Living in a community named after someone should prompt some curiosity about that founder

Upon seeing news earlier this year about the death of Carol Stream, the daughter of a Wheaton-born developer who founded a suburb in the 1950s named after his daughter, I remembered that I live in a town named after someone (the Wheaton brothers, Jesse and Warren). I have also studied another town named after a person, Naperville, studied another community that started with a person’s name (Turner Junction which became West Chicago), and have some knowledge of an adjacent suburb named after another person, Warrenville.

If people live in a community named after a person, how much should community members know about that person? More broadly, I would guess many Americans have limited knowledge of the early days of their community. The founding could be decades, possibly centuries, earlier. Americans tend to look to the future, not the past. American communities do not always have local museums, plaques, or other markers that talk about the early days. Yet, a community with a specific name attached to it offers an opportunity to connect to a particular person who likely had some time in the area before and after the community got its start. (An aside: communities named after distant people who may have never visited, may not provide as compelling a story.)

On the flip side, other communities might appear to have mundane names. In the Chicago area, it seems like a variety of suburban communities that put together two words from a list: Oak, Forest, Village, Park, River, Hills, etc. These might also some research: what has behind the name choice?

At the beginning of a community, the founders choose a name. Even though that name may seem less relevant decades later, community members can do a little digging and connect the name to particular people, if applicable, or concepts. All of this could help create a great sense of shared history and community.

(See earlier related posts: Learning About a Suburb.)

Bad building names in NYC

Curbed has put together a list of some of the worst building names in New York City. Here are some of the contestants:

Weird Spellings of Addresses

260N9 leads us into our first category: buildings that are almost just going by their addresses, but have decided to randomly spell out numbers, or abbreviate and/or combine words to create some monstrosity that no one will ever say out loud. 2ND7TH is a recent offender in this category, as is Five FortyOne, and, less recently, Twenty9th Park Madison. These types of buildings also sometimes like to combine a random word with the number from the address, such as Colony 1209, which sounds like it’s on the moon.

Human Names

Another very common approach often taken by building namers is to name them as one would a human child, with a “the” in front. This can result in condos that sound like your grandfather (The Seymour, The Leonard) or a pop star (The Adele, The Robyn) or…just some guy…that you live inside of. (That one, The Nathaniel, gets an additional dishonorable mention for being named after the protagonist in an Ayn Rand novel.)…

Anything With the Word “Mews”

A mews is a row of stables and carriage houses constructed around a paved courtyard. The few that still exist in New York City have, for the most part, seen the stables torn down and replaced by houses which essentially now exist on a private and secluded dead-end street—a rarity, obviously, in Manhattan. This makes them quite coveted. It has also led a number of condo developers to call their buildings, erroneously, Soho Mews, Chelsea Mews, Carlton Mews, etc.

Names That Sound Like Things They’re Not Supposed To

Had no one involved in the creation of Jade8 ever heard of J-Date? Did no one on the development team behind Mantena think to Google that word? Other honorable mentions in this category include BKLYN Air, which sounds like an off-brand sneaker, and MiMa, which sounds like something you call your grandmother. And then there’s the Isis Condominium on the Upper East Side (h/t to commenter newkyz). Though that one isn’t exactly the developers’ fault (it was developed in 2008), it has declined to change its name, unlike the Isis in Miami.

This list suggests buildings suffer from the same name problems that face subdivisions or suburban streets. Builders are looking to brand their construction so the names often deliberately invoke other liked objects, such as a well-regarded address (it’s the location to be in!) or the past (we’re invoking the grandeur of history!). Does the branding itself reveal much about the architecture or design of the building and its units? Probably not. Do the mews buildings have more garden/leisure space? Do the address buildings make a unique contribution to the neighborhood? Of course, more functional or accurate names would have to be longer and wouldn’t be able to quickly invoke such images.

The next step here in this analysis might be to look at the relative values of these different properties by name. Take two buildings in similar settings: does having mews in the title add value or would the owners be better offer with an address name?

Writing a story with “24 of the Funniest [American] town names”

There are a number of communities in the United States with humorous names. This story weaves together 24 of them:

“I was holed up in Boring, Oregon, wondering whether I should try someplace different. So I hopped in my car and drove to Why, Arizona, to figure things out. After a few days I found my answer in Whynot, Mississippi: I needed a town with some life to it. I made a beeline for Disco, Tennessee, where I danced so much, I wore out my shoes. The next day, I headed to Loafers Glory, North Carolina, for a new pair.”

“Afterward I looked sharp enough to take a break in Handsome Eddy, New York. Eddy wasn’t around, but I knew where to find him—in Loveladies, New Jersey, where it seemed that all the women were trying to get to Husband, Pennsylvania…”

You get the idea. I’ve always wondered if there is some common characteristic behind these more unique community names: were the founders unusual people? Are these the result of some strange history? Are these primarily about differentiating these communities from more conventionally named places? Are these mainly publicity stunts that stuck? On the other hand, perhaps we should be asking why so many community names seem rather drab. Why not liven it up more and go for more phrases or colorful descriptions? American place names seem to go for efficiency with a lot of places named for famous people. And, of course, there is always the rise of suburban sprawl names that take common words like Forest, Park, Glen, Hills, and so on in a variety of combinations…

What’s in a name? Certain subdivision names lead to higher housing values

A study suggests homebuyers are willing to pay extra in subdivisions with certain words in their name:

According to a study by two researchers at the University of Georgia, homebuyers pay an average of 4.2 percent more when the development has the word “country” in the name. And if it has the term “country club” as part of its name, buyers will pay 5.2 percent on top of that.

That’s a total of almost 10 percent more that people are willing to pay for the prestige associated with the term “country club.”

A joke? Hardly. The study, the results of which were published last year in the Journal of Real Estate Research, is a serious investigation of sales in the Baton Rouge, La., area over 15 years. It carefully controlled for such variables as location, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, and days on the market, among others.

“This is the first study to find through empirical research that buyers are willing to pay more for certain property names, with all other attributes of a house being equal,” the paper said. “In fact, buyers of more expensive houses may be willing to pay more for a name that conveys prestige than they are willing to pay for a good school for their children.”

No wonder, then, that the naming process is often a psychodrama, with builders and their marketing teams becoming more hung up over what they will call their communities than they are over the copy for a $10,000, full-page ad in the local newspaper.

There is no tried-and-true naming method. Some builders resort to the old standards — station, park, commons, woods, village, farms, hunt, square and gardens. Some look to history for a name, while others use location or a characteristic of the property. A few pick a name that immortalizes themselves or their loved ones.

It sounds to me like this is all about status. Living in a subdivision with a certain word in its title conveys status and wealth, important considerations for homeowners, particularly when selling a home.

Several thoughts come to mind:

1. I assume that this effect only works at certain income levels. For example, could you build a run-of-the-mill townhouse development, slap the “country club” label on it, and expect a price premium? I would guess not. To some degree, I would guess there is a relationship between the price of the properties (which then limits who can live there in the first place) and the names. Additionally, builders don’t want to dilute their products by suggesting that “normal” homes are upscale in name alone. (It is unclear to me whether the researchers were able to control for all the factors that would separate an upscale suburban subdivision from a typical subdivision.)

2. Beyond “country” or “country club,” do other words or names not matter? If not, then you simply get a muddled mess of subdivision names that don’t really signal much of anything except general references to tranquility, pastoralism, and perhaps some local landmarks or figures.

2a. Are there names that have a negative effect on price?

3. I wonder how much the generally bland subdivision names feed into the critique that suburbia is a homogeneous place. With many subdivision names not anchored to any particular place, you could be in a “Thousand Oaks” in Ohio just as well as Texas. Is this simply another piece that suggests that Americans aren’t anchored to any particular places?

Baby names and growing entropy

In recent years, the percentage of people who give their babies popular names has dropped. In other words, the range of baby names has increased and more people are seeking unique names. One baby name expert explains why sociologists have taken an interest in this trend:

“The more diverse naming styles become, the more we are going to read into somebody’s name,” Wattenberg said. She analyzed baby name statistics from the U.S. Social Security Administration to calculate a measure called Shannon entropy from the field of information theory. This measure is used to describe the information contained in a message – in this case, how much is communicated by the choice of a name…

Wattenberg calculated a sharp rise in name entropy over time. She found that this measure of the information carried by names has risen as much in the past 25 years as it did in the full century before that. (The measure is independent of the number of babies born.)…

“Sociologists love names,” Wattenberg said. “They’re practically the only case of a choice with broad fashion patterns that there’s no commercial influence on. There’s no company out there spending millions to convince you Brayden is a perfect name for your son.” (Studies have shown that movies, celebrities and other cultural trends do have an impact on the popularity of certain names.)

To understand how the meaning communicated through names has evolved, Wattenberg suggests thinking about an office with a dress code requiring all employees to wear gray or blue suits to work every day. Seeing a man dressed in a blue suit in such an environment would tell you very little about that man’s taste or personality.

Compare that to an office with no dress code. Here employees’ sartorial choices vary widely, so the outfit worn by anyone in that office could tell you a fair bit about that person as an individual. In this case, the same blue suit might reveal significant clues about its wearer.

The same goes for names. In an era where there are a lot more choices available, each choice carries more weight.

This sounds like an interesting analysis. And it sounds like Wattenberg is on to something – sociologists in the last few decades are very interested in how people make decisions that involve symbols, values, and meanings. In a name, parents have a fairly unconstrained choice.

While this is interesting, I want to know more:

1. Even if parents have a lot of choice in choosing names, why have they, as a whole, shifted toward a wider range of names? The article suggests it is indicative of individualism – but why choose to be more individualistic with baby names? How has this happened?

2. Do these new names affect the children’s lives? If parents are giving kids more unique names, are there any consequences to this?

3. Have other countries experienced similar trends? Or is this individualistic trend an American phenomenon?