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Choices Don’t Please Everyone : What’s in a Name? For Cities, It’s a Headache

Times Staff Writer

Thousand Oaks had 3,422 oaks at last count. An early government survey of Twentynine Palms found only 26 palms. It has been years since the seals frolicked on the sand at Seal Beach.

No wonder the backers of a proposed city in San Diego County have been careful about coming up with a name.

The North Coast Incorporation Coalition, representing the Encinitas-Leucadia-Cardiff-Olivenhain area, recently asked for suggestions from residents, offering $100 prizes for the top three selections.

Among the 223 candidates that were rejected were Margaritaville, Some Town, Baja Los Angeles, Duckberg and Pavement.

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The finalists were the somewhat less startling San Dieguito, Rancho San Elijo and Encinitas, one of which will be selected by residents in an election next June. At the same time, they will also vote on whether they want to merge into a city.

Whatever the result--even if the area winds up with a name but no city--some bruised feelings are inevitable. Wrangles over municipal names don’t die easy.

It has been almost eight years since Alta Loma, Etiwanda and Jack Benny’s favorite town, Cucamonga, voted to merge to form Rancho Cucamonga, but a residue of bitterness remains in the two communities that were left out of the name.

“Some people are still giving me hell over it,” admits retired San Bernardino County Supervisor Joe Kamansky. “I call Baseline Road the Mason-Dixon Line because it separates Cucamonga and Alta Loma.”

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In 16-year-old Simi Valley, a citizens’ group contending that too many people make fun of the name has started a petition drive to change it to Santa Susana. Anti-Simiian Greg Moses fears the mood is starting to turn ugly. “One lady told me that if I didn’t like Simi, I should move to Woodland Hills,” he says.

Grumbles in El Segundo

As late as the 1950s, more than three decades after incorporation, some citizens in El Segundo (“The Second”), were grumbling about the city’s moniker, which refers to its distinction as Standard Oil’s second refinery in the state. They felt it somehow implied they were second-rate. Their solution: Make it El Segundo a Nada --"Second to Nothing.” (The city of La Quinta--"The Fifth"--seems content, by the way.)

On the other hand, the city of Oxnard, second to Burbank on comedian Johnny Carson’s hit list and the subject of several name-change suggestions (Cabrillo, Channel Islands, etc.), is trying to capitalize on its unmelodious sound, which comes from founder Henry Oxnard, not from beasts of burden.

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The city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau has handed out 20,000 bumper stickers and pens that say: “Oxnard . . . more than just a pretty name” and “Oxnard . . . only our name keeps us humble.”

A radio and television ad campaign with that theme is in the planning stages. And songwriters Clark Maffitt and Brian Davies recently released “October in Oxnard,” whose inspiring lyrics include:

That night at Point Mugu,

We whispered words of love so sweet

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And as we kissed, I felt

The grunion spawning ‘neath my feet.

Few cities actually take the extreme step of obtaining a new identity.

But Coachella, which just reached the often-traumatic age of 40, feels a new handle--Rancho Coachella, Rancho El Dorado or Rancho something else--might be just the thing to lure developers and business interests its way.

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“We need a breakthrough in our identity,” says Mayor Yolanda Coba, asserting that few outsiders realize there’s a city of Coachella as well as a Coachella Valley.

Complicated Process

The problem is that making such a change is a complicated process.

Early this century, the state Legislature passed a law that made sure that municipalities wouldn’t alter their identities willy-nilly. It required first the collecting of signatures from 50% of the number of residents who voted in the last election--just to get the matter on the ballot. Then, the new name must be approved by two-thirds of the voters. If it fails, another vote can’t be taken for 10 years.

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The procedure can be expensive for a small city. Coachella has asked state Sen. Milton Marks, chairman of the Local Government Committee, to carry legislation that would substitute a City Council vote for a general election. Marks (R-Yerba Buena, or, as it’s been known since 1847, San Francisco) “seems agreeable,” says Peter Detweiler, a senior consultant to the committee.

One of the few cities in the state to vote in a new name was Dairy Valley, which re-christened itself Cerritos in 1967.

The action followed a campaign by the Chamber of Commerce, which sent out flyers to residents asserting that “the present name is not acceptable to the main financial interests, whose capital will be necessary to the full development of the city.” Most of the dairies had moved away too, like Seal Beach’s seals.

The voters chose not to quibble over the fact that Cerritos means “little hills” and that the city was almost totally flat, except for a 50-foot mound of manure at a fertilizer co-op.

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In adopting a name that was better for business, Cerritos was following the century-old example of El Dorado County’s Hangtown--site of the speedy dispatch of some local robbers--which incorporated as Placerville in 1854. “The Episcopal Church and other people in town thought Hangtown a bit too morbid,” says Mary Faure of the Placerville Chamber of Commerce.

Coming up with a name for a proposed city, especially one that is merging several communities, requires delicate strategy. If the citizens don’t like it, they may reject incorporation.

In the Sunnymead-Edgemont-Moreno area of Riverside County, the proposed city of Sunnymead was voted down. “Edgemont hates Sunnymead,” explains Riverside County Supervisor Norton Younglove. “It’s an old commercial rivalry.” Last year, the same area incorporated as Moreno Valley.

In San Diego County, a move to combine the Leucadia-Encinitas-Cardiff-Olivenhain area into the city of San Dieguito failed in 1982.

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“I think a lot of people didn’t want to be called Little San Diego (San Dieguito),” says Rick Shea, a leader in the continuing incorporation effort there, while pointing out that the name does have roots in the area’s history--the San Dieguito Indians once lived there.

While San Dieguito is one of the three finalists that will go on the ballot for the next cityhood try in 1986, Shea hopes this time that voters will feel they’re having more of a say in the name and, in a positive frame of mind, will approve the separate question of incorporation.

Two Sets of Angels

With 444 cities in the state, it’s a wonder that there are any available names left at all. And, in fact, there are two sets of Angels: Los Angeles (located just south of Simi Valley) and Angels in Calaveras County.

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“Ours has nothing to do with heavenly angels,” explains Angels City Administrator Jacqueline Heintz. “The town was founded by a trader named George Angel during the Gold Rush era. We were known as Angels Camp back then, but when we incorporated we became Angels, I guess, because we were no longer just a camp. But our post office kept the name Angels Camp out of fear we’d be confused with Los Angeles.”

Gone are the state’s more wide-open days when cities would be named for prominent locals such as Griffith D. Compton, William Barstow Strong, Harry H. Culver, Gov. John G. Downey, dentist David Burbank (not Luther, the horticulturist), state Sen. Abner Weed (Weed sprouted up in Siskiyou County), Jared S. Torrance, M.G. Vallejo and even Vallejo’s wife (who gave her first name to Benecia).

Central Pacific Railroad official William Ralston modestly declined to have a city named after him; so it was called Modesto. J. H. Braly not so modestly asked that his name be removed from the Imperial Valley town he founded because he feared it would fail. It became Brawley.

Spanish and Indian words have long been sources of names, unhindered by grammatical considerations. El Segundo--site of Standard Oil’s second refinery--should be La Segunda since “refinery” is feminine in Spanish. Mission Viejo should be Mision Vieja . Coalinga, on the other hand, isn’t even Spanish, but a romanticization of the area’s one-time status as Coaling Station A.

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Origin of Names Debated

The origin of many names is still argued about. Despite what many townsfolk insist, La Jolla is not Spanish for “jewel.” But it may be a misspelling of the correct word ( joya), just as Coachilla is thought to be a faulty translation for shell ( conchilla) .

One myth is that Azusa is an acronym for everything from “A to Z in the USA.” Actually it appears to have been the Indian designation for “skunk hill.”

In Simi Valley, the debate is over pronunciation. City officials say that the old Indian word (meaning “place” or “village”) should be intoned Sim-MEE, though some admit that it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue when followed by VAL-lee. Santa Susana backer Moses contends that too many outsiders think it’s SEE-mee, adding, “I’m tired of ‘Slimy Valley’ jokes.”

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Both sides agree that the area’s 19th-Century name is better left forgotten--Simiopolis.

In Rancho Cucamonga, many newcomers are pronouncing it KEW-ca-monga (the name means “sandy place”). It may be an attempt to erase memories of the running joke on the old “Jack Benny Show” that featured a train conductor crying, “All aboard for Anaheim, Azusa and KOOK-amonga!”

Naming a town after a local feature in unambiguous English can be risky business as Seal Beach, Thousand Oaks and Twentynine Palms have discovered. (For Twentynine Palms, there’s still time to change; it has yet to incorporate.)

Poor Seal Beach wanted to be something else to begin with--Bay City. But San Franciscans objected early this century to what they considered the threatened theft of their hallowed nickname. So the city named itself in honor of its flippered residents, who now stay off the beach because of all the two-legged sunbathers.

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‘Not Going to Change’

No panic there, though. “We’re not going to change to Un-Seal Beach,” Mayor Joyce Risner says.

Thousand Oaks originated during a name-the-town contest in 1922, the winning entry of 15-year-old Bobby Harrington, who reportedly won a grand prize of $5. When the town incorporated in 1964, residents stubbornly voted to keep the name, although a study by local schoolchildren had determined that it represented less than one-third of the correct number.

Perhaps residents figured that Three Thousand Four Hundred and Twenty-Two Oaks would be difficult to etch over the entrance to City Hall.

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