What’s in a name? When it comes to Portland’s newest bridge; a lot.
When the Ned Flanders Crossing name was unveiled earlier this month, the story about how the name was chosen wasn’t revealed. And most people didn’t really care because it was such an obvious choice for many reasons. After all, some Portlanders already think of The Simpsons character when they think of Flanders Street. There are several NE Flanders St signs that vandals have added a “D” to so they say “NED Flanders St”, and The Simpsons creator Matt Groening went to high school nearby. He also named this character after the street, as he did with the characters and streets of Kearney, Lovejoy, and Quimby.
Ned Flanders was also floated as an option in local neighborhood discussions as reported by the Willamette Week in October 2019.
But since there was no public process or naming contest, the full story of how PBOT arrived at the name has been a secret.
A few weeks ago I heard there was a detailed internal memo written by a PBOT employee that laid out the case for choosing Ned Flanders. I received a copy of that memo (PDF) a few days ago and thought it would be fun to have in the public record so we have more clarity on why PBOT and City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty made their choice.
The memo was dated November 11th 2019 and was written by PBOT Transportation Planner Zef Wagner and Capital Projects, Assets and Maintenance Communications Coordinator Hannah Schafer. It was sent to former PBOT Commissioner Chloe Eudaly and bureau director Chris Warner.
Wagner and Schafer also proposed the “simple and subtle” plaque at the entrance to the bridge. Their design mock-up is nearly identical to what was ultimately created and installed (above). They also proposed naming it after both Ned and its historical namesake, Captain George Flanders, with plaques to each on either end of the bridge.
Here’s the meat of their memo:
Arguments in Favor
Ned Flanders’ trademark catchphrase “hi-diddly-ho, neighborino” is indicative of the value that he places on being a good neighbor, and what better way to represent this new connection between two neighborhoods cut off from one another by the I-405 freeway? Naming the bridge after Ned Flanders would also honor a character with a clear connection with the street we are reconnecting, since he was named after NW Flanders Street, and would serve to celebrate Portland’s thriving comics and animation scene by highlighting one of the most important cultural forces to emerge from this city. In addition to the arguments for naming the bridge after Ned Flanders in particular, there are also many good reasons to keep the Flanders name in general, as a way to celebrate the Alphabet District’s east-west street grid and ease wayfinding around the district. I will lay out each argument in favor in more detail below.
Reconnecting the Historic Street Grid
One of the main purposes of the Flanders Crossing is to reconnect the historic street grid in Northwest Portland that was severed by the construction of Interstate 405. Many streets that originally connected the Pearl District and Northwest District were removed in 1969 during freeway construction. Burnside, Couch, Everett, and Glisan still exist on freeway overpasses, but they each only have sidewalks on one side and are dominated by freeway ramps and high volumes of traffic. The Flanders Bridge is meant to reconnect the grid and make the freeway less of a barrier to people walking and biking, and it would be fitting to celebrate this first step in reconnecting the grid by keeping the historic Flanders name. Practically speaking, it also keeps a name that people are already familiar with and are using already to refer to the upcoming bridge, aiding in wayfinding for people getting around Northwest Portland.
Honoring Northwest Portland
This bridge has been in plans for Northwest Portland for decades. While it has clear citywide benefit, it is also a connection between two neighborhoods and ideally should have a name that reflects the neighborhoods surrounding it. Ned Flanders has a strong connection to the neighborhood and to the street this bridge is reconnecting because his name was inspired by this very street. Matt Groening grew up in Portland and went to Lincoln High School, and when he created the Simpsons, he was inspired by the Alphabet District street names as sources for his character names. In addition to Flanders, he named characters after Kearney, Lovejoy, and Quimby Streets. Surprisingly, there is currently no monument to celebrate this connection between Northwest Portland and The Simpsons. Another way this name would honor Northwest Portland is by tying together historical eras, celebrating Northwest Portland’s history while also celebrating the recent past and the future. Flanders Street would still be named after Captain George Flanders, one of the early prominent Portland residents who lived over 100 years ago on what was then known as “F” Street. The Flanders Bridge would in turn be named after Ned Flanders, a Portland-inspired cartoon character named after Flanders Street who has been entertaining Portlanders and so many others for 30 years and running.
Portland has had a thriving comics and animation scene for decades, and this may have both contributed to and been influenced by the Simpsons, created by a Portland artist and strongly associated with Portland. Since then, Portland and the surrounding region have become home to comic book companies like Dark Horse Comics, Oni Press, Image Comics, and Microcosm Publishing, as well as animation studios like Will Vinton Studios, Laika, Hinge, and Shadowmachine. Some of these companies are even located in Northwest Portland. Nearby Pacific Northwest College of the Arts offers a robust Animation Arts program, and Portland State University also has comic art and animation programs available. Many well-known comic books have been created by Portland writers and artists, and some have been turned into movies or TV shows that celebrate Portland, most recently the Stumptown show adapted from the comic book series by Portland resident Greg Rucka. In addition to creating great works of animation and comic art, Portland loves to celebrate this work through its many well-curated comic book stores, multiple annual conventions, and animation film festivals at its many local movie theaters. By naming the Flanders Bridge after Ned Flanders, we will not only be honoring the cultural phenomenon that is The Simpsons, but also the creative spirit that has animated Portlanders for so long and will continue to do so long into the future.
Promoting Good Neighborliness
Ned Flanders has been a quintessential emblem of good neighborliness for over 30 years, keeping his cool and trying his best to be a good neighbor even when confronted with his rather difficult neighbors, the Simpsons. He is always willing to give a warm “hi-diddly-ho” to his “neighborinos” and is more likely than not to respond to a request with a hearty “okily-dokily!”. He is willing to do this even for the Simpson family, with whom he shares little in common in terms of political philosophy, religious belief, or overall temperament. In these difficult times, when people seem more divided than ever along political or cultural lines, and less and less willing to even talk to their neighbors with whom they may disagree, we believe Ned Flanders is a symbol of the kind of neighborly connection we should strive for in Portland. Just as this new bridge will connect two neighborhoods together across a physical divide, we should promote the idea of this bridge connecting actual neighbors together across whatever divides them.
Keeping Portland Weird
Portland’s unofficial motto has long been “Keep Portland Weird.” While this attitude is not loved by all Portland residents, we see it as a statement that we want to keep some elements of our unique character alive even as the city grows and changes over time. We don’t want to lose what makes Portland seem like Portland, and keeping things “weird” is one way to serve that purpose. For this reason, we are proud of things like having the smallest city park (Mill Ends Park), the strangest donuts (Voodoo), the craziest bike ride (Zoobomb), the most whimsical sidewalk amenities (tiny toy horses attached to historic rings), and our very own flamethrowing Unipiper. Naming the Flanders Bridge after Ned Flanders and including an official plaque at the end of the bridge featuring his name and image will continue this tradition of keeping Portland weird. Like many weird things in Portland, it will appeal to locals and visitors alike, attracting people to see the bridge. And there is already evidence that people from around the world enjoy visiting Simpsons-related Portland locations, despite the lack of any official monument. Many people like to visit the sidewalk sketch of Bart Simpson near Lincoln High School and take photos next to the street signs in the Alphabet District corresponding to character names. And for years, people have been altering the street signs along NE Flanders St by adding a “D” to make it “NED” Flanders St. It is time we officially honor Ned Flanders, as so many have unofficially done over the years.
As one of PBOT’s signature projects to promote walking and bicycling as healthy and sustainable transportation choices, this bridge deserves to receive a great deal of attention from the public and the media. While the bridge is sure to get plenty of attention right when it is constructed no matter what name we give it, we believe naming it after Ned Flanders will bring more awareness on an ongoing basis than if we were to name it after a political or historical figure. We already have many bridges that honor such people from our history or present day, but we do not yet have a single bridge named in honor of a beloved cartoon character. This will inspire curiosity and interest from residents and visitors year-in and year-out. New Portlanders will be more likely to hear about the bridge and want to try it out because of its association with Ned Flanders. This will provide ongoing benefit to the City by inspiring interest in the bridge and helping people find it and enjoy for decades to come.
So now you know!
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and firstname.lastname@example.org
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Passionate nerdiness is one of the positive hallmarks of our city’s character and this memo embodies that spirit so very well. Thank you, Zef, for making sure we didn’t pass up the opportunity for a little joyful silliness (and thank you to Jonathan for sharing this story).
Stupid, sexy Flanders.
I’m waiting for the Moe Szyslak Bike Rack outside of City Hall, or maybe Saturday Market.
Moe Moe Moe.
Nobody likes me, why don’t you like me?
What a wonderful memo! Thank you for making it public.
Fun read and thanks for sharing, but I don’t know what is more Portland – naming a bridge after a cartoon character or a 1,300 word essay explaining the choice.
I cannot wait for the large Ned Flanders statue (on a bike) to be installed on a gateway arch over the pedestrian bridge entry or on its side facing highway traffic!
A 1300-word essay presumably written on the public dime, Tim. This would be cute and humanizing if it felt like PBOT had made a sincere effort towards the bike mode share set forth in the 2030 bike plan. Or if almost 50 people hadn’t died on our streets so far this year (59 last year, including a 1-yr-old and a 3-yr-old). Like Vision Zero and the DOA bike plan, the underlying message here regarding the manner and spirit in which our transportation bureau spends public money is predictable and disturbing. The League of American Bikewashing will no doubt eat it up, though.
Like it or not long-winded is a characteristic of Portland. If you want to understand why more is not done for active transportation and safety take a close look at project delivery. Everyone needs to feel included and listened too and thinks their ideas are at least as valuable as any expert. The process involves months if not years of public comments, archeologists, environmental studies, and public involvement for some paint and ADA ramps. We could have twice as much if we spent half as much time talking and more time doing. So let us have our fun.
Long-windedness with lots of run-on sentences is a sure sign of being overeducated. I should know. Releasing such a memo would indicate that either PBOT has lots of overeducated staff and wants everyone to know that, or that the people at the top are brainless.
I live in a low-status community with lots of undereducated public staff, some barely literate, most are utterly incompetent, but work here does get done, often under budget and on time, so there’s something to be said for the Homer Simpsons of the bureaucratic world.
Thank you for shining a light on the elitist norms of market urbanist planners/advocates. Market urbanists may not express overt anti-poor points of view but they almost always center the norms of an elite that views anti-poverty not as a priority but as just another virtue signal.
Agreed. Perhaps on the public clock they can write an apology for The PBOT Director who said the death of Fallon Smart had nothing to do with their design of Hawthorne and only the fault of the driver
Name it after Ben Carlson who was walking on the Burnside bridge sidewalk and was mowed down by a driver who never got a ticket and cops just let leave the scene
Please reconsider naming only white people in this type of comment when so many black, latine, asian, and indigenous people have been slaughtered by mostly white drivers in this SUV/truck-centric city.
This kind of joylessness isn’t helping anyone. If we always took this kind of approach, we would never have things like, say, public art, because “until we solve X problem, no other thing should ever happen–!” I’m happy to have this bridge. I’m happy it has a silly name. I’m happy this memo exists. I can be happy. I can be happy about some things and still be unhappy about other things. There will never be zero things to be unhappy about.
Just imagine the future…when locals will give verbal directions to the detour to cross the 405 car gulch…take a left and then a “hi-diddly-ho” over the Flanders Bridge and then a right.
Just like the bike ‘Wiggle’ in San Francisco has now become a nickname for the area / small businesses there!
The wiggle was my neighborhood for 10 years. My bike lane design was shared in the newsletter for the SF bike coalition. It was opposed by the city staff in charge and with a battle then adopted. Here in Portlan the BTA has become a lap dog for PBOT, as has bike loud become a place to apply for PBOT jobs if you play not so loud politics
Name it after Ben Carlson who was walking on the Burnside bridge sidewalk and was mowed down by a driver who never got a ticket and cops just let leave the scene
This bridge really has been a game-changer for safely and quickly getting through NW Portland. I’ve been using it a lot recently, and I’m always amazed at how fast I’m able to get from the river up to Washington Park or Cornell. It’s just a bummer that it took so long to finally make this happen.
Stupid, sexy Flanders!
I love this.
The Flanders crossing – indeed, that whole section of SW street – it such a game changer. My diminutive brain would otherwise confuse that street with its neighbors, but due to its charismatic name, the street sticks in the mind, and now I always head for Flanders. It’s not perfect, as the normal bike-riding-in-traffic vigilence that prudence requires must still be exercised, but it’s a vast improvement over its adjacent, parallel streets. A big thanky-diddly-do to the PBOT decision-makers and staff for making it happen.
Unfortunately the memo does not explain why PBOT, Eudaly, and her successor at PBOT, JoAnn Jardesty, declined to both make this public before their ceremony nor why they refused to have a public naming process or contest.
Perhaps Ned Flanders might have won, or perhaps he would not have. But at least interested members of the public would have had an opportunity to weigh in with their opinions.