Back in March 2009 I wrote about the shifting meaning of “urban,” from the standard dictionary definition (“of the city”) to something tinged with politics and sociology. The emerging meaning of “urban,” I wrote, often translates to “dominated by a racial minority.” (@UrbanEnglish, for example, is the Twitter handle for something that calls itself Ghetto Translations™.) Although I mentioned a few brands with “urban” in their names—Urban Dictionary, Urban Outfitters, National Urban League—I focused on lower-case “urban,” puzzling over phrases such as “Oakland, like most urban cities…”
Since then I’ve continued to track the spread of “urban.” I’m still seeing redundant-seeming usages like this one, from Maggie Koerth-Baker’s 2012 book Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us: “Merriam isn’t a small town. … Yet Merriam isn't a suburb, either—or an urban city.” (Emphasis added.) But what’s really gotten my attention is an explosion of upper-case “urban” in brand names.
Granted, all of these brands originated in cities and cater to city dwellers. But that alone doesn’t explain the popularity of “urban” in their names. Rather, I suspect it’s a meme—a viral phenomenon. “Urban” here is shorthand for “cool” and “savvy”; with few exceptions, there are no racial overtones.
I should know better by now, but I’m always surprised when I see so many copycat names, especially in a concentrated geographical area. It’s as though each of these business owners felt compelled to tap out the same code, fearful that even a slight deviation (“urbane,” say, or just “urb”) would break the spell.
Here’s a far-from-complete rundown of the urban names I’ve noticed.
UrbanDaddy is a “lifestyle title” in the UrbanDaddy Enterprises media company; it publishes news and tips about food and drink, entertainment, style, gear, and travel. (Another UrbanDaddy publication, Kempt, specializes in men’s style. Love that name.)
Urban Motion & Arts, on Grand Avenue in Oakland, teaches various dance forms—Afro-Cuban, Afro-Peruvian, Bollywood, belly dance, salsa—as well as the wonderfully named “Yoga for Stiff People.”
This is “urban” in the “racial minority” sense, mostly.
Urban Zen is …. oh, let them explain:
Urban Zen is a philosophy of living by Donna Karan. It is the calm in the chaos of life. A way of giving. An effortless dance of emotion, personality and lifestyle. Timeless. Seasonless. Endlessly expressive. A connection of mind, body and spirit. Touched and inspired by cultures and craftsmen from around the world.
I may be urban, but I am not zen enough for $525 leggings and a $960 “Horn Rib Necklace” in “mohogany” [sic]. Your mileage, of course, may vary.
It’s not just about the spendy tchotchkes: Urban Zen is also “a public charity dedicated to promoting well-being, empowering children and preserving cultures.”
(For more Zen brand names, see my Pinterest board.)
Urban Air Market is “a curated marketplace for sustainable design”; it calls itself “the largest independent outdoor design show in the country.” I like the slight open/urban pun. It’s been taking place in various San Francisco neighborhoods since 2003; the next one is October 12 in the Lower Haight.
Urban Decay is a cosmetics company that despite its depressing name, sharp tagline (“Beauty with an Edge”), and naughty product names (Grindhouse eye-pencil sharpener, Totally Loaded mascara) actually makes products that are “cruelty free” and vegan (awww).
Urban Shelf designs and sells one thing: a plastic side table that slides between sofa cushions or under a mattress.
Urban Sidewalk sells clothing and jewelry on Columbus Avenue in San Francisco.
Urban Home Consignment Furniture, in Berkeley, recently changed its name to Bay Home Consignment, although the URL and sign haven’t yet changed.
During a recent (very successful, I might add) shopping trip to Urban Home Consignment Furniture, I was told that the store would soon be changing its name under pressure from Urban Home, a chain of six furniture stores in Southern California that may have plans for a northward expansion.
The store is a few blocks from Urban Motion & Arts, but is unrelated.
Urban Indigo, a gift store on Lakeshore Avenue in Oakland, not far from Urban Furniture and Urban Motion & Arts.
Urban Gardens, in San Francisco’s North Beach, offers “the largest in stock hydroponic inventory in the San Francisco Bay Area.” The tagline is “Advanced Gardening”; I gather that advanced means high.
Speaking of gardens, and San Francisco, Urban Farmgirls (or FarmGirls; they’re inconsistent about this and many other spellings) will design yours and maintain it, too. They specialize in “earth-friendly alternative garden solutions.”
Love the logo. Wish they’d hire a proofreader for their website. (Try reading this page and you’ll see what I mean.)
Urban Picnic, in San Francisco’s Financial District, is “a fast casual eatery serving nutrient rich California Asian fare.”
Urban Barn is a chain of furniture stores based in Burnaby, British Columbia, with 40 stores across Canada.
From the About Us page: “The Urban Barn name came from the look of one of our original stores, which boasted rustic wooden floors and doors that were reminiscent of an old barn.”
You’d be excused for thinking Urban Barn is a division of Pottery Barn, but it isn’t. Urban Barn is headquartered in Burnaby, British Columbia; Pottery Barn, which like Urban Barn sells furniture and home décor—and has stores in four Canadian provinces—is based in San Francisco. Confusing? Yes.
Urban Island is a consignment furniture store in Alameda, California. Alameda is indeed an island, but you’d have to squint hard to see it as “urban.”
Photo via Irene from Alameda, who writes: “Technically, Alameda didn't start as an island, but the estuary was dredged as early as 1853 for ferries and later in 1901 as a shipping lane.”
In Denver, there’s Urban Eyes Vision Care. You can take your rural eyes elsewhere, bub.
(Hat tip: Aaron Templer.)
Urban Ore, founded in Berkeley in 1980, is the Bay Area’s ur-Urban.
Originally a scavenger operation, the company added a general store and today sells a boggling number and variety of recycled building materials (three aisles of doors!), household goods, and arts and crafts equipment. I like the tagline, “To End the Age of Waste”: It’s lofty in a good way. And I’ve always thought “Urban Ore” was a terrific name, evoking as it does the California Gold Rush and the mining of everyday materials. (“Ore” is exactly the right pithy metaphor for our excesses.) Too bad the glut of “Urban” names in the Bay Area threatens to overshadow the powerful perfection of Urban Ore.