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SoWa? EaBo? Boston plays name game

In city's hot condo market, realtors look for an edge

By Lisa Wangsness
Globe Staff / September 5, 2005
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Faster than you can say loft-style condos, the SoHo-ization of Boston is at hand.

First, the industrial section south of Washington Street in the South End became SoWa. Then, a few daring souls tried calling South Boston SoBo.

Now, an aspiring real estate investor wants to turn East Boston into EaBo. A new restaurant in the North End is called Nebo. Another new development, SoHa Lofts (South of Harrison Avenue off of Albany Street) has sprung up in -- yes -- SoWa. SoCo Lofts, a condo building near Massachusetts and Columbus avenues, is coming soon.

Developers in cities across the country have seized on SoHo-derived nicknames to reclaim decaying urban neighborhoods and promote them as edgy and artsy -- presumably riding the coattails of the New York City neighborhood South of Houston Street that was once an industrial district known as Hell's Hundred Acres.

Boston, which loves to hate New York, and where fierce neighborhood pride is a staple of local culture, might not seem fertile ground for such nomenclature. Yet as a hot condo market pushes prices through the roof in many established neighborhoods, developers and realtors are using SoHo-esque nicknames to entice buyers into emerging ones.

''I think in the minds of folks it references that it's a transforming area," said Ed Nardi, president of Cresset Development, which recently erected a massive banner visible from the Southeast Expressway promoting its 86-unit SoHa Lofts.

A draft website for SoCo Lofts does not mention that the project is also a block southwest of Massachusetts Avenue, near the border of Lower Roxbury.

''SoCo Lofts, located just 'South of Columbus' Avenue, is part of the ever-increasing trend of New York Style artist/entrepreneur loft live and work spaces," the website says. ''. . . It should also be noted that the South End area, in which SoCo is situated, is one of the largest Historic Districts in the country and is full of charm, style and history."

Some city councilors find the trend a little silly.

''Maybe we can spruce up the image of City Hall," said Councilor Paul Scapicchio. ''We can call it CiHa."

The developer who started it all is Mario Nicosia, whose GTI Properties owns 10 buildings in the neighborhood south of Washington Street in the South End. In 2000, he launched a massive PR campaign to rechristen a blighted area of the South End in hopes of transforming it into a trendy arts district. He flew SoWa flags from his buildings, published a SoWa newsletter, established a shuttle to the subway with ''SoWa Express" emblazoned on the side. He also invested heavily in the arts community there, allowing artists to rent lofts at below-market rate and celebrating their work in biannual events.

Jan Saragoni, a publicist who has been working with GTI Properties to promote SoWa, emphasized that Nicosia was inspired by London's Soho.

''I'm going to disclaim any urge to copy New York," she said. ''I think he was thinking more internationally."

Perhaps to underline this point, Nicosia even went so far as to commission an illustrated map depicting SoWa at the center of the world's Sohos: London's Soho, New York's SoHo, Miami's SoBe and San Francisco's SoMa, which he distributed around the neighborhood.

Five years later, SoWa has become an almost mainstream term, popping up in travel guides and magazines. Though Bobby Garnett, owner of the renowned vintage clothing store Bobby From Boston, isn't changing his name to Bobby From SoWa anytime soon, he said SoWa has been good for business.

''It's amazing how many people come down just to check it out because they've read something or heard something about it," he said.

Indeed, a hot new Italian restaurant in the South End boasts that it's ''in Boston's hip SoWa neighborhood" -- even though it is actually on the north side of Washington Street. (NoWa?)

''We're right on the edge," insisted Damien Palladino, general manager of Stella.

Other Bostonian efforts to appropriate the SoHo moniker have not stuck quite so well.

In the late 1990s, on the cusp of the yuppie invasion of South Boston, restaurateur Jae Chung opened SoBo, a chic Asian restaurant next to the Boston Athletic Club. It closed after a year-and-a-half.

''We were ahead of our time, I think," he said.

More recently, Mike Munroe, a 27-year-old from Middleton who aspires to be a real estate investor, started a website called salemgroupproperties.com to promote the neighborhood he likes to call EaBo.

He hopes it will catch on, replacing the ''negative connotation" he feels plagues East Boston with a sense that the neighborhood is eclectic, diverse, and ''emerging."

''Even if it's smaller, we may have more of that New York feel someday," he said.

This does not sit well with some longtime residents.

''They're converting everything into condos, and now they want to change our name," said Theresa Cipriano of East Boston, upon hearing about the website. ''I think it's ridiculous, I really do."

Boston's blogging community, too, has been monitoring the SoHo-ization trend, mostly with great contempt

''What the hell are you smoking?" fumed a reader of Munroe's EaBo site. ''It's called Eastie."

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