanteaus and abbreviations, including NoHo (North of Houston Street), DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), NoLIta (North of Little Italy) and NoMad (North of Madison Square). Over the next decades, the trend cropped up in cities across the U.S.

In SoHo’s case, Rapkin’s label served a real purpose: giving a name to an area that historically hadn’t had a concrete identity (earlier, it was known as the South Houston Industrial Area and Hell’s Hundred Acres, or simply considered part of the Eighth Ward). Later on, real estate agents and developers embraced this naming convention as a way to rebrand older neighborhoods and create a buzz. As the podcast 99% Invisible has noted, critics and planners increasingly see this as an intentional move to bring in new buyers with more money at the expense of the neighborhood’s older residents and character. In other words, it’s a way to speed the process of gentrification. For example, a 2015 study by Jackelyn Hwang found that realtors had promoted one area of South Philadelphia under invented new names like “Graduate Hospital,” “G-Ho” and “So-So” to attract wealthier residents who by and large see their neighborhood as totally separate from the diverse, working class areas around it.

Next page: More reasons NoCo should be a no-go