Monday, March 24

It's all in a name

A real estate agent by the name of Charles Perkins wrote to his wife in 1864, explaining his job of promoting new cities along the Burlington railroad line. "Towns they are on paper, meadows and timberland with here and there a house, in reality." Perkins' job was to respond to the excitement of urban progress that accompanied rapid western expansion. Developers were dreaming of the next Chicago, the perfectly situated city that would burst onto the scene and rival the glories of ancient Rome. And also make them into the next tycoon.

Perkins went on, "I shall have two or three more towns to name very soon. They should be short and easily pronounced. Frederic, I think is a good name." Many of the names were carefully chosen to evoke the sense of cosmopolitan excitement. Consider all of the settlements with "city" in the title. Kansas City, Rapid City, Sioux City, Salt lake City, and so on. Denver used to be called Denver City, and Helena was once known as Prickly Pear City. Three mining settlements in the state of Montana, Montana City, Nevada City, and Virginia City, are barely even still in existence. And then there are a few with the Greek "polis" suffix. My favorite is the town of Thermopolis, Wyoming (pop. 3172). In the competitive race to be the next Western metropolis, no amount of clever marketing could be spared.

Contemporary real estate developers still haven't lost their tenuous grip on reality, but, interestingly, the spin is spun in the other direction. Suburban subdivisions hardly tout their sophisticated urbanity anymore, but instead come with names that sound more like wildlife preserves than neighborhoods. Just consider some of the newest subdivisions in Missoula. Linda Vista sounds like what you would see looking out over a mountain ridge, not exactly the siding on your neighbor's house. And I wouldn't expect any cattle to wander through the yards of Maloney Ranch anytime soon. Sonata Park is a park at least before the development is built. Then its another subdivision. Same goes for Duncan Meadows.

A modern paraphrase of Perkins may go, "meadows and timberland they are on paper, but housing units built to maximize automobile access, in reality."

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