A rare breed of dog? Try again.
A trendy new restaurant serving swampy noodles? Nope.
I discovered Swampoodle one evening while consulting Google Maps. There in big letters just north of Union Station – “Swampoodle.” It turns out Swampoodle was a neighborhood of Irish immigrants that developed in DC in the second half of the 19th century. The moniker can be attributed to the numerous swamps and puddles that resulted in the neighborhood when the nearby Tiber Creek overflowed. Swampoodle saw its demise in the early 20th century with the construction of Union Station.
I’ll just put it out there: Swampoodle is a horrible name for a neighborhood. Nothing about it evokes pride or possibility. In fact, according to Wikipedia, it had a “reputation for being a lawless shantytown, where crime, prostitution, and drunkenness were rife.”
(Side note: Why Google Maps includes a neighborhood that disappeared nearly 100 years before the technology was created should be the subject of another blog post.)
Could a rebranding campaign have saved Swampoodle? With a revamped identity, could the residents of Swampoodle—or any modern American neighborhood—have gained a fresh perspective on their surroundings and thus themselves? A new name, slogan, or logo alone can’t restore a neighborhood or community, but they may just provide a rallying point to attract and mobilize change.
Urban rebranding is often driven by economic forces like tourism and real estate, which require a city or neighborhood to distance itself from an older, negative reputation to increase prestige. But there is also opportunity for branding to influence the culture of a neighborhood or city to change behaviors that positively affect morbidity and mortality, the environment, crime rates, etc.
The “I <3 NY” campaign (reviewed in a January 2013 GOOD blog post written by Lee-Sean Huang) is a great example of how branding can positively affect a city:
Milton Glaser’s famous “I Love New York” logo launched in 1977, a time when New York City was nearly bankrupt, business was suffering (or leaving), and crime was rampant. Glaser created the logo pro bono for the NY State Department of Commerce to promote tourism. Since the logo launched it has helped attract millions of tourists a year to the state and generates over $30 million a year in merchandise royalties. New York has also become the safest big city in America.
While branding can help attract tourism or investment, the impact of Glaser’s “I Love New York” was not merely economic, but also cultural. The campaign helped change New Yorkers’ perceptions of their city by focusing on the positive during a challenging time to spark a sense of pride and ownership, which in turn, translated into the political will to take action. Robert McGuire, police commissioner for NYC from 1978 to 1983, explained, “You don’t think of a logo as a catalyst for the restoration of a city, but in many ways, without that slogan, the turnaround in New York’s fortunes wouldn’t have been achieved so quickly.”
Today, the neighborhood formerly known as Swampoodle goes by “NoMa” (which stands for “North of Massachusetts Avenue”) and is one of the city’s fastest growing neighborhoods. It is not the most creative name, but following in the footsteps of neighborhoods like New York’s Soho and Tribeca, it certainly has a nicer ring to it than Swampoodle.
What regions, cities, or neighborhoods do you think could benefit from rebranding? Share your ideas or examples of successful rebranding efforts in the comments below.
Also, if you want to read more about Swampoodle’s colorful history, check out this entry from Ghosts of DC, which includes an excerpt from a Washington Post article about some of the neighborhood miscreants.