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January 17, 2014

Identity crisis: Names of places in Twin Cities lack creativity

By Marlys Harris

Often times I have wished that the Twin Cities were a little more creative in naming places.

Seriously, there's just too much homogeneity. For example, practically everything within five miles of the Ridgedale shopping mall is named Ridge Something: Ridge Center, Ridge Village, Ridge Park, Ridge Point — the list goes on and on. And, practically every building within screaming distance of the Stone Arch Bridge has one of the three words in its name: Bridgewater, Stonebridge and so on.

And then of course there's Target: Target Center and Target Field and the Target Wing of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. I am as grateful as the next guy for the billions Target spends on philanthropic causes, but almost every time I lean against a wall, my back is embossed with the company logo. And now, the Interchange where the two light-rail lines will meet is to be called Target Field Station. Enough already.

To add to the blandness, Metro Transit some months back, as part of its effort to brand the entire public transportation system, renamed the LRT lines. The Hiawatha line became the Blue Line, and the one running between St. Paul and Minneapolis is now the Green Line. I've already mixed up the two several times. Worse, the as-yet unbuilt lines, the Southwest and the Bottineau, would be extensions of the others; so the former would be Green and the latter Blue. Couldn't they at least be something more stylist like Puce and Chartreuse?

Two express-bus lines will be Yellow and Orange, and the whole system is to be called Metro, which again is rather blah. My husband came up with TCART or Twin Cities Area Rapid Transit, but people might think it has some affiliation with the Tea Party; that might cause Democrats to boycott, undermining the system's financial viability.

Pig's Eye?
This naming un-ingenuity is rather sad. After all, both our cities launched with much more originality. Once upon a time, St. Paul was Pig's Eye — although I totally understand why city forebears would want a city name more evocative of an industrious and God-fearing people. After all, Pig's Eye makes you think of people falling down drunk in the gutter. Minneapolis is a mash-up of the Dakota word "minnehaha" for waterfall and polis, the Greek word for city.

Both names no doubt had their contemporary critics. I can almost hear a snob like myself saying, "Crikey, another town named after a saint? Give me a break!" or "Polis — what's with all the Greek? Why don't they just call it Minnehaha City or Minnecity?"

"Names do matter," says Katherine Loflin. She is lead consultant to the Soul of the Community Project, a three-year study by Gallup and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation of what drives people's attachment to a city. "My whole schtick is the human side of places," she says.

In survey after survey, it turns out that places people love prosper more. And, while a city's beauty, climate and cultural offerings count for a lot, names can help bolster an identity.

In her North Carolina home, she points out, a population boom has forced towns to add new schools. Generally, school boards named them after local landmarks, even commercial ones. So if a school was down the road from the Meadowbrook Mall, it became the Meadowbrook School. (I hope nobody wound up attending Costco High or Home Depot Elementary.) Some residents have rebelled, however, and they are working on "rechristening themselves," she says. “Everyone wants to have an identity."

I am not so sure that a place name requires uniqueness. But it should carry some flavor of its surroundings or history. Take my stomping grounds — Downtown East. Yes, the place is downtown and in the east, but the "Mill District" gives the area much more personality — and has something to do with what came before. The North Loop isn't much of a name either. I prefer the Warehouse District or even the Red Light District, which it was when I was growing up.

Given the newness of the LRT and the anxiety it seems to evoke among some, Loflin believes that more naming work remains to be done. Green and Blue are hardly inviting. To encourage more people to ride, the LRT should sound warmer, she says. Maybe TCART isn't such a bad idea after all. Metro Transit could sell tea at every station, hang lace curtains on the train windows and allow passengers to sit in shabby chic armchairs instead of plastic seats. I would stay in a place like that all day — in fact I do, only it's called Dunn Brothers.

My major complaint with Blue or Green is that neither has anything to do with where either line goes. That's why I would keep the name Hiawatha and try to give the other lines some geographic identity, like the University Avenue line or the Brooklyn Center line (for Bottineau) or the Eden Prairie line (for the Southwest LRT). At least, passengers would have a notion of the line's path and final destination.

Why colors make sense
Steve Manning, founder of Igor, a San Francisco name-consulting company, takes exception to my whining. To his company's credit are a batch of product names, including TruTV; Aria, a Las Vegas resort; Skin Flik, an iPod or iPhone case; and URGE, a media download service. The colors make sense. "If you look at the Boston subway map, all the lines are colors, and it's very easy to follow," he says.

He adds that our Metro Transit is no doubt trying to think a hundred years ahead when there will be many more lines. Adding another color or four would be relatively easy. The powers-that-be would only have to study a box of crayons or a rack of nail polishes for inspiration. And having one nomenclature system from the get-go is much less confusing than, say, New York's legacy system of double numbers, letters and names. "If you started with a lot of long Indian names, that would get tough after a while," he adds.

Both he and Loflin point out, however, that people will hang on to names they like no matter what. "It's difficult to take away something that's been around for a long time," says Manning.

The British government, in an effort to look high-tech, rebranded the Royal Mail service "Consignia" at the turn of the 21st Century. One columnist insisted that Consignia could be anything — a Roman general, a footballer or a tummy bug. Public outcry was so strident that 16 months later, the postal folks ditched the moniker and prayed that everyone would forget about the 2 million pounds renaming cost them.