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‘University Place’ sans university: Hype with a pedigree

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Sep. 2, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
August 31, 2012 5:31 pm

This editorial will appear in Monday’s print edition.

University Place may have the biggest bamboozle of a name in Washington. Love it or merely like it – some are proposing to change it to “Chambers Bay” – there’s no denying it’s a bit of a rogue.

The name suggests it’s a university town, but where’s the university? Late in the 19th century, the University of Puget Sound did contemplate erecting its ivy walls there.

The plan fell through – but the locals liked the beguiling ring of “University Place” and kept it.

Move there, and you don’t get a university, though you do get a fine school district. Trade up? Trade down? Either way, it’s bait and switch.

As far as place names go, it’s probably the biggest hoodwink in the state. Washington has other grandiose toponyms, but most of them have a germ of truth buried in them.

“Monte Cristo” – a ghost town in the depths of the North Cascades – actually did produce a fair amount of silver back in the day. On the Columbia River, “Plymouth” is short on Pilgrims, but there is a rock. On the Skykomish, prospectors did find a little gold at “Gold Bar.”

“University Place” may be unique in hyping what never was.

Though the name’s a rogue, it’s a lovable rogue with a long pedigree. Nothing is more American than luring homebuyers to out-of-the-way places with enticing labels.

It goes back to the Vikings. “Iceland” was an Old World name: blunt, descriptive, truth-in-labeling. Eric the Red – North America’s first real estate booster – found an even icier island to the west and called it “Greenland,” thus enticing adventurous Scandinavians to move there.

Later, Viking entrepreneurs persuaded settlers to chilly Newfoundland by naming it “Vinland” – a paradise supposedly abounding in wild grapevines.

So it went. Visionary Dutch hucksters promised their countrymen “New Amsterdam.” Brit boosters offered “New England” featuring such places as “New York,” “New Jersey” and “New Hampshire” – homey-sounding places, but mostly howling wilderness.

The French lured their own settlers to “New Orleans.” The Spanish to “New Spain” (aka “Mexico”). The New World was a place where enterprising souls could reinvent themselves and ideally strike it rich – maybe by promoting their own El Dorados and watching the property values rise as the rubes moved in.

Americans kept the tradition rolling with names like “Toledo,” Ohio; “Venice,” Calif., and “Syracuse,” N.Y.

And Pierce County boasts “University Place” (at least it’s not “Town Center Place”). University Place has a Trader Joe’s but, no, the store doesn’t offer those fabled Newfoundland wines.

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