Cisco, California November 15, 1998 — Well, it’s over. The bizarre episode that began two years ago, when Candlestick Park, San Francisco’s breezy, freezing sports stadium, was renamed 3Com Park to publicize a communications company, has come to an end. A review of the great damage done during this brief period may serve as a warning for a forgetful future. It might even help to prevent a repetition of this folly.
Oakland was, as might be expected, the first to follow. The sportsocracy of the East Bay was afraid of a taxpayer revolt if ticket sales continued to sag despite popular enthusiasm over the return of the prodigal football Raiders. Bids were solicited for a sponsor to place its name on the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.
Larry Ellison, out-maneuvered in the bidding for Candlestick Park, won easily in Oakland. Oracle Park was born. (Persistent rumors that Ellison threatened to bring the Oakland economy to a halt by inserting a secret virus into municipal databases have never been substantiated.) Then California’s notorious highway department was privatized, and the floodgates opened.
The Golden Gate Bridge went first. The three months of political maneuvering that followed were too sordid for description. Sun Microsystems prevailed in the lottery that was held when all other methods failed. Sun Gate sounded too much like an astronomical scandal, so Sun Span was chosen. One side-effect: a reduction in the number of suicides leaping from the bridge. More than one would-be suicide has turned away from the edge, later telling police: “I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge had class, but Sun Span is simply too tacky. It sounds like a discount shampoo.”
The executives of Silicon Graphics, Inc., had begun to consider a change to a corporate name that would reflect more accurately the company’s increasing concentration on entertainment. This reform became more pressing when SGI bought the Great America theme park down the road and renamed it “Virtual America.”
Embarrassment grew when SGI’s all-digital musical, “Indigo Dreams,” failed utterly on Broadway. Variety’s headline: “Silicon Bomb Leaves Nothing but Gritty Taste.” So it was only natural that the company would change its name and simultaneously affix the new one to Highway 101, the battered, overcrowded freeway that passes the gates of SGI. Highway 101 is, of course, now known as “SGI Boulevard.”
In retrospect, the adverse consequences should have been anticipated. SGI sales have dropped for the first time in history. Commuters now associate their en route sufferings with SGI, not the bureaucrats in Sacramento.
A happier outcome was found for the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. This awkward name, born of a political impasse more than 50 years ago, has always been ignored by those who live around the Bay. They have stubbornly referred to the bridge by the name used during its construction: “The Bay Bridge.” Bay Networks, Inc., took advantage of this preference and offered to restore the bridge’s name to its original simplicity — and pay for the reform. Popular gratitude was unprecedented, slowing for a while the upsurge of opposition to the “selling of the Bay Area.”
Apple was becoming increasingly frustrated as it lost out in one round of bidding after another. Then San Francisco began to auction off the names of its most popular tourist attractions. Moving fast, Apple scraped together its last few hundred million dollars and made a pre-emptive bid to place its name on the most famous attraction of them all. Naturally, the purchase was immediately attacked in the courts. The protracted litigation was followed daily on TV all over the world.
Then the judge ruled that, due to a defect in the intricate wording of the bidding document, Apple had paid approximately $321 million for the privilege of calling itself Fisherman’s Wharf, rather than the other way around. When the laughter subsided, the leadership of the former Apple decided to make the best of it. They accepted the new name and licensed its use back to the City and County of San Francisco for its original purposes.
Adversity may, occasionally, lead to determination. Apple had been, at best, plodding steadily downward. The reborn Fisherman’s Wharf (“nothing fishy about our performance”) has flourished ever since.
As is its policy, IBM had procrastinated until most of the best sites had been renamed. Then it made a try for Lombard Street, which swishes picturesquely down the side of one of the City’s splendid hills. IBM won the bidding easily but encountered opposition when it proposed the new name: “IBM POWERParallel RS/6000-S/390-AIX-OS2 Way.”
Even in wordy San Francisco, this was considered too cumbersome. In the arbitration that followed, IBM’s lawyers argued that this was a typical IBM product designation. Attorneys for the city won out after they proved that any sign capable of displaying the full name legibly would be wider than the street. The final compromise was: “Blue Street.” Proponents of the renaming fad noted that all this was simply innovative civic finance: revenue had been extracted from names, which had formerly been potential assets that had never paid their way.
Opposition was nevertheless exploding. It became tumultuous in the summer of 1997. Intel had been watching quietly, waiting for a suitable opportunity. Then an assistant treasurer of Santa Clara County siphoned off nearly $1 billion in county funds. She was caught, but the money could not be recovered. She had frittered away much of her stake, buying Netscape at 78. The rest was lost speculating on mohair futures.
The county authorities were relieved when Intel offered to make up the shortfall. In that atmosphere, the matter of the county’s name was only a detail. Hence today’s Intel County, and, inevitably, Intel Valley is replacing Silicon Valley.
Another precedent had been set. Cisco, another communications company, had by that time accumulated almost as much loose cash as
Intel. Cisco approached the civic authorities in San Francisco who were, as always, eager for any money they could get. Cisco shrewdly packaged its proposal as an economy measure. It presented evidence of the savings in letterheads, printing on the five million parking tickets issued every year, signs and other expenditures that could be made by removing seven letters and one space from the name San Francisco.
After Cisco’s proposal was approved, opposition became irresistible. Within a few weeks, enough signatures were collected to place Proposition 666, the Preservation of Historic Names initiative, on the 1998 ballot.
It was a bitter and expensive campaign. Supporters of the initiative exploited reports — never confirmed but never denied — that Microsoft proposed to solve the financial problems of Yosemite National Park if the Yosemite Valley were renamed “Windows Gulch.” A relentless series of TV ads showed a malignant, goggle-eyed Bill Gates reaching greedily toward Half Dome.
Proposition 666 carried by a decisive margin. In a deal with local and state authorities, the supporters of the proposition had accepted a key stipulation: names already changed would be retained until valid contracts expired.
Consequently, this article is still datelined “Cisco, California.” At least for now, however, the commercialization of names on civic monuments in California has been brought to a tardy but welcome stop.
Except for Disney’s efforts to change the name of the city surrounding Disney World to “Mickey Heim.” After almost two years, this proposal remains in litigation — with no prospect of early resolution.