More thoughts on branding Athens – Guest post by Matt Stevens

A longtime Athenian, Matt Stevens works with UGA Costa Rica, the university’s international campus and site of numerous research initiatives. He remains committed to this city and its strategic, meaningful growth.

I am a student of cities. Always have been. Ever since soccer took me far from my hometown of Atlanta the first time, I learned quickly and intuitively that cities, all cities great and small, have a pulse and personality of their own. I suppose prior to my travels I had simply concluded that big was big, small was small, cities were cities, towns towns, and hamlets, whatever they were, were hamlets, indistinct from any other. Years of roadtripping, however, has taught me repeatedly and emphatically otherwise. Atlanta is not Nashville is not Denver. And none, not even nearby Baton Rouge, are New Orleans.

So to complement my ongoing travel addiction, my love of The Road and any related literature (e.g., Through Painted Deserts and Notes From a Small Island and On the Road, of course), I have over time become supplementally intrigued with even the silly details related to city personality: core vs. metro population statistics, the number and type of corporations headquartered within, even the origin of town epithets—those nicknames which occasionally become interchangeable with its given name.

These monikers are sometimes obvious—Salem, Massachusetts is the Witch City—but may also trace their origins to a moment in time, a passing utterance that just stuck. Portland, Oregon, for example, is known as Rip City due to a sports announcer’s exclaiming, “Rip City! All right!” after his Trail Blazers, in their 1971 inaugural NBA season, stunned the mighty Lakers in Portland. Bill Schonely, that animated broadcaster, has since claimed he has no idea where the phrase came from. It was instead the byproduct of an unexpected victory, some passing nonsense, a burst of chaos and ecstasy. And yet to many, Rip City might as well be printed on the road signs welcoming you to town. It’s unofficially official.

Here are a few examples of my favorite city epithets:

  • Paris, France is the City of LightsAnd it is, it really is.
  • New Orleans is the Crescent City due to the course of the Mississippi River, which winds crescent-shaped through the downtown area. It’s also The Big Easy, a Prohibition-era nickname (think: speakeasy) since one could easily find a drink in post-18th Amendment Nola.
  • Chicago is the Second City. Simple but elegant.
  • Charleston, South Carolina is the Holy City because of its many steeples, which rise from the skyline like turntable spindles.
  • Seattle, sometimes the Rain City, is also the Emerald City, borrowing from The Wizard of Oz. Go there and you’ll see why, as Seattle is as green, as mysteriously promising, and as culturally bizarre as Oz. A perfect title.
  • Louisville, Kentucky is also Derby City. Brilliant. Some also call it the “Northernmost Southern City.” Clever, and true.
  • And Portland, Oregon I think takes the cake for its variety of high-quality nicknames. In addition to Rip City, it’s the Rose City (They are proud of their roses; year after year, they are proud of them.); Bridgetown (there are eleven bridges that cross its Willamette River); and Stumptown (given the city’s logging past).

As you can see, these tiny bits of culture and geography have created for each community a compelling moniker.

And then there’s Athens, Georgia, my adopted, but beloved, city. I’ve lived here an aggregate fifteen years now, and every one of them I’ve lamented our unfortunate epithet: The Classic City. I don’t even know what it means. Nobody here does. Classic as in old? There’s a reason this phrase is so conspicuously underutilized. It’s one-sided at best, reflecting, perhaps, the values of Athens’ Old Guard. But even those who might embrace it never really have.

If we are indeed a classic city in some regards, we are simultaneously a city in flux, a city of small batch, of vibrant indie rock and two-hundred-year-old oaks. We birthed public higher education and a legion of great, enduring bands from Widespread Panic to R.E.M., not to mention a rising generation of post-millennial rock prominence—groups like Reptar, The Whigs, and of Montreal. (R.I.P. Modern Skirts. Were you still intact I’d have included you here. Well, I suppose I just did.) 

In a city of just over 100,000, we have three local coffee roasters and soon to be an accompanying number of craft breweries. We have nonprofits galore. (Too many, some would say.) We are poor but generous, a city of twentysomethings. We are the quintessential college town; our university, in fact, preceded the city that grew up around it, what was then Creek Indian territory.We are progressive, dare I say “hip,” in a way most Southern cities just aren’t. And everybody from Zagat to the New York Times is lately admiring this town’s renaissance in culture and art and local food.We are Athens, GA. And we can do better. It’s time to embrace this new era, and this new attention, by christening a new epithet. Let this be a battle cry to capture in a phrase the resurgence that is already well under way.

No need to do away with The Classic City altogether. What I am suggesting is less a replacement of our existing moniker than a supplement to it, a name to represent this city’s other reputation. And in a community known for its predilection for all things locally sourced and organic, let’s do this thing grassroots style. Here’s what I’m thinking…

Henry W. Grady, one of this city’s great advocates and intellects, a UGA alumnus, a charter member of one of its Greek houses, and the Grady College of Journalism’s honored eponym, once penned the phrase “the New South” in reference to an emerging post-Civil War culture, describing a people seeking to spotlight the region’s growing economy and shifting worldview. It’s the perfect phrase to capture a city such as ours, a city in flux. We are Athens, GA. We are the New South Grady once imagined and described.

I therefore humbly suggest that Athens, Georgia be hereafter known also as New South City. It has a nice ring to it, rolling off the tongue in a pleasant play of tumbling S‘s. And it originates from the pen of a great Athenian, is proud but not pretentious, and speaks of both history and progress. Just like Athens. Just like us.

Athens, Georgia: New South City. Spread the news, press the t-shirts, and start the hashtagging. Who’s with me?

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