Can a city’s name harm its future?



The subject of this post could be considered by some to be quite controversial. Most, if not all cities take great pride in their name and the history surrounding it. But, are there times when the name takes on such a negative connotation in the public realm that it does more harm than good…where the name itself is a hindrance to the city’s well-being? I believe this is possible, especially in our digital age, which makes it so much harder to get past old notions, misconceptions, bad perceptions, and in some cases outdated information.

Here in Michigan, several cities have long battled negative stereotyping – among them Detroit and Flint. Even with all the positive press over the past five years, there are those who still consider Detroit a lost cause. A relative of mine (who does not live in Michigan) noted a few years back that he thought the city had a serious branding problem that will be difficult to overcome. At the very least, Detroit has to work that much harder to prove itself than other cities with glitzier personas.

Likewise, another relative just this past weekend indicated they thought Flint should change its name. In her opinion, as a native Michigander, the perceptions associated with the name Flint are too hard to surmount. She may be correct, though some in Flint would probably have something to say about suggesting a name change.

While not a comprehensive list, my guess is the city names provided below might NOT conjure up images of peaceful bliss and economic vitality.

  • Camden
  • Compton
  • East St. Louis
  • Flint
  • Gary
  • Johnstown
  • Scranton
  • Steubenville
  • Youngstown
  • Waco
  • Weirton

Meanwhile, there are other city names that are simply difficult to make sound attractive – city names that only their founders or diehard supporters could truly love.

  • Butte
  • Enid
  • Lead
  • Lynchburg
  • Rutland

And then there are those cities listed below that have managed to successfully stem or reverse their negative imagery, though it does take time, effort, patience, and persistence.

  • Buffalo
  • Cleveland
  • Detroit
  • Jersey City
  • Pittsburgh

Regardless, whether the mere mention of a city’s name evokes unfavorable reactions or mocking commentary, cities with negative images have a difficult task to overcome the poor perception. How many times have you heard Cleveland referred to as “the mistake on the lake” or Waco as “Wacko?” A city is a brand just like any other product, good, or service. When its brand is perceived as damaged or tarnished, whether justified or not, it is extremely hard the reverse. Each time a negative news story is published, printed, blogged, or stated about these cities, it is yet another hurdle for to them to leap before they can regain and hopefully retain a positive perception.

Many cities throughout history have changed their names for one reason or another, though the idea of rebranding a city is a fairly new phenomenon, and renaming a city for rebranding purposes even more so. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened previously. Four examples this author is aware of are the following:

  • Alligator…now Lake City, FL
  • East Detroit…now Eastpointe, MI
  • Pig’s Eye…now St. Paul, MN
  • Sing Sing…now Ossining, NY

All of these cities changed their name in an effort to improve their image to the outside world and to themselves. No doubt such a process would be controversial, would involve a number of expenses, and take a great deal of time.

On the other hand, this author does not see historical convention or tradition as being good rationales for not changing a city’s name. If the current name truly hinders, hampers, or even harms a city’s future potential, then a name change may be warranted, if not overdue. Granted, a name change alone will not resolve endemic problems, but if it makes residents feel better about their surroundings or prouder of their community, then what’s wrong with that?

In the end, the final decision rests with those who live in such cities. If they are comfortable with the current city name, then we all should respect that decision, even if we may disagree with it ourselves.

This entry was posted in advertising, branding, business, cities, civics, civility, commerce, Communications, culture, economic development, futurism, geography, government, historic preservation, history, land use, marketing, place names, placemaking, planning, revitalization, technology, tourism, Trade, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Can a city’s name harm its future?

  1. Interesting subject, but it seems like one can poke a number of holes in some of these arguments since much of what you discuss is subjective. In a way, what you’re essentially talking about is the sanitizing of city names — and thus their history. From a semantics standpoint, I can tell you that the name “Portland” is beyond a yawner and carries no interest, but there’s clearly a history there….and while the perceptions and branding of place typically change with each generation, keeping a name still keeps one end of the arc rooted in a place’s history — as, in my humble opinion, I believe it should. I’ve spent most of my lifetime out West, but I can tell you that when I visited Detroit a decade ago — while much of it was struggling economically — I left feeling like there was lots of possibility there….and then behold, in the last decade parts of it seem to be going through a rebirth. That said, I would NEVER want to see it change its name, because to me the brand of Detroit represents perseverance and rebirth — whereas a decade ago it probably represented a failing one-dimensional economy and urban interior. Plus, changing the name would be erasing its French roots, which serve as the beginning of the narrative on Detroit’s history. Moreover, political influences aside, at the end of the day how is this any different from the changing of St. Petersburg to Leningrad? That was a rebranding, wasn’t it? I wish I had more time to explore this, but I have a busy day today. Maybe others can weigh in.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. jeansc35 says:

    Here’s a surprise example: Greensburg, Kansas. After the EF5 tornado nearly erased it, the good folks decided to get inspired by the “green” in the name and commit to the greenest rebuilding ever. Not once did they include a wish to use construction methods which would greatly reduce damage from another strong tornado, if one happened again. [Note: there’s a spot in Moore, OK which has been crossed by TWO EF5 tornadoes in less than 20 years] This was not for lack of being informed about the tornado risk there – by yours truly, if no one else. The fat plan that BNIM (the company they hired to help) created for Greensburg also omitted the very idea of tornado-resistant construction and FEMA “safe rooms” per 320 or 361. Greensburg still does not include anything expressely about tornado protection in its building requirements. Some individuals have gone beyond in their own home rebuilding, but possibly not including certain elements I know are important. My experience told me these people are for the most part uneducated fools who are prejudiced against outsiders except for firms like BNIM with fancy records and production values so high they bedazzle instead of getting it right. The town’s name led to very foolish decisions in rebuilding. It might not have gone that way had the name been something like “Brownsville.” Journalists who’ve been fawning over Greensburg’s green rebuilding and not asking questions about the tornado risk are just as ignorant and closed-minded.


  3. Steven VS says:

    One other interesting example (not listed in that Wikipedia article on changed city names) is Lake Station, Indiana. Lake Station changed its name in 1908 to East Gary to capitalize on its proximity to a growing and prosperous steel town. In 1977, they changed it back to Lake Station to de-emphasize its proximity to a shrinking and decaying steel town.


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