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Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

Learning to Love “Naptown”

[ I want to preface this post with an off-topic request for help. I'm trying to get an RSS feed set up to do podcast integration with the Apple iTunes Music Store and am having trouble getting cover art to work. If there's anyone out there who is a guru at this, I'd appreciate assistance so please email me. Thanks. ]

Indianapolis has long chafed under the memory of being mocked by out of towners and bigger markets as “India-no-place” or “Naptown”.

As with many nicknames, the actual origin of the term “Naptown” is in dispute. It has variously been attributed as an insult implying a sleepy, boring town; coming from call letters of WNAP radio; or originating in 1920’s jazz from the so-called “Naptown sound”. Given that the “nap” syllable occurs in the long Indianapolis, a short form or diminutive is implied.

Whatever the case, the word Naptown has long had negative connotations in certain circles locally (though I find it unlikely that Naptown as an insult ever had wide currency outside of Indy itself given that few would have cared even to insult the place back in those days). Civic leaders and citizens take pride in the city’s transformation and clearly believe, with great justification, that Indianapolis has significantly transcended its sleepy past. So the “Naptown” label is part of the old baggage they want to jettison.

While it may seem difficult to believe, the nickname Naptown is actually one of the strongest potential brand assets of Indianapolis. It is a short, easy to remember and pronounce name that is readily associated specifically with the city. Unlike India-no-place is it not categorically pejorative. Indeed, one would have to think about it quite a bit to derive an insulting meaning from Naptown. The word nap does mean a brief sleep, but it also refers to yarn. The related adjective “nappy” means “twisted”, which can have a positive, edgy, cool connotation.

Even if Naptown were in insult, many nicknames start out as diminutives or insults but ultimately become terms of affection. In Chicago, the term “Second City” is hardly positive, nor is “Windy City”, which ostensibly referred to windbag city boosters. Many other nicknames would appear not to be positive and even only tenuously connected to the place they refer to. Consider “the Big Apple” or “Beantown”.

Rather than shunned, Naptown should be embraced and promoted as a nickname for the city. Like the others discussed, Naptown is easy to connect to Indianapolis and can easily be imbued with positive connotations, implying a cool, urban, edgy vibe. Think Naptown Roller Girls and you’ve got the right idea.

One challenge is that there is still significant negativity around this name. However, much of it may be generational. Older generations who remember the city’s nadir think of it one way. Younger generations who’ve only known a rising Indianapolis think of it another. Indeed, younger generations are already embracing it. Google reports over 500,000 web pages referring to Naptown. There are over 350 Facebook groups with the name “Naptown” in them, many of them African American themed.

To a great extent the positive or negative associations around a name having nothing to do with the name itself, but rather with feelings about the thing the name represents. In a sense, Naptown in a negative sense is simply a symbol of the old Indianapolis. Naptown in a positive sense can be a symbol of the new. One might even argue that it will be possible to know when Indianapolis has truly come of age and changed its brand when both it and others refer to Naptown in a reflexively neutral to positive way.

One of the gaps in the Indianapolis brand is any sense of what to call residents. What do you call someone from Indianapolis? Hoosier is the only name that comes to mind. While it is good to be associated with Indiana and have a strong cultural linkage to the state as a whole, having some Indianapolis-specific name for the city’s residents would be a plus.

Naptown does not obviously solve this problem as terms you might derive from it are not obviously strong. But it does create a potentially powerful word in Spanish: napteños. This is a common Spanish phraseology. For example, residents of Buenos Aires are called “porteños” (port city dwellers) and those from Madrid “madrileños”. If the word napteños were embraced by the city’s Latino community, it would be a fitting tribute indeed to the transformed and global Indianapolis we know today.

This column originally appeared in the Indianapolis Business Journal.

26 Comments
Topics: Civic Branding, Urban Culture
Cities: Indianapolis

26 Responses to “Learning to Love “Naptown””

  1. Walker Evans says:

    Find & Replace “Indianapolis” with “Columbus” and “naptown” with “cbus” and you’ve got an amazingly accurate story for our city to the east. ;)

  2. dan reed! says:

    I don’t know how relevant this is, but growing up in suburban Maryland, I always heard people refer to Annapolis (our state capital) as “Naptown,” especially in the city’s punk scene. There’s even a (decidedly not-punk) Naptown Clothing Company. So even if Annapolis isn’t a good comparison to Indianapolis (35k people vs. 829k in Indianapolis), it’s a place where “Naptown” is far from a pejorative and, in fact, an attempt to rebrand a place once known only for boats and elementary-school history field trips.

  3. cbustransit says:

    Urbanophile (and walker),
    Do you think cowtown works the same way for cbus?

  4. Daniel says:

    A citizen of Nap town is obviously a napper. The latino community shouldn’t have a problem with a brand that takes napping seriously; perhaps “siesteños” will catch on.

  5. @cbustransit, I don’t think so. Cowtown is a sort of generic insulting phrase that I don’t see as analogous.

  6. Kevin says:

    I am currently involved with a project to promote Indy’s urban neighborhoods and local offerings. The idea for the project came about in response to years of generic marketing that could have been used to describe any city in America. My business partners and I wanted to market the City in a way that would connect with a more sophisticated, urban and civic-minded crowd, and benefit the locally-owned businesses and urban neighborhoods in/around downtown.

    We debated quite a bit about the name, but ultimately chose Naptown Urban Crawl as the official name. Our take on the Naptown name was that it was urban and edgy, but we also liked that it had cultural roots hinting back to the days when Indy had a thriving jazz and blues music scene.

    As we have reached out to potential sponsors and partners for the project, it has been interesting to observe the reactions when mentioning the name. Some like it, some don’t, and there definitely seems to be a generational divide in how one views the word. While we are taking a risk with the name, we think our target market gets it.

    We’re hoping our small project helps to re-define Indianapolis as a more diverse and urban Indianapolis. Please check us out at http://www.naptowncrawl.com and join us on Saturday August 6th for our first urban exploration!

  7. AF says:

    Folks from Minneapolis are “Minneapolitans”, so “Indianapolitans”? It’s clunky, but kind of cool.

  8. Jeff says:

    The Indianapolis Facebook site told me it was a derivative of Chitown.
    I always thought it was just urban lingo for ‘Napolis, but my brother told me a the negative connotation of the city’s supposed sleepiness,
    In any case I prefer Indy.

  9. Greg says:

    I agree with Jeff, Indy is better. It’s instantly recognizable, cool, and lively.

  10. Chris Barnett says:

    Indy ties to the thing about the city that is probably most known worldwide: the 500 and racing. It’s also pronounceable and understandable as a shortenend name regardless of native language or accent.

    So with Jeff and Greg, I say “embrace Indy”.

  11. Jeff says:

    This is great article about the 500’s and the Speedway’s influence on Indianapolis.

  12. By the way, saying that the city should embrace “Naptown” doesn’t mean that it has to get rid of “Indy”, which is likewise a nice version. Great cities have lots of affectionate names by which they are known.

  13. Jeff says:

    I agree with that; Indy is just my preference.

  14. John says:

    I don’t think “Naptown” is a widely known nickname. I’ve lived in Columbus or Chicago my whole life (i.e., not far from Indy) and I’ve never heard it called this until reading this article. Given that, I’m skeptical that anyone outside of Indy is currently calling it “Naptown” as an insult. I do think it could be spun positively though. If I were in Naptown, I would certainly hope to find a Hammock District.

  15. Michael says:

    I think “Beantown” is a great and distinctive nickname. It apparently has its origins in the once-popular local dish of baked beans, which in turn ties to the city’s historical role in the molasses trade. But alternatively, its colloquial use as a synonym for “brains” or “intellect” evokes the significant number of colleges and universities in both the city proper and surrounding suburbs. In this way, it plays strongly to a brand identity of a smart, self-deprecating, and deeply rooted American city.

  16. Chris S. says:

    @John Bravo.

  17. Craig says:

    I think reviving Naptown is smart. I have always liked it more than ‘Indy’, which I believe is actually trademarked by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Say it in the wrong context and expect a call from a lawyer. I see Naptown as more of a subculture revival moniker. It has some roots (although I don’t know the details) in early Indianapolis jazz culture. In the same edgy way, it is being re-embraced by those of us with the cojones to appreciate it (or no such cojones, like the Naptown Roller Girls). Fly the Naptown name and you’ll get my attention.

  18. Jordan says:

    I’d never imagined Naptown to be anything other than a shortening of IndiaNAPolis. Odd.

    I don’t mind using Naptown, but I think Indy works just as well. As for its trademark implications, you can’t trademark geographic designations, so no need to worry about not being able to use Indy.

  19. Ed Sanderson says:

    I was in Annapolis within the last two weeks (for the first time) and was surprised to find several references to “Naptown” somewhere or other. I found the references strange but familiar then I remembered that Indianpolis was also known as “Naptown.”

    Actually, that’s neither here nor there and the only reason, I’m posting this is because that while I haven’t visited all the state capitals, Annapolis is nothing short of what every state capital should be. It’s one of the few places that I have traveled in the last couple of years (and that’s a lot) that I really, really want to re-visit.

  20. Shane says:

    Officially the people of Indianapolis are indeed called Indianapolitans.

  21. KurtL says:

    I come here and learn something interesting almost every day. :)

    Never knew that Indianapolitans was the correct term for denizens of Indianapolis. Can’t say that I have ever heard it used, though.

    As to “Indy” being the branding name, do remember that “indie” has kind of overwhelmed us.

    And yes, IndyCar seems to have the Google searches mainly wrapped up.

    So, Naptown is fine with me (and I belong to generational group several of you have alluded to). Still, I wasn’t born here, so maybe I don’t have the same negative connotation ingrained into me?

  22. IndyJrob says:

    I market the city to visitors every day and would like nothing more than to embrace the Naptown moniker. It can be traced back to as early as the 30’s when Leroy Carr was singing the “Naptown Blues”. In that regard it is far from new. I also don’t think Leroy was spinning a negative connotation. Unfortunately the nickname was twisted in the 70’s and 80’s to point toward the city’s shortcomings. Those who were advocating for the city at that time are very sensitive to the name and seem flabbergasted that our generation would like to harness it as a positive. In that sense it is going to very difficult for Naptown to penetrate the mainstream in the short term.

    However, groups on the fringe (Rollergirls, Naptown Crawl, etc.) are already running with it and I couldn’t be happier. As it makes a resurgence with positive associations I hope that in time the past can become just that, the past. May Naptown return to its roots and break away from the baggage that seems to be holding it back. Keep stirring the pot Aaron!

  23. Jack says:

    As someone unfamiliar with Indianapolis except for having briefly passed through it, I found that learning that it had an interesting and unique nickname, “Naptown,” made me think much better of it, not worse. It gives the outsider the impression that the place has a culture unto itself, a sense of place, which is great.

  24. Jon Hendricks says:

    I was born and raised in Evansville, IN, went to college at Ball State University, and still visit people in Indiana from time to time. Never once have I heard someone refer to Indianapolis as Naptown. Everyone says Indy. Just my two cents.

  25. Robert says:

    How about Napsters?

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