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Identity crisis: Names of places in Twin Cities lack creativity

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.

Completed and proposed LRT lines in the Twin Cities metro area.
Source: Metropolitan Council
Completed and proposed LRT lines in the Twin Cities metro area.

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.

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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/17/2014 - 10:47 am.

    Colors are easy

    …and in a transportation context, mean nothing. “Easy” and “informative” are, to be kind, not synonymous. Naming light rail lines after colors is no more informative than the Metro Transit bus signs in my area, which list the routes that stop at a particular place, but provide nothing helpful about where that route’s buses go, or when.

    I have to side with Ms. Harris on this one. Keep it “Hiawatha,” “Bottineau,” “Southwest,” etc. At least that gives a newbie rider some vague idea of where the line goes.

    I’d be more enthused about Target’s obvious charitable activities if they weren’t all just as obviously named after their benefactor. Much the same happened in St. Louis with Anheuser-Busch, though to a lesser degree. The perfectly-serviceable football stadium in Denver, for a long time known by the equally-serviceable and informative name of “Mile-High Stadium,” was torn down by ownership, and the new stadium’s naming rights sold off to the highest bidder. At first, it was “Invesco Field at Mile High,” one of the ugliest corporate namings I’ve ever encountered, but the financial crash took Invesco off the naming-rights map, and the stadium – still in the same place, still a mile high – is now on its 3rd or 4th corporate name.

    In short, there’s much to be said for devising or keeping in place an association with a geographic feature, or even with tradition, when naming places or destinations, though it’s not difficult to see why “Pig’s Eye” didn’t last.

  2. Submitted by Chris Bjorklund on 01/17/2014 - 12:31 pm.

    It could also be noted that the former Pig’s Eye has been quite a bit more useful than the Waterfall City when it comes to street naming. I’ll take Curfew, Cromwell and Syndicate over Lake, Broadway and 19th Ave N.E. any day.

  3. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 01/17/2014 - 12:40 pm.

    Agree about the colors

    Even with the explanation from the guy from Igor, I don’t get the colors. We have just a few lines. Common color words would seem to put a ceiling on the number of lines, if that were a valid concern, which it isn’t. We’re not going to have many lines. If the thinking is people from out of town won’t recognize the line names, it’s not like they’ll know what the colors mean either. Locals understand where “Central Corridor” is. What does “green” mean? Given the names Igor came up with, why does anyone listen to them?

    Here’s one thing that really ticks me off: Metro Transit renamed the lines without ever deigning to explain the reasoning. Personally, I refuse to use the colors. If we keep using the names, the colors will have to be dropped eventually.

  4. Submitted by Douglas Hamlin on 01/17/2014 - 02:03 pm.

    TCART also works because humans are T-shaped and the buses/trains cart them around.

  5. Submitted by Cheryl Salo on 01/17/2014 - 03:39 pm.

    What about the airline terminals?

    Who in their infinite wisdom decided on Terminal 1 and Terminal 2 when they have perfectly good names of noted Minnesotans? We live in a bland and with the exception of LRT a colorless world.

  6. Submitted by Ken Niemi on 01/17/2014 - 04:25 pm.

    Transit lines and airport concourses

    Am I the only one old enough to remember when the main, then Lindbergh, now Terminal 1 had concourses named by (ahem) colors? Red, Green, Blue, Gold maybe more. Life keeps repeating itself, I guess.

  7. Submitted by Tom Trisko on 01/17/2014 - 04:33 pm.

    Bland Place Names in Twin Cities

    The colored lines are fine on maps for tourists but locals and the maps should keep using names like Hiawatha Line or University Ave Line also. Most other cities name them after their final station, but that’s not very useful to tourists either, plus lines tend to get extended over time.

    If we all just keep using Hiawatha Line and Lindbergh Terminal and Humphrey Terminal the official namers will have to give in and stop being so bland and unmemorable.

    The suggestion for TCART is interesting since before its 1970 acquisition by Metro Transit the corporately owned bus and streetcar system in the Twin Cities was called Twin Cities Rapid Transit or TCRT.

  8. Submitted by Wayne Coppock on 01/18/2014 - 12:39 am.

    It was a clever way to try to con us into accepting BRT as an equivalent service to LRT. Change the existing and nearly-completed rail lines to color names, then throw in the “Red Line” fancy bus (which doesn’t even really meet the requirements to be called BRT if you want to get technical about it) and try to pretend it’s just as good.

    People in Boston weren’t terribly thrilled when the “Silver Line” opened as another half-baked BRT line trying to meet legal requirements to restore rapid transit service to an area as part of the deal surrounding the Big Dig. But at least half of that line almost operates like BRT, except the two halves don’t even actually meet and run as completely separate lines. But that’s a whole different can of worms.

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/18/2014 - 10:27 am.

    Kinda easy to remember at the moment…

    The blue line is the only one you can actually ride. Hard to get on the Green line by mistake.

  10. Submitted by John Peschken on 01/19/2014 - 12:14 pm.

    Colors vs. Names

    It seems to me that the advantage of the color names is that it makes the route easy to follow on a map, provided there is a map of the system posted at every station. I don’t see a reason why they can’t be both. Why can;t the Hiawatha line also be known as the Blue line?

    • Submitted by Todd Piltingsrud on 01/20/2014 - 07:53 am.

      color coding

      Agreed. Most major cities with LRT color code their rail lines to makes maps easier to interpret.

    • Submitted by Andrew Richner on 01/20/2014 - 08:59 am.

      Makes Perfect Sense

      Yes my thoughts exactly. There is romance in calling it “Hiawatha Line,” and I did feel a little wounded when the name changed, but honestly if I were new to the city and I was running up to, say, the Downtown East/Metrodome station just as the “Hiawatha Line” was pulling into the station, I’d have read “Hiawatha” off the side of the train, go to the map and look to see which of the two was marked “Hiawatha,” and by the time I figured it all out the train would already have left. When it has a big blue banner that says “BLUE LINE,” I can look at the map from ten feet away, see that BLUE goes to the airport and hop on before it takes off. My only complaint is that Green and Blue are right next to each other on the color wheel. Seems like Blue and Orange would have been even easier to distinguish, but I guess they’re going warm colors for BRT and cool colors for LRT.

  11. Submitted by jody rooney on 01/19/2014 - 04:26 pm.

    Since I don’t live in Minneapolis and know

    the intimate details of city streets I find the colors useful.

    I am shocked that folks would be so provincial or arrogant that they would want to prevent their city from being welcoming to people from outside the city, Not very consistent for people touting new urbanism and welcoming diversity.

    I guess diversity is only welcomed if you are willing to be ready to learn local geography and a little Lakota the first day you arrive here.

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