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What's in a name?
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What's in a name?

What's in a name?

November 24, 2014 | By Dan Bamberger & Aaron Gordon

You are where you live.

Scholars, artists and marketers have analyzed that statement for centuries in an attempt to understand New York’s intricate demographic diversity. We join them. This month, the Bamberger Report sets out to find how much you can learn about a New Yorker’s identity based on their apartment address alone.

Jonathan Robbin, marketing mind reader

Jonathan Robbin is a businessman. He worked in advertising. He is also one of the most important obscure marketing minds of the past sixty years.

Starting in the 1950s, Robbin pioneered a sociological technique known as geodemographic segmentation. Through PRIZM, an intricate classification system, he placed all Americans into 40 demographic groups he called clusters. The posh inhabitants of townhouse enclaves were the “money and brains.” The “emergent minorities” lived in predominantly African American inner city neighborhoods. Robbin also wrote that clusters had a tendency to share similar tastes and live in the same geographic areas.

And as American retailers continue to spend millions hiring creative teams to help their products turn a profit in an increasingly fragmented consumer landscape, Robbin’s work has never been more relevant. In fact, he believed he could pinpoint something even more basic than behavioral patterns and consumer tendencies in these communities.

“If you tell me someone’s zip code, he once said, “I can tell you what they eat, drink, drive and even think.”

Bold claim, Mr. Robbin. Welcome to New York City.

The 10019 Factor: a search for your neighborhood’s epicenter

“In New York, where you live definitely reflects where you are,” says Michael Brau, a printing-house owner who just moved from Chelsea to the West Village. “It’s part of the process of self-actualization.”

However, the theories behind geodemographic identity are not as straightforward as in the rest of the United States, where similar socio-ethnic clusters tend to settle in more homogenous communities across larger physical spaces.

Tobler’s First law of Geography: everything is related to everything else and that closer things are more related than distant things.

But in New York, Robbin’s clusters are smaller and more tightly packed together than they are in other parts of the country and other major cities across the globe. Manhattan is an anomaly. In fact, tracking census in the 10019 zip code area of west midtown will yield at least eight very different clusters living side by side, from new immigrant groups to artistic bohemians. 

But living in the same area, no matter how small, does not guarantee that these different demographics will have regular social interactions.

“I know a lot of people who live in Stuy Town that aren’t interested in meeting people immediately outside their social circle,” said Amisha Sura, a dental school student.

When geographers Seth Spielman and Jean-Claude Trill tracked city censuses for their study, “Social Area Analysis, data mining, and GIS,” they found that New Yorkers often have more in common with people living on the other side of the city than they do with someone living down the block. Upper East Siders living on 62nd Street and 5th Avenue share more similar tastes with someone on Hudson and Bank Streets than they do with a neighbor on 62nd Street and 1st Avenue.

Part of the disconnect directly correlates with the extreme fluctuation of real estate values in a single neighborhood.

The Bamberger Report found apartments with similar features and layouts across three major neighborhoods: the Upper East Side, Chelsea, and the Villages (Greenwich and West). We realized that practically identical units located within the same area could have very different asking prices. A prime location in the hotspot area of those neighborhoods- say, 5th Avenue or the southern part of Chelsea or the heart of the West Village- caused apartment values to skyrocket.

A loft on 14th and 7th could cost an average 20% more than one on 28th and 8th. A Charles Street townhouse could cost 31% more than a comparable space on 10th Street and University Place. And an Upper East Side apartment on 60th and Lexington could cost a whopping 400% more than one on 84th and 2nd Avenue.

There are reasons for wanting to pay that premium. The walk to The Frick from 72nd street and Madison is quicker than the walk from 72nd and 1st. The club life is closer to a condo in South Chelsea than a one-bedroom on 28th street. Convenience in New York City is as much an amenity as a roof deck or a doorman.

Then there’s the name factor. 

What’s in a name?  

“I love the Park Avenue name,” said Melanie Brandman, who’s been dreaming of living there since she was a little girl.

In New York, owners aren’t just looking for a series of top-of-the-line features or a convenient location; they’re often buying a brand.

“People can be very judgmental and status oriented in Manhattan,” said John Fadel. He notices that people tend to give him a specific look when he tells them where he lives- at 67 Park Avenue, south of Grand Central Station.

The numbers seem to back him up. The Bamberger Group looked at a total of 301 sales of apartments on Park Avenue and ran their value against comparable apartments between Park and Madison Avenue and Park and Lexington Avenue. We found that living on Park Avenue costs on average 47% more, or roughly a million dollars, than living half a block away. 

As opposed to Fadel, who makes an effort to stay detached from where he lives, many are willing to pay the price for the thrill of the name. When John Socco on 80 Park Avenue gives out his address, he gets a feeling of having proof of his success, a payoff for the hard work he’s done.  

“Sometimes,” Socco said, “I catch myself giving out my address as Park and 39th, not 39th and Park.” 

The Paralyzed Lottery

Park Avenue is a brand, and a luxury brand at that; just look at the high-end Buick “Park Avenue” line that found great success in China after it was discontinued in the United States.

In some cases, buying that brand can have the same satisfying effects as buying a Gucci handbag. A study conducted by Liselot Hudders and Mario Pandelaere found that purchasing products based on name brand recognition alone could have a short-term positive psychological impact for the consumer.

But what happens if the novelty of a luxury label disappears?

A 1978 study done by Philip Brickman, Dan Coates, and Ronnie Janoff-Bulman found that mega-million lottery winners end up having the same level of happiness a year after the big day as those recovering from paralyzing car accidents. For the lottery winners, happiness came in one big dose that gradually subdued. The accident survivors, on the other hand, came to see happiness as a concept inherently tied to both nostalgia and focusing on a better, healthier future.

While seeking a brand may not guarantee happiness, it remains an important tool for potential consumers gauging their interest in specific neighborhoods. Social renting website AirBnB defines Dumbo in three terms: “Artsy,”  “Trendy,” and “Loved by New Yorkers.” It defines Murray Hill with two: “Nightlife” and “Great Transit.”

And in the same way some New Yorkers focus their apartment search around buzz words, value and convenience, some seek out a sense of community.

“We really liked the small town feel of the neighborhood,” said Randi Harris, a designer who lives in Dumbo with her family after an unhappy stint in Clinton Hill.

“I fell in love with the scale of being surrounded by the bridges and the industrial textures and the patinas and the palpable history.”

Randi’s love of Dumbo architecture fits in neatly with AirBnB’s “artsy” neighborhood description. The problems begin when branding doesn’t properly capture a neighborhood’s spirit or past. 

Murray Hill got its name from Robert and Mary Murray, who bought a multi-acre estate on what is now 36th street more than two decades before the American Revolution. At the outbreak of the war in 1776, Mary Murray played an instrumental role in saving the Patriot army by distracting British officers during their invasion of Manhattan with a tea party at the mansion.

But somewhere along the way, the neighborhood profile became equated to bars and walking distance to subway lines. However, though many moved to the neighborhood looking for good prices and convenient locations, some residents were attracted to Murray Hill because of its small, tight-knit vibe.

“It’s not the same as the West Village, TriBeCa, or Soho,” said Timothy Cecere, a Murray Hill resident. “They might know their businesses, but not their neighbors. I know mine. This is a real neighborhood.”

A word from Dan Bamberger and team member Valeria Rotella

You’ll learn one thing quickly working in real estate: people can fall deeply, madly in love with their homes. Their soul is attached to the brick and mortar. They’re not just vessels for memories, families and friends. They become symbols of their lives’ accomplishments, passions, and sense of meaning.

For Melanie and John, living on Park Avenue wasn’t just a new Italian sports car or English-designer rainwear but the culmination of years of dreams and hard work, in the same way that Randi spotted the architecture of Dumbo and Timothy met his neighbors.

A brand should be a research tool, not a price tag. Convenience should be a plus, not the decisive factor to move. In this city of immediacy, it’s easy to equate happiness and personal identity to a simple-to-pinpoint label. This can be good if you want to eat well and you see that the sushi place down the block has a Zagat rating. This can be bad if you rush into choosing your new home because you like the name of the street or sound of the neighborhood.

This is not a condemnation of the superficial. It's a request to consider what lies beyond the packaging because your surroundings will shape your mood and your outlook on life.

We have a tip for those looking to move to a new part of town: get off the Internet. Go scouting. Spend an hour, an afternoon, even the day just walking around. Introduce yourself to the locals. See what they have to say and what they like about the area. You will find that your perfect home lies at that elusive epicenter of value, convenience, and community.

In this city, you’re often your apartment address. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It might even make you happy.  

Neighbors of the Month

Eric Anton
7 Park Avenue

Eric Anton is a large-scale commercial real estate broker  and a down-to-earth neighborhood guy. When he’s not working on Murray Hill or midtown-centric project as the Senior Managing Director of brokerage firm HFF, Eric likes taking his family to late weekend lunches at Grand Central Station and making a short escape to his holiday home in New Jersey. You might be able to catch him walking down Park Avenue with his dog, the brilliantly-named Sharpie Ultrafine.

Robert Passal
264 Lexington Avenue

There’s no place like home for Robert Passal. The award-winning interior designer grew up in Forest Hills but travels the world exploring, creating and expanding his artistic vision and eye for a timeless aesthetic. When he’s not designing Tokyo apartments, getting featured in Architectural Digest, or participating in show houses like Condé Nast’s Dream House, Robert loves discovering the world through Murray Hill’s stores and restaurants. Turkish Pinpoint Tailor and Mexican restaurant El Parador are two favorites.


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If you're thinking about buying or selling in New York , let's discuss your situation. It's completely free and there's absolutely no obligation.

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