A City of Many Names: The Origin of Portland's Nicknames
Ever been curious as to how a city like Portland collected its many offbeat nicknames? And who is it that gets to label a city known for its oddball character, anyway? Well, as a team of locals, we did what we believe any nosy, law-abiding Portlander would do— we cracked open a public library book, searched the dark web from our fingertips, and broke down the history of Portland’s classic nicknames to give us all a better understanding as to why monikers from Rip City to Portlandia have stuck.
The City of Roses
‘The City of Roses’ or ‘Rose City’ is arguably the most well-known of Portland’s nicknames. The area's hallmark as ‘The City of Roses’ references the now-famed rosarian enthusiasts of The Portland Rose Society; a garden invention of Georgina Pittock, wife of publisher Henry Pittock, in 1888 (also known as, the vogue homeowners of The Pittock Mansion that overlooks the city). Now familiar characters in Portland’s historical narrative, Henry and Georgina Pittock had once arrived in Portland as some of the first western pioneers to settle into the Northwest in the mid-1800s. Henry Pittock is best known for his success as the developing newspaper publisher for The Oregonian, as well as his influence as a powerful investor in real estate (We told you we’d include some real estate!) and a number of other endeavors. Such economic contributions by the Pittock legacy led to the city’s quick and substantial growth in Northwestern trade and industry. In 1905, the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition (think international World’s Fair, but Oregon) was planned and executed in none other than Portland, Oregon. City streets and exposition grounds were landscaped with thousands of rose bushes during the event's celebration. The ultimate success of the affair governed the genesis of the annual civic Portland Rose Festival. As of 2003, Portland touts its official nickname of ‘The City of Roses,’ following a city council decision (and probably Sufjan Stevens).
As a non-athlete and Portland transplant, this nickname left this writer feeling particularly wet behind the ears. And no, not because of the rain. Rip City, huh? The nickname is most notably associated with the city’s NBA basketball team, The Portland Trail Blazers. And so it goes, during the team’s opening season of 1971, sports announcer Bill Schonely famously shouted the words “Rip City! All right!” following a long-shot play by then-point-guard, Tim Barnett. Barnett’s famed three-pointer shot (and points) led to an animated effort by the team to advance against the opposing Los Angeles Lakers. Schonely admits, he has no real explanation for his choice of words—blame it on the adrenaline, the hype, the shared love for the underdog— yet, the catchphrase has stuck around and been an influential point of recognition for the beloved home team. To which we say, All right!
Environmentally conscience coffee beans? Sure, we went there too, but ‘Stumptown’ has been relevant long before the days of roasting processes and cold brew. Think trees. Think stumps. Think, that sad page from Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. During the height of growth in the mid 19th century, those colonizing the forested land of the Northwest eagerly cleared away timber to develop land for settlement and industry interest. At its time of establishment, Portland was known as “The Clearing” for this very Stephen King-esque reason. The city’s rapid growth left many remains of deforestation— the stumps of cleared fir species littered throughout the growing city. With little time to remove their remains, the stumps folded into the city portrait, some smack in the middle of unpaved roadways. As history tells us, those early settlers found the stumps convenient in navigating the muddy, unpaved streets by hopping stump to stump when commuting. If timber clearing is Stephen King, the “floor is hot lava” imagery is giving us more appropriate echoes of Wes Anderson.
Bridge City or Bridgetown
Portland technically boasts fourteen different bridges that carry pedestrians, cyclists, cars, and trains across the dividing rivers of the Willamette and Columbia river systems. The original Morrison Bridge finished in 1887, spanned the Willamette River and bragged the longest of its kind west of the Mississippi waterway at its construction. Today, the Morrison Bridge has been updated and joined by 11 others that span the body of the central Willamette River. Of these, The Hawthorne Bridge is the oldest vertical-lift structure operating in the nation, and the oldest highway bridge built in Portland. Personally, we have eyes for the St. John’s Bridge that connects the industrial neighborhoods of the Northwest and Cathedral Park. The bridges’ Gothic steel design resembles that of the architecture of great arched cathedrals, and its green color is attributed to St. Patrick’s Day of 1931.
Often associated with the eccentric TV comedy series, the nickname ‘Portlandia’ originates from more than Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s eight season bit about Portland locals (Although we admit laughing at ourselves is fun.) Portlandia is also the name of the second largest copper statue in the world, second to The Statue of Liberty, ironically located on the opposite coast of our nation. Designed after sculptor Raymond Kaskey in 1985, the sculpture is a tribute to the Portland seal adopted in 1878 and installed before the Portland Building located in downtown. The central figure of the statue and city seal is the Queen of Commerce, holding a trident and surrounded by figures of the manufacturing and industry of the Northwest—shipping, timber, grain, a cog-wheel, and hammer. Hot take, but based off our trend predictions, ‘Queen of Commerce’ might just be the next big nickname flying around.
PDX is an homage to Portland’s International Airport, the largest in the state of Oregon. Doubling as both a civil-military transportation hub, something like 90% of passenger travel and 95% of air cargo takes to the air from none other than Portland’s Multnomah County. As for the nickname— it’s convenient, it’s recognizable, it’s airport code, and we’re super into it.
Here’s to looking at the city with more character than one plucky name can express—