What’s in a (nick)name? For Pa. cities, memories, legacy and Christmas

    (Photos by Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY and AP)

    (Photos by Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY and AP)

    You get one guess as to Harrisburg’s nickname. No peeking!

    If you’ve been spending time with family this holiday season, you may have come face-to-face with a truth Pennsylvania cities know all too well: it’s hard to escape a nickname. Everyone knows Philadelphia is the City of Brotherly Love and Pittsburgh is the Steel City, which makes sense. The state itself is nicknamed after a keystone, the center, wedge-shaped stone in an arch that connects and supports both sides. It earned that nickname because it was in the center of the 13 colonies and was so key to the creation of the United States.

    But not all the nicknames are that positive. In honor of all the grown adults who spend time with family, only to be called “Shorty,” “Sweetie” or “Little” anything this week, we’re taking a look at some of the lesser-known nicknames Pennsylvania cities bear, from the best to the worst. 

    Bethlehem: Christmas City, U.S.A.

    It’s bold to put USA in your city’s nickname. It implies that there was some sort of nominating or voting process and your city beat out all the others to become Christmas City, U.S.A. Which, in Bethlehem’s case, is sort of what happened, except Bethlehem created the contest and was the only entrant. 

    According to the Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce, in 1937, Bethlehem “started a nationwide letter writing effort to 2,500 Chambers of Commerce asking each of them to notify their local newspapers of the campaign to make Bethlehem, Pennsylvania the ‘Christmas City.'”

    These other Chambers of Commerce participated and Bethlehem offically became known as the Christmas City. The city had done the work to earn the name: it’s named after the city where Christian tradition says Jesus was born and they officially incorporated as a city on Christmas Eve, 1741. The city was also reportedly home to the first documented Christmas tree in the United States.  

    The holidays are a boom time for the city, bringing in thousands of tourists to the downtown shopping district, historic sites and holiday market, Christkindlmarkt. 

    Erie: The Flagship City

    Erie is called the Flagship City because it is home to a flagship, the U.S. Brig Niagara. Technically, it’s home to a replica of the Niagara, but the Replica City is actually a place in China

    The Battle of Lake Erie was a major turning point in the War of 1812, when nine ships built in Erie’s shipyards, including the Niagara, defeated six British vessels. They reclaimed Detroit for the United States, which had been lost at the beginning of the war.

    The ships flew under a battle flag declaring “Don’t Give Up the Ship,” which has become an iconic piece of naval history and a rallying cry for the city of Erie. This battle is also remembered for the brief note written by the fleet’s commander to General William Henry Harrison after the fighting had died down: “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” (Not Erie’s slogan, but maybe it should be.) 

    Scranton: The Electric City

    Scranton’s nickname isn’t just something found on the Wikipedia page or bandied about by the tourism bureau. It’s emblazoned on the most iconic building in the city, overlooking downtown Courthouse Square. The Electric City is so-called because it was the first city in the country to have an electric streetcar in 1886. 

    But Scranton’s interest in electricity actually began in 1880, when the Dickson Locomotive Works introduced electric lights less than a year after Thomas Edison received his patent for the technology. As the Scranton Times-Tribune reported, the steel mills followed and street lights were next. By 1886, Lackawanna Avenue was so brightly lit, particularly when compared to norms of the day, that it was called “The Great White Way.” 

    This was Scranton’s heyday of innovation, experimentation and electricity, funded by the booming coal industry. But when that evaporated, the Electric City went dark, quite literally. The iconic sign burned out and the city didn’t have the funds to replace it for decades, according to the Times-Tribune. Then, in 2004, it was re-lit as an indication that the city was coming back. It’s been upgraded since, in 2014, and continues to blaze brightly over a downtown many hope will see great days of innovation and development once again.  

    York and Lancaster: The War of the Roses

    For fear of alienating either city, York and Lancaster get listed together. The names of both cities, and ther namesake counties, come from cities in England which were originally named after royal houses. The House of York’s emblem was the white rose; the House of Lancaster, the red.

    “We do still call ourselves the Red Rose City and it’s still on our seal, as a way to honor the founding of the city,” said Marianne Heckles, researcher at the Lancaster History Association. “Everyone will wear a red rose for Capitol Day or anytime we want to commemorate the city in some way.” 

    The namesake Houses of York and Lancaster fought the War of the Roses in the 1480s; that ended with a marriage between the two families and the Tudor rose — a red and white hybrid. It’s unlikely that these two Pennsylvania cities will be doing anything similar anytime soon, though. There is still an annual (heated) competition between the York Revolution and Lancaster Barnstormers minor league baseball teams, called the War of the Roses. 

    Johnstown: Flood City

    It’s tough when your city is best known for being completely demolished in one of the worst natural disasters this country has ever seen. But Johnstown has done an impressive job of marketing their “Flood City” moniker with a national park, a museum, a music festival and a tourism bureau that can find the spin on anything. 

    “The story we want to tell is the story of Johnstown’s recovery,” said Lisa Rager, executive director of the Greater Johnstown/Cambria County Visitors Bureau. “We think the story of the flood is the story of the triumph of the human spirit.” 

    Rager wouldn’t mind seeing the city triumph over the Flood City nickname as well. She notes that Johnstown has also been called the “Friendly City,” and recently, they’ve been building up tourism and other industries beyond the flood narrative. In fact, she proposes a new nickname for Johnstown: The City on the Rise. 

    Harrisburg: Pennsylvania’s Capital City

    Harrisburg gets no points for creativity but top marks for accurately conveying it’s role in the state. For all you literalists out there, consider Harrisburg: the city so nice, it tells you exactly what it is without any of that namby-pamby ringle-jingle. 

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