June 19, 2013
One day, if things go as planned, those words will roll off the tongues of Chicagoans as easily as "the lake," no further explanation needed. Tourists will travel from all corners of the globe to see it, this thing called le 606, el 606, zai 606.
But right now, you could be forgiven if you're thinking: Huh?
On Tuesday I called Matt Gordon to find out more about how Chicago's ambitious new park, previously known as the Bloomingdale Trail, got rebranded as the 606.
I was at my laptop in ZIP code 60614. He was at his office at Landor Associates, ZIP code 60601, where he invents names for a living.
Gordon, a linguistics major in college, has helped name things big and small.
Big: Memphis' basketball arena, the FedEx Forum.
Small: Snapdragon, a processor used in smartphones.
Naming a thing, he has learned, is the art of rejecting perfection until the name is actually right.
"It's the discipline of, 'Yeah, I just wrote down the perfect name. And now I need to do it again,'" he said.
That's how it happened with the Bloomingdale Trail, a weedy, defunct 2.7-mile elevated railroad bed on the city's Northwest Side that is destined to become a Chicago showcase.
The old name posed problems.
Was it in Bloomingdale, Illinois? Or Bloomington? Was it associated with Bloomingdale's department store, a fact that corporate donors to the park might not be keen on?
The name made sense if you knew that the railroad tracks ran parallel to Bloomingdale Avenue, but almost no one outside the neighborhood did.
Besides, the raggedy old trail will eventually be far more than a trail. It will be a green, groomed path that stitches together neighborhood parks, art, nature and people, Chicago's equivalent of the High Line in Manhattan and the Promenade Plantee in Paris.
"How do we make the name uniquely Chicago but bigger than the neighborhood?" Gordon asked his colleagues when they were hired for the quest. "Something that gives us the platform for telling the story and creating a world-class brand?"
He and his team set to work studying maps and history. They invented hundreds of names and discarded about as many.
Chicago likes its sky, so they thought of names involving the sky. Chicago likes its roof decks, so they thought of names involving decks. They came up with names that involved big shoulders and hard work and names that carried echoes of the High Line, which Gordon thinks is as good as names get.
"It's short," he said. "It has an internal rhyme."
But Chicago couldn't settle for a New York knockoff.
Then one day at a brainstorming session, someone said, "Every Chicago ZIP code starts with 606."
Gordon wrote it on the whiteboard. Left the room. Walked downstairs. And it hit him.
"Wow," he thought, "could that be the name?"
He texted his colleagues: "What if it were the 606?"
It was a number that, with the exception of a couple of city neighborhoods that share a post office with suburban Elmwood Park, binds all Chicagoans, from 60645 in the far north to 60628 in the south.
When the name was presented along with several others to community groups and the powers that be, it came out the favorite.
Not everyone likes it — "Naming projects with numbers is so five years ago," sniffed one Facebook commenter — but among its defenders is Ben Helphand, who has spent more than a decade advocating for the park.
"It's short," he said Tuesday, speaking from ZIP code 60612. "It's the same backward and forward. It has the word 'oh' in it. It evokes the naming of rail cars."
(He notes that the trail portion of the park will still be called Bloomingdale.)
Numbers are rarely as emotionally evocative as words, and yet most of us have at least a subliminal attachment to our ZIP codes.
I like "the 606" because it comes with a story and a little surprise. Even if you live here, you may not have registered that we're almost all six-oh-sixers.
On Tuesday afternoon, I met Gordon out on the trail, in ZIP code 60647. The success of a name goes beyond instant popularity, he said, recalling an article he'd recently read about the iPad.
"All the iPad jokes," he said. "That product was doomed because of its name."
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